Few people were familiar with Paul Quinn College four years ago.  Many of those who were aware of the institution’s existence had a negative impression of it.  Additionally, the marketplace had little respect for the school and many employers avoided the College’s graduates as employees. The school was under-funded and under-appreciated, and appeared to be a lost cause.

But my how things have changed.

The story of how a small, under-resourced community-serving institution transformed itself into the 2011 “Historically Black College and University (“HBCU”) of the Year” is a study in honesty, fearlessness, creativity, persistence and vision.  It is also a case study for institutions and individuals about the power of branding.

Colleges and students looking to leap from the back of the line to the front of the pack should heed these five steps for building an authentic and effective brand gleaned from the Paul Quinn experience.

  • Embrace the Stockdale Paradox: The “Stockdale Paradox” was introduced to us in Jim Collins’ seminal work “Good to Great.” The Stockdale Paradox is named after Admiral Jim Stockdale and his experience as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War.   Admiral Stockdale was imprisoned in the “Hanoi Hilton” for eight years during the Vietnam War but survived in large part by never confusing the faith that he would ultimately prevail with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of his reality. In other words, while being honest with himself about his predicament, he never lost faith in his victory. Understanding the Stockdale Paradox is critical in brand creation and management.  In order to create a lasting brand you must acknowledge and understand your current situation and reputation. Never be delusional about how the marketplace perceives you.  This deception will doom your effort to failure.  Once you have acknowledged where you are, you must next decide how you would like to be characterized moving forward.
  • To thine own self be true: This quote is from William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.”  By these words, the Bard is demanding that all of us resist the temptation of self-deception.  At all times, one must have a clear understanding of who they are and their strengths and weaknesses.  Such self-awareness is important in branding because the only way your brand can be sustained and authentic is if it is actually true.  Selling a lie is the most damaging act you can perform in terms of your brand.  Lies destroy credibility and a brand without credibility is a joke.
  • Be creative: Many people miss opportunities to promote their brand because they are afraid to step outside of the box.  These individuals wrongly believe that safety equals success.  When you are building or re-building a brand, you must go where others seldom trod.  Additionally, you must go there with an expectation of success and remain free of the need of public adulation.  As Deion Sanders said during his Hall of Fame acceptance speech – “people don’t condone what they’ve never seen.”
  • Give the people something to remember: While I typically don’t endorse sloganeering, under the proper circumstances it can be effective.  The dilemma is not to become too reliant on clever phrases.  Make sure the phrases reinforce your central message.  Moreover, make sure the phrases resonate with your market.  A clever slogan that no one understands or can identify with will damage your branding efforts.
  • Relentlessly promote your brand:  There is an African proverb that states: “Until the Lion tells his story, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”  You should never assume that anyone else will tell your story the way you will.  Once you have designed your brand (and followed the first four steps), you must consistently and relentlessly promote it.  After all, if a brand sits on a shelf and no one embraces it, does the brand really exist?

Following these steps  helped Paul Quinn College transform itself into one of the “Five Most Underrated HBCUs in America” and establish partnerships with Yale University, Dr. Marybeth Gasman of the University of Pennsylvania, Nelson Bowman of Prairie View A&M University, the Washington & Lee School of Law, Southern Methodist University, PepsiCo., GE, and the nationally recognized law firms Bickel & Brewer and Hunton & Williams. Additionally, our students now intern with GE, Amegy Bank, Hunt Consolidated, Oracle, Perkins Management, and soon, the Texas Rangers.  What will following them do for you?

Give H.O.P.E. Live H.O.P.E.

Michael J. Sorrell, Esq.
President, Paul Quinn College

About the Author

Michael J. Sorrell is the 34th President of Paul Quinn College. Under his leadership, the school has embarked upon an aggressive agenda that stresses academic excellence, extreme accountability, and a commitment to the community via servant leadership. President Sorrell sits on numerous boards and committees that emphasize improving the areas in which he lives. In addition he has been recognized by the Root On-line Magazine as a member of the “Root 100”, the HBCU Digest as one of the 10 Best HBCU Presidents for 2009-10 and many others. President Sorrell is passionate about his community and he continues to build a transformative legacy.