An undefined brand is the ninth circle of marketing hell

Sometimes, we forget where clichés come from.

Like, say, “the Ninth Circle of Hell.” The term comes from Dante’s Inferno, and was reserved for those who had committed acts of treachery and betrayal. The offenders were packed deep into the ice of Lake Cocytus (does not sound pleasant).

I mention Dante’s Inferno not to sound smart – I have no intention of reading it and had to Google “dante circles hell ninth” to write this article. But I think it’s a fitting place for those higher ed marketers who do not take time to define their organization’s brand in a way that is clear, useful and benefit-focused. Why? Because not defining your brand is tantamount to betrayal: Of your strategic goals, your team and, ultimately, the strategic direction of your institution.

To make the cliché a little more relevant, we decided to draw up our own Ninth Circle of (Marketing) Hell, except, ours is a cycle, and we’re more than happy to help you out of it.


First up, we have the undefined brand itself. It’s never defined or documented because no one has time, which is a funny thing for people who are busy doing things that defining their brand would help them do more effectively, but whatever, it’s hell.

Secondly, we have the lame advertising that inevitably results from an undefined brand. This shows itself as someone (usually the person too busy to define the brand) suggesting a “cute idea” or maybe a “picture of everyone wearing the same shirts.”

This stage hurts the worst.

Of course, by step three, we’ve put that (and possibly dozens of other) messages out to an audience, who responds with general confusion. They scratch their heads and quietly resume doing whatever they were doing before.

Not surprisingly, the results aren’t what we want. Those poor results put us deeper and deeper into the hole we started digging for ourselves when we neglected to define our brand from the outset.

Then, before long (usually after the last cute idea person jumps ship, gets fired, or, truthfully, promoted), it’s time for another marketing push. And … away … we … go.

This is torture to watch institutions do again and again and again, and it’s even worse to experience firsthand. So, how do you work your way back into the good graces of the marketing gods?

  1. Align your goals with the institution’s strategic goals

  2. Do research to understand your brand, your audience and competition

  3. Document and define your brand in a way that can evolve and grow with your organization

Yes, D. White & Company is an expert in just this kind of brand building. And yes, we sell these services. But, whether you do it on your own, go with a major firm or work with us, we hope you take our advice: It’s a lot cheaper (and a lot less torture) to define your brand right and stick to it. Without it, you may be stuck in a loop you can’t stop.

D. White & Company is a marketing consulting firm that helps organizations build successful brands. Want to start your own brand book? Schedule an appointment with us today.