Branding is Critical for Academics

Words with "Branding" in orange at the top and five bullets below of Identity, Logo, Design, Strategy, Marketing

It is easy for faculty living in the publish or perish world of academia to get so focused on producing work that they overlook the importance of marketing it. When I was in graduate school, my field had a handful of academic journals, and one could get along just fine paying attention to just Journal of Applied Psychology and Personnel Psychology. Today there are dozens of journals, and being published in these two outlets is no guarantee that your work will be noticed. This is why branding is critical for academics.

The Daily Grind for Professors

Professors who live in the hyper-competitive world of the research university are under tremendous pressure to produce publications. Those in business schools are often required to publish work from a very short list of “elite” journal outlets such as the Financial Times FT-50. Sometimes we get so focused on conducting research and publishing results that the bigger picture gets lost. Publication in science is not the end goal. Rather the purpose of research is to have impact on science and the broader society. Publication is the first step, but there is much we can do to promote that work.

Branding Is Critical for Academics

Branding is important for the success of any product. That product’s image with the public and how it is perceived affects sales. It is no different with academic publication. An academic’s “product” is publication–those papers, chapters, and books. How they are viewed by the academic community affects whether or not academics (and others) read, cite, and build off that work. That is why branding is critical for academics. Even what we call things can be important.

When I was in graduate school I started studying employee misbehavior at work. These are behaviors by an employee that are harmful to others at work or the organization itself. I referred to these behaviors as organizational aggression, framed as a reaction to organizational frustration. The framing never caught on and my work on organizational aggression was largely ignored. Years later one of my then doctoral students, Suzy Fox, and I had the rebranding discussion. We realized that our work on organizational aggression needed to be rebranded. We needed a new term that would make our work appear fresh. So we changed the name (but not the definition) to counterproductive work behavior, and gave it a 3-letter acronym CWB, introduced in 2001. The strategy worked–suddenly other academics were paying attention to our work and using the acronym CWB.

Branding Strategies

There are several touch-points to consider when it comes to branding.

  • The title: The title is the first thing a potential reader will see, so it is important that it clearly conveys the information in a way that captures attention. Sometimes a catchy phrase can help. One of my favorites is “Monkey See Monkey Do” that was in the title of a paper concerned with how CWB can be contagious within a work team. Long titles that contain lots of jargon might do a good job of summarizing the paper, but they don’t do much for the brand.
  • Keywords: These are important because they are what gets your paper pulled up in a search. It is worth spending a little time considering what keywords best reflect the content of your paper.
  • First paragraph: I am sorry, but too often the first paragraph of papers put me to sleep. The first paragraph determines if the reader will decide that the paper is worth their time. That paragraph needs to introduce the topic, explain why it is important, and provide the purpose of the paper. It needs to flow and capture interest. This is not the place to get bogged down in complexity. You don’t need details. You don’t need to mention every variable. You don’t need to preview all the hypotheses. The three purposes should be in one paragraph and not spread across three pages. You have one chance to capture the reader’s attention and draw them in.
  • What You Call Things Matters: There are two opposing opportunities here. First, you can link your work to what is familiar by using terms that are currently popular. CWB is still a winner. Second, you can create a new term that makes your work appear new. This can be harder to do because you never know what might catch on. Suzy and I wanted a three-letter acronym that could be a companion to organizational citizenship behavior, OCB. It worked for us but there is no guarantee.
  • Work the Problem Not the System: Given the pressures to publish, it can be easy to get sidetracked into focusing on what it takes to get a paper published rather than the scientific contribution of the work. I have seen people second-guess their research approach because they are afraid a given study or paper won’t be accepted into a top journal. Branding goes beyond a single publication but cuts across an entire research program that can involve many individual studies and multiple articles, chapters, and books. In fact, having multiple publications on a topic multiplies the attention your work can get, and sometimes when someone reads one paper, they read others on the same topic. Each paper promotes the others. When it comes to branding consider your entire body of work.

Promotion is Part of Science

In graduate school we are all trained in the research process for our respective fields. We learn about the existing literature and the methods used to generate knowledge. Our mentors teach us how to publish, and are typically our first coauthors. What gets overlooked is that publication itself is not the ultimate goal–our work needs to have impact. To have impact we must get eyes on our work, and to do that we need to pay attention to branding.

Photo by Eva Bronzini at Pexels.

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