If you look up the term “branding” in Entrepreneur’s online Small Business Encyclopedia, you’ll read a striking definition: “Simply put, your brand is your promise to your customer.”

From a consumer standpoint, this makes a lot of sense. Every time I purchase a can of Coke, for instance, I know exactly what I will be getting – a soft drink that’s cheap, caffeinated, fizzy, and full of sugar. I know it will always have that distinctive Coke taste. This is the promise of the Coke brand, and any time I crave a soft drink, I know I can purchase a Coke and be instantly satisfied. I grew up drinking Coke, so I have plenty of nostalgic associations with this product. To this day, my soft drink of choice is a can of Coca-Cola Classic.

This isn’t a coincidence. This is the result of prolonged strategic branding, operating at its finest.

If the end-game in marketing is consumer satisfaction (Koontz 7), the goal of branding is building recognition of the products designed to satisfy consumer needs. For libraries of all types, this translates into the perceived value of the services they provide. Marketing, as Laura Saunders has observed, is “identified as a key element of strategic plans, as a way to promote awareness of library resources and services” (Saunders 286). For libraries, marketing conveys tactical messages to the community, whether it’s the promotion of programs or increasing access, and it communicates the library’s mission to current and potential patrons. Branding, however, is the current that flows beneath any marketing strategy; it’s what sticks in the consumer’s mind, James Heaton notes, and expresses the essential characteristics and value of a particular product or organization (Heaton).

When it comes to their branding, I think academic libraries have cause for concern. According to an OCLC report, there is a declining number of students who believe they have reason to visit their library, or that the library has any relevance whatsoever in their lives (Dewan 309). 66 percent of those students polled acquired reading materials from bookstores, while 94 percent conducted their research via search engines (Dewan 310). With gate counts and circulation numbers down, and the value of an expensive college education itself under question, it’s essential that academic libraries build up their perceived value, and make a concerted, strategic effort to inspire brand advocates.

Many academic libraries are aware of students’ misconceptions about the library’s relevance, and have been taking strategic measures to enhance their image – and thereby drawing more patrons through the door. Cafes and group collaboration spaces are becoming standard features. The college library in which I work has eliminated overdue fines, a trend towards creating a friendly atmosphere that other college and university libraries have embraced. We have also greatly expanded our DVD and audiobook browsing collections, and installed a gallery space, in which local artists exhibit their work.

While paying more attention to the user experience has been a big step in the right direction for most academic libraries, it is also important to focus on transforming library patrons into brand advocates. Word-of-mouth marketing is an immensely powerful marketing strategy, and with the ubiquity of social media in our culture, it is more powerful than ever before (Singh 27).

So, how can brand advocacy – and even brand love – be built?

In her editorial on brand love for libraries, Susan Starr characterizes brand love as “a feeling of emotional connectedness and bonding with the brand, a deep integration of the brand with a consumer’s core values” (Starr 168). Likewise, Rajesh Singh has written that “for people to feel the desire to advocate for a brand, they must be affected on an emotional level” (Singh 27). Emotional connection, then, is the key to building a patron’s love for the library brand.

The question then becomes, how do academic libraries create emotional connections with their users?

In order to do this, I would argue that academic libraries can do two things. Firstly, they could take a page or two out of public libraries’ book, and design campaign strategies that ignite their patrons’ passions. The “Geek the Library” campaign to promote awareness and advocacy is a brilliant way to engage users at a primary level. The tagline “what do you geek?” tells a story of identity and the quest for knowledge. It translates to: “where do your passions lie?” At once playful and challenging, the question draws you in, and poses an opportunity for self-reflection. And, most importantly, it establishes the library as the place where your passion is not only welcome, but actively nurtured.

Secondly, they can build brand advocates in the wider community, using tools like social media to build lasting connections. While the vast topic of social media and libraries is beyond the scope of this particular blog, I will say that the targeted and engaging use of social media platforms like Twitter have proven successful for libraries like the Montana State University Library, who grew their student user community by 366 percent by transforming their Twitter feed from automated and bland to interactive and “personality rich” (Young 32).

Based on a recent conversation I had with a librarian at a private liberal arts college, I gathered that many libraries at small, private colleges receive a lot of financial support from generous alumni and emeritus faculty. While this base of satisfied customers have stayed loyal to their library’s brand, this raises the question of how to grow this brand love in the wider community? Alumni and retired faculty have ties to the library that those who never attended the college will never share. Additionally, how can more students and community members be engaged both online and offline? And how can libraries meld the online and offline interactions of patrons into one satisfying experience?

One possible answer to these questions lies in what Scott W.H. Young and Doralyn Rossmann call “social media interactivity” – that is, utilizing online social media to draw offline people together in an information-sharing community (Young 22). For a successful example of this, we can turn to Edmonton Public Library’s website. There, patrons can write and post reviews of the materials they have checked out from the library. In this way, they are engaging not just with library staff, but with their fellow patrons. By giving patrons a feeling of having an impact on and a stake in the library’s collections and services, and by helping connect patrons in the wider community, the library can build strong brand advocacy and strengthen the community as a whole.

Christine Whitney, 07/12/2015


Dewan, Pauline. “Reading Matters in the Academic Library: Taking the Lead from Public Librarians.” Reference & User Services Quarterly. 52.4 (2013): 309-19. Web. Academic OneFile. 28 June 2015.

Foote, Shelby. Quotes. Goodreads. 2015. Web. 08 July 2015. http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/126013-a-university-is-just-a-group-of-buildings-gathered-around

Heaton, James. “The Difference between Marketing and Branding.” Tronvig Group. 2015. Web. 09 July 2015. http://www.tronviggroup.com/the-difference-between-marketing-and-branding/

Koontz, Christie. “Marketing – The Driving Force of Your Library.” The Portable MLIS: Insights from the Experts. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited, 2008. 77-86.

Saunders, Laura. “Academic Libraries’ Strategic Plans: Top Trends and Under-Recognized Areas.” The Journal of Academic Librarianship. 41 (2015): 285-91. Web. Academic OneFile. 23 June 2015.

Singh, Rajesh. “Engaging Your Library Community through Effective Brand Advocacy: STEPPS to Success.” Feliciter. 60.3 (June 2014): 27-9. Web. Academic OneFile. 08 July 2015.

Starr, Susan. “Creating brand love for libraries: can we be a kind of paradise?” Journal of the American Medical Library Association. 101.3 (July 2013): 168-70. Web. Academic OneFile. 08 July 2015.

Young, Scott W.H. and Doralyn Rossmann. “Building Library Community through Social Media.” Information Technology and Libraries. 34.1 (Mar 2015): 20-37. Web. Academic Search Premier. 23 June 2015.