By Robert Wynne, Contributor

Communications pros looking to promote their businesses, colleges or firms can utilize many strategies. Public relations is the most powerful and cost effective strategy because your ideas, firm, message or executive has been vetted by a third party and promoted, in theory, without a filter.

PR is third-party validation you cannot buy with any other form of communication. But PR doesn’t work for every CEO, product, university or law firm. Advertising, social media promotions and marketing, when done correctly, can be worth every dollar, and then some. But if you really want to make a dent in your checkbook, try “branding.” It’s just as effective as collecting a million dollars in tens, twenties and hundreds, placing them in a barrel, pouring lighter fluid on the cash, then lighting it on fire.

Geoffrey James from Inc. magazine offers a beautiful explanation of brands and branding. ”It’s a myth that having lots of brands and plenty of branding is good for business,” James says. “After a certain point, both brands and branding cease to be useful–and, in fact, can be positively toxic … A brand is the set of emotions that people associate with a corporate name or a product name. Brand is almost entirely the result of the customers’ experience with a product or series of products … Branding, by contrast, consists of marketing products and activities that attempt to create, reinforce, or change those emotions. These include new product names, logo designs, tag lines, brand-oriented advertising (as opposed to product ads), brand placement (like naming a stadium), and so forth.”

Some expensive initiatives make sense for multi-billion dollar conglomerates, companies looking to change product offerings or those in need of a new identity due to a crisis. But for most small businesses, colleges, academic departments, law firms or similar groups, it’s a huge waste of money.

Most “branding campaigns” consist of the following:

big presentation from a slick firm with video, music, flashing lights and smiling peppy salesmen
samples of old logos / websites / stationery for the Before photos
new branded materials for the After photos

“results” such as new customers, applications, partnerships
Here’s the process after the first meeting after a firm deposits the big check:

more meetings to discuss the “brand,” feelings about the brand, the aura of the brand, etc.
listening to cliches like “what are your customers really saying about you?”
looking at new color palettes – “what does that shade of blue say about you?”
looking at new websites and color schemes
Here’s what happens next:

lots of meetings where everyone votes on the color palette and logo
more meetings looking at websites
CEO, President or Dean listens to everyone, then chooses the logo and color scheme he or she likes best
Everyone agrees with the decision and goes back to their cubicles.
Here’s what you get:

New logo
New color scheme
New website
Same old problems
I work mostly with universities, but also with law firms, small businesses, medium-sized firms and the occasional fashion or sports group. I cannot name a single new application, new customer, major donation or new client that happened as a direct result of a branding campaign. Not one. But I can recall, several times, being brought into meetings as the PR pro, both internally and externally, and being told, “We spent all this money and didn’t get a dam thing out of this! It’s up to you to get us some publicity.”

But I understand why people do it. Public relations can be messy. It can be complicated. Reporters are not stenographers, and the story, even when it’s extremely positive, will rarely turn out exactly the way the staff and management envision it. Branding campaigns, like advertising, allow groups to produce something and see exactly how it’s going to look on the web, on TV or a park bench.

John Crowe, a consultant for philanthropy and my former boss at USC’s Marshall School, has worked with dozens of universities, hospitals and nonprofits and witnessed many discussions on expensive branding.

Crowe always asks, “Why do you want a new look? A break from the past?  Usually it’s a new university administrator, a new CEO, or some other leader who seeks to make his/her mark,  But if the brand is “ a promise,” what is the new promise? New, bold branding is a break with the past — alumni, staff, students, customers, etc. The smart places will update their brand, but not make a radical change for fear of losing their following. For most of the time, there is not good reason to make such a bold change.”

Crowe advises groups to be wise with their funds.  “Instead of branding, spend the money communicating. to stakeholders or constituents on the quality of the institution. And find new supporters along the way. People want quality, be they alumni , staff and faculty, parents, students and future students.  Break down these groups and use the time and money to update them and empower them to carry the message. Whether raising donations, findings new students or keep alumni engaged.”

Social media marketing guru and fellow Forbes contributor Neal Rodriguez believes in branding, but not the typical, old-school expensive consultant-driven model.  “Logos and color schemes simply comprise some of the superficial appearances of a branding campaign (it’s just your suit and tie),” said Rodriguez. “Your branding practices should aim to engage your target community in a way that positions your organization as a unique solution to your customer’s problems. Craigslist has one the simplest logo and colored websites on the planet, and it’s a multi-million dollar powerhouse.”

Public relations is usually more powerful and cost effective than branding, but it involves more work.  Most groups would be better off paying a good PR firm $10,000 than tossing $1 million into an expensive branding campaign.  Those who cannot deal with the risk of PR are probably better off with branding, but they should temper their expectations.  Something shiny and new will emerge, but will anyone care?

[via Forbes]