Hitting a moving target: Nailing down a personal or corporate brand in a dynamic digital age

The core principle of branding has evolved in the 21st century, shifting emphasis from "what you do" to "who you are." Faculty