Build Your Brand and Build Your Future

A few years ago, I served as a group facilitator at a national leadership conference for college students. The students selected to attend this event were the newly elected presidents of their campus undergraduate student governments. In theory, they were at this conference because they embodied the very essence of leadership in direct representation of the thousands of students whom they now served, similar to the way we view those who lead our fraternities and sororities.

I will never forget the moment when our topic for group discussion was “values.” Each student was to identify and describe his or her top three values and then share them. This was supposed to be easy. All you have to do is say three words – three words – each representative of something so meaningful that you wouldn’t trade them for anything. One of my more charismatic students immediately opened our session with: “This is an easy one for me,” he said with supreme swagger, “I can tell you right now that I value shoes, my cars, and Ed Hardy.” And, cue the mic drop…

Yet, as much as I wanted to rain some serious hellfire and brimstone down upon this seemingly lost soul, I really couldn’t blame him for his answers. I asked him what he valued, and, whereas I was not pleased by my perception of him being misguided, perhaps the word “value” up to this point in his life was used to describe something associated only with money. Or, perhaps he had heard the concept several times before but only as something he was told he should care about, something to which he fictitiously nodded his head in agreement to his parents, mentors, and advisors, yet, in lieu of all this, was still largely external and unknown to him.

In fact, for both this young man and with many college students, it is quite likely that our college leaders could be 20 years old before ever being asked the really important questions: What do you care about? How will you make a difference? Who do you want to be? And, perhaps most important of all: Why? Instead, up to this point, parents, grandparents, and teachers, alike, typically bombard our kids with a very different question: “What do you want to do?” Or, “What job do you want?” We might as well be asking: “What function do you want to play in our economy?” All this being said, our students are prepared more for transactions than they are for transformations. This makes the job for professionals in higher education difficult.

Yet, we also know that fraternal organizations present a solution to this in that fraternities and sororities offer values-focused laboratories for leadership development. Indeed, this is a distinct benefit that reinforces fraternity/sorority life as a unique resource in enhancing college student development. However, while it is true that each organization does (or should) claim to promote a foundational set of values or principles by which all members take an oath to abide, we know all-too-well that students are seeking to recreate the stories they have heard or have seen on T.V. and they often join fraternal organizations for more dubious reasons.

But, for certain, all is not lost. We continue our efforts in providing these experiences because the message does sink in over time. Quite figuratively, students transcend through learning about values in the same pattern we learn most all things: 1.) Remembering, 2.) Understanding, 3.) Applying, 4.) Analyzing, 5.) Evaluating, and 6.) Creating, otherwise referred to as Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy (Anderson, L. & Krathwohl, D., 2001).

In the first stage of our learning, Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy suggests that we “Remember” by recalling information, recognizing, listing, and describing the facts and terms associated. We see this in our recruitment and initiation efforts when students recruit potential members by repeating their organization’s values and then test initiates on their ability to recall them. As students grow by thinking about values, they might demonstrate “understanding” through showing their ability to explain ideas or concepts through interpreting, summarizing, etc. If we are lucky, we demonstrate the third level of thinking about values in that we can apply our understanding through development or enlistment of programs associated with some or all of our organizations’ values. Typically this is reinforced through headquarters and/or university standards or accreditation programs which dictate or incentivize organizations to create opportunities that connect their organizations’ main principles to some sort of educational program. This is, indeed, all very good and worthwhile.

But is it good enough? Is it so good that when our men graduate and represent themselves, their organizations, peers, advisors, and even their institutions, can confidently say that these men can do more than remember, understand, and apply the values and their concepts. Can they also reframe the values conversation to make it more than memorizing and reciting, but a process of building connections between the organization and the students’ futures? If fraternities and sororities can do this, we can create a deeper level of understanding of what values are, why they matter, and, better, how to create plans which make values the very fabric of everything a person, organization, or both, does.

So perhaps it is time we change the conversation a bit to something deeply relevant to today’s generation: brands.

We live in a world full of brands. Although they are not foreign concepts to us, our lives are so saturated with them, we hardly even notice them anymore; if we do, we typically look no farther than the surface. But, if we peek a little deeper, we realize that we can learn much from them. Best of all, we can learn how to better develop ourselves.

