On a rainy weekend day a while back, my youngest daughter had some of the neighborhood kids over. They were shooting from room to room like rocket propelled grenades, and eventually one of the younger ones bolted into the kitchen where I was flipping through the paper.

“Is the letter ‘u’ a vowel?” he asked.

Appreciative of his inquisitive young mind, I responded the way any writerly-type person would.

“Yep, ‘u’ is a vowel. It’s actually the saddest vowel.”

He looked stumped. So I explained to him how “u” isn’t used as much as the other vowels, kind of feels left out, is basically just half an “o,” doesn’t have any cool features like the dot on the “i,” and so on. But really it’s just that “u” is misunderstood, and that it takes a special kind of word to use it.

He didn’t seem impressed with my little creative exercise, and shot from the kitchen as aggressively as he came in. Still, I thought it was kind of fun.

When I think of the word “simple,” I get the same sense. Too often, it gets misunderstood. Dim. Naïve. Minimalist. Plain. These are all accurate synonyms. But there’s so much more to the word and its power.

This week brings the anniversary of the founding of the American Red Cross in 1881. When you think about that organization, what comes to mind? The iconic logo. The unmistakable mission of helping people who are enduring life-altering emergencies. When you see the cross, when you hear the name, you know precisely what you’re getting. That’s what a brand should do.

It’s the power of simplicity.

The world has changed a lot since 1881—technological advances one could never comprehend in the 19th century, and a complex global community so intricately interconnected it’s hard for me sometimes to comprehend it even today.

Red Cross

A World War II-era poster encouraged American women to volunteer for the Red Cross as part of the war effort. Source: Library of Congress: Women Who Came to the Front

The growth of the Red Cross, the complexities and efficiencies with how it responds, the dizzying array of services it provides, is astounding. It responds to more than 70,000 disasters in the U.S. alone each year, helps an average of 150,000 military families annually, is the largest supplier of blood in the country, trains more than nine million Americans each year, and has built a humanitarian network of 13,000,000 volunteers in 187 countries around the world.

Still, its brand—that immediate impression that jumps into your head, or the emotion that kicks you in the gut the moment you confront it—is as astoundingly uncomplicated as it gets.

Relief. Compassion. Help. Do you think the American Red Cross would be able to literally protect lives in war zones if its brand were muddled or overly complicated?

Obviously, most schools can’t be expected to measure up with the American Red Cross when it comes to establishing and perpetuating a brand identity. But you can take some cues from how they’ve done it.

Odds are, your institution has been around for a while. It’s experienced healthy growth since being founded. Its offerings and modes of delivery are probably light years beyond where things were in the early days. And yet, its core mission likely has remained very much the same.

So how clear, accurate, and yes, simple is your brand in the minds of prospective students and their families? Do the stories you tell about yourself personify and reinforce those core values that define who you are? Are you losing sight of those basic, common principles that distinguish you from every other school out there?

It’s easy to get caught up in a whirlwind of taglines and sub-brands and how to extend a campaign this way or that way to meet any given institutional goal at any given time. But it’s important to think about what all that strategic and tactical maneuvering will do to the world’s ability to hear your name and have a clear, powerfully simple vision of who you are, and what you do.

Learn more about the power of branding.

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