By Ralph HarbisonThrough all of the trials and tribulations faced by UAB, not just the recent ones but all of them from the founding of the school as an extension center, to the transition of the medical college from Tuscaloosa to Birmingham, to the current situations faced under the Watts administration, there has been one constant: UAB have seldom been allowed to write her own story.
UAB is supposed to be an autonomous institution, charting her own course, under the oversight of the University of Alabama System Board of Trustees. What has been the case, however, is that UAB has been allowed to work under the ceiling created by the board that limits her growth and keeps her held to a standard that will not allow for the school to reach her fullest potential. One of the best tools used to limit UAB has been through branding.
In my professional life, branding is a key part of what I do. Not only do I use branding to promote my business, I also help other groups, companies, organizations, and people develop and use branding to reach their highest potential.
Branding, for those who are not in that part of the business world, developed over the 20th century, leading to the point where the “brand” was seen as more than the product or item itself but also the entire experience, including the company, the advertizing, the marketing, and the customers’ interactions with the product and the company. That gave rise to concepts such as brand value, brand management, and even the understanding that branding can apply to anything and everything in existence. We understand branding as more than the description of the product.
Branding is the story, written by the brand owner, that tells of the DNA of the product, and in doing so, it should invite others to join in that story, writing their own parts to it. Good branding does just that: it brings people in to participate in the product. Excellent branding causes those people to tell the story to others, inviting them to add their pages, too. Poor branding either does not invite others to invest in the brand OR it creates a situation where the customer experience is different than the image painted in a negative way, generally to an extent that the person regrets adding to the story and will discourage others from doing the same.
Branding includes marketing but is not marketing (telling the public of the product and inviting some action) and branding is not advertising but includes advertising (instructing the public to participate in an action related to the product, usually a purchase). Good branding is the living, expanding tome containing everything about the product and those who invested in it.
While they were not business men, and did not understand branding and brand management like we do today, the earliest visionaries at UAB were involved in amazing brand creation and management. Men like Roy Kracke, Joseph Volker, and S. Richardson Hill were doctors, men of science and vision, but they envisioned a story that could be written. A story of hope and progress, of enriching minds and saving lives that could become a beacon to the world of the brilliance of the people of Birmingham specifically and the Alabama population as a whole.
This story, the UAB BRAND, was completely unique in Alabama history. At no other point in time, save perhaps the people in Huntsville connected with UAH, has any group of people seen the need for Alabama to be more than a fiefdom for the wealthy and elite, both foreign (read “Yankee”) and domestic (read “rich, white pseudo-aristocracy”). And the brand that they created is exactly that. And it was beautiful branding. It invited others, such as Gene Bartow and Scottie McCallum, to add entire volumes. It invited others who added chapters, paragraphs, sentences, and at times, just a word or two, but the brand expanded.
At the same time, however, the University of Alabama Board of Trustees has tried to limit that brand’s growth. From the repeated use of the term “commuter college,” which holds connotations of a school designed for the unworthy and different, to the creation of a joke of a mission statement (which will be another post in this series about understanding UAB) to direct and indirect attacks on the institution itself, the Board has tried to act as a group of book-burning demagogues hell-bent on ridding the world of the story, the brand, the UAB organism, once and for all.
Yet the story is still being written, partially by those who fight for that beacon for the world to see, invoking the potential of Birmingham and Alabama, partially by those of us who have long since wrote our parts but are called back into service to the school that holds part of our hearts, and partially by those who have no other interest in the brand other than believing that UAB is needed in some way beyond the vision of those trapped in the past.
One of our challenges is that the telling of the story, the paid voice for the school, is a hand-picked University of Alabama alumnus and former basketball player who has no real desire in telling the true story, our story, our brand, to the world. That is not acceptable, but it is the situation that we now face. Any student of history, however, knows that there have always been those storytellers willing to tell the truth, brave bards, idealistic troubadours, old men and women with no other job but spinning tall tales and legends that always contain a measure of truth willing to continue to spread the story. And until the University of Alabama Board of Trustees and Mr. Bakken realize that this story, the UAB BRAND, is more important to the world to be purged from the earth, we shall invite, no, compel others to invest in the story and add their part.
Next time, we will talk about how these brands act in the formation of the students. Trust me, it is WAY more exciting than it sounds. Please share this with those who do not understand UAB and our struggles to form a #FreeUAB
Ralph Harbison is a business consultant and personal, business, and wellness coach based in Birmingham. Ralph is also a co-founder and Chairman of Dragon PAC, a state political action committee dedicated to education transformation in Alabama. For more about Ralph, visit ralphharbison.com and to help Dragon PAC, visit dragonpac.org.