A brand is an identity created by intentional and characteristic design (, 2013). It is meant to communicate a name, a story, and a message about the distinct contribution it was created to provide. Brands signify reputation, dictating everything from what drives people toward the organization and the purpose which governs the people within. A good brand is not only developed over time with attention to actions, quality, and consistency, but it begins with a purpose and a vision – a promise – for something better. We call this a value proposition.

Brands are so effective, in fact, that the mere mention of them persuade us to do crazy things like pay $17.00 for laundry detergent, buy $100 pairs of shoes without ever trying them on, or even to question our own parenting skills when we don’t buy the type of peanut butter chosen by “choosy moms.”

So what makes a brand work for us? The Harris Interactive Reputation Quotient Study for 2013, which measures the U.S. general public’s perceptions of the reputations of highly visible companies, outlines 20 attributes affecting brand reputation. The most relevant of these, in the case of undergraduate members, are: excellent leadership, clear vision for the future, outperforms competitors, growth opportunities, high quality, innovative, supports good causes, community responsibility, and, perhaps most importantly (emotional appeal) is an organization people feel good about, admire and respect, and trust (Harris Interactive, 2013, p.8).

Emotional appeal is a category that is quickly gaining ground as we, as consumers, have more and more choices in all things (fraternities and sororities included). Ultimately, our trust is derived from our admiration for the organization, a sum of the values it espouses, its subsequent actions, its consistency in delivering upon its message, and the people who represent it. We choose to buy in or not because of this trust. With a more corporate and socially-minded generation than ever, this is all the more relevant.

Let’s consider Dominos pizza for a moment. Dominos was the preeminent pizza delivery chain for years. It revolutionized the product and the way people consumed it by producing a pie that was consistent, affordable, and fast. For many of us, Dominos was the pizza found at every youth sporting event, birthday party, or school function. After a while, more companies came to market and consumers had more options, many of them focusing on the value proposition of higher quality ingredients and/or increased product varieties in both flavors and styles. Dominos remained consistent, yet the world had changed and the only thing that became consistent about its pizza was that it tasted like cardboard. Dominos became the Noid it told us to avoid.

But what they did recently was interesting and very telling of how we receive messages. In 2010, Dominos went through a full-scale corporate re-branding effort, tearing itself apart from the basic ingredients to the way it presented to the public with the “Oh Yes We Did” campaign. This campaign showed us images of terrible pizza, quotes from dissatisfied customers, and a CEO who told the public how bad their pizza was and that they were going to change. Essentially, what Dominos did was tell the public something like this:

For years, you trusted us as the pizza company you could depend on and we broke your trust. We admit it. We failed. Our product was subpar and we failed to do anything about it. We are sorry not only for doing bad work, but for letting you down on a promise made years ago. We are going to change, just you wait…Oh Yes We Did.

Since this new campaign, Dominos has regained market share and continues to be profitable in ways it never saw just a decade ago. The lesson? Sometimes we have to be honest with ourselves and realize we will never be what we once were.

However, an apology is not all that happened here; it merely paved the way for the real magic and for something more powerful we all can relate to. Dominos rebranded itself through a renewed purpose, one which infused customer engagement, loyalty, and even innovative practices like ordering pizza online and watching an animated Italian guy make your pizza and ship it out. Not only is the public buying in, but so are the employees with a renewed sense of pride. Great people and organizations don’t create change within themselves because they need to, they do it because they want to. Dominos matters once again.

Originally, many of our fraternities were created with a distinct value proposition in mind. Today, we are reminded of those bold and original value propositions in the form of vision and/or mission statements. For example:

  • Delta Upsilon: Delta Upsilon is the premier men’s fraternity committed to Building Better Men for a global society through service, leadership development, and lifelong personal growth of our diverse membership (Delta Upsilon International, 2013).
  • Chi Omega: Chi Omega is an intergenerational women’s organization forever committed to our founding purposes: Friendship, Personal integrity, Service to others, Academic excellence and intellectual pursuits, Community and campus involvement, Personal and career development (Chi Omega, 2013).

