Defining yourself – Do you need a brand?

(From Teresa:  About two years or so ago, one of my mentors suggested to me that I was doing a good job cultivating my “brand.”  At first, I was somewhat taken aback by this statement, as the term seemed to be associated with the dark arts of marketing… but it did make me wonder.  Do we, as academics, have brands?  Moreover, did I have a brand? Did I need a brand?  What was I doing that had made my brand obvious to my mentor?  To answer these questions I turned to a few other early career educators to collaborate on a 3-part series. Enjoy!)

by Teresa Chan, Brent Thoma, Salim Rezaie & Aaron Knox

What is a Brand?

As one education research and consulting firm states “A brand comprises the attributes that people associate with your product. A brand encapsulates the value promised. Your brand communicates that if you do business with me, here’s what you can expect.” [1]

Think back to your last lecture, what does your lecture presentation say about your brand?  Was it neat and well-organized with smart graphics and a judicious use of words?  Or was it a chaotic explosion of long paragraphs – a paper masquerading as presentation slides (also known as a slide-ument)?  How does your learner’s experience in that lecture alter their perception of you or the information you are delivering?

Think back to the last lecture you attended. Was it captivating? Did you learn anything? Or did you grab coffee and a pastry before mentally “checking out” while you played on your smartphone or checked your email?

“We all want to believe that the key to making an impact on someone lies with the inherent quality of the ideas we present. But in none of these cases did anyone substantially alter the content of what they were saying. Instead, they tipped the message by tinkering, on the margin, with the presentation of their ideas.”[2]

Just as people want to buy products from a well-known and trusted brand, they also want to avoid products from unknown brands or those with poor reputations.  Likewise, your presentation is an outward portrayal of your educational brand.  Is the presentation an experience your audience would wish to have again?  Will they be back for more?  Will they endorse you as a ‘not-to-miss’ speaker to their peers?  To understand your brand, ask these questions.

The Clinician Educator’s Brand: Your Reputation by Another Name…

In many ways, a clinician educator’s brand manifests as the (often unintentional) reputation that precedes you as a teacher or lecturer.  To take control of your brand, you must begin with your values and educational philosophy and align your outward portrayals with these core concepts.  In other words, in order to get students to “consume” your product, it is best to create your educational brand with the “consumer” in mind.

There are, however, many reasons why using the “education as product” paradigm is wrought with trouble.  Commoditization of education can lead to more showmanship than content.  However, if your material (and your brand) can’t convince learners that your ‘educational product’ will be better than the myriad of other resources on the internet or elsewhere, then they will naturally self-direct their learning towards better sources.

Think about a teacher who prides himself on fostering independent thinking in his residents. Let’s say this teacher then simply walks around a ward, telling residents exactly what orders to write on their patients and completes all the dictations of daily notes. This instructional method would be a clear mismatch with their desired personal brand. A more ‘aligned’ behaviour would be if he could simply stand centrally, available for housestaff and nursing staff, checking in on the increasingly independent housestaff and providing assistance (or an occasional Socratic probe) when needed.

A brand is a manifestation of your intended outcomes and desired goals. Consider a group of instructors teaching a course together.  Having common values and an understanding of how to portray these values (i.e. a brand) helps to ensure that the instructors know how to best deliver the course.  This concept becomes increasingly important in institutions with distributed models of learning (e.g. many tutors teaching PBL curriculum in a medical school, multiple regional sites teaching the same group of residents).  In his book, Simon Sinek describes that great leaders “Start with Why” and lead from that vantage point.[3]  Branding for educators is no different from this concept – start with knowing why you are doing what you do …then do it.


[1] Dresner, M., Lehman, L. “The Astounding Value of Learning Brand” Corpu. 2009. Retrieved November 4th, 2012. From

[2]  Gladwell, M. (2000). The tipping point: how little things can make a big difference. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company; Page 131

[3] Sinek, S. (2009). Start with why: How great leaders inspire everyone to take action. Penguin.

Image by Stuart Miles. via