These are just two examples of many similar organizations founded two centuries ago for reasons that remain supremely relevant, but they were born out a different necessity for bringing meaning to campus life. In those days, students were attracted to why the organization existed because they needed or truly believed in the value created by it. Today, we realize that students are attracted to fraternal organizations for less meaningful reasons; this has shown to have negative consequences in the form of notable and alarming behavior unbecoming of the original intentions. This negative behavior becomes the public perception and it not only limits the effectiveness of the once grand and meaningful visions, but it also perpetuates itself through drawing in a critical mass of consumers (future initiates) looking to live out those stories. Moreover, because of this, organizations that are supposed to be very different all become nearly indiscernible from one another.

Fraternity and sorority advisors, volunteers, and headquarters staff members are helping members create change through aligning an organization’s values into a more relevant conversation, one that helps students envision a future rather than emphasizing a past. In this, members are enriching their opportunities by looking towards their future and their potential, actively creating opportunities for their values to live through their actions and contributions, rather than retrofitting them into things they feel they are supposed to be doing. Surely there are great examples of this already happening. Indeed, the market – the fraternal community – is ready.

In taking action, we must feel enabled to get off the hamster wheel we are spinning on and abandon the routine of making a copy of a copy of a copy that is hardly legible from its original. We need to encourage a different reality and create a new dynamic of both leadership and followership. This requires change:

  1. Don’t marginalize yourself. What would you or your organization do if it could do anything? Ignore that voice in your head telling you it’s ridiculous or it can’t be done. The biggest reason people don’t do anything is because they are too afraid of failure.
  1. Break your own rules. Apart from things that are illegal, groups that have normalized for too long tend to have ridiculous cultural customs or rules such as who can join, what you have to look like, dress like, act like, etc. If your organization values diversity or diffusion of liberal culture, forget what your friends say and go out and get it because it’s part of the better experience you’ve envisioned.
  1. Connect your personal vision, values, strengths, and skills. It’s time to make use of all those personal assessments and team trainings you have completed. Students have pages of DISC profiles, colors, MBTI preferences, Strengths, etc., all which have little value unless applied to something. Take an inventory and focus on where you’ll be the best.
  1. Frame these things as your value proposition; create a story worth telling. “Framing” is the art of classifying, categorizing information and putting things into new perspectives through select use of language; it’s about creating a shared message. You can either tell people you want to be a teacher because you want to educate our youth or you can tell them that you experience joy when you help others experience the satisfaction of success. The choice is yours, but clearly one message creates more value than the other (Fairhurst & Sarr, 1996).

Once we help students, envision, rebrand, and regroup, we can help them organize their brand into a very simple and consistent message using the following template: Who you are. What you do. Why you do it. This last piece – the why – is where the art of framing comes in. Crafting a message this way will help students communicate from the central message of its inner values (Fairhurst & Sarr, 1996); this new message will connect to the shared beliefs of the types of members we want – those who believe in the future we seek to create rather than the past we seek to replicate.

By modeling after iconic branding practices and the reputation drivers behind them, student leaders can learn much about a greater vision for themselves, improving their communities, and enhancing opportunities for their peers through improving the current state of their fraternal organizations. It is time to change the conversation to help our members envision a future they can both create and enable others to act as a part of. By doing so, we can teach our students to do what leaders should do best: Make people matter; this is a brand everyone would buy into.


Anderson, L. & Krathwohl, D. (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching and assessing: A revision of bloom’s taxonomy. New York. Longman Publishing.
Chi Omega Mission, vision, and symphony. Retrieved December 2, 2013, from .
Delta Upsilon International Fraternity Mission and vision statements. Retrieved December 2, 2013, from
Fairhurst, G. & Sarr, R. (1996). The art of framing: Managing the language of leadership. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass
Harris Interactive. (2013). The harris poll 2013 RQ summary report: A survey of the u.s. general public ssing the reputation quotient. 14th Annual RQ Study., Brand definition. Retrieved November 18, 2013, from


By Kevin A. Smith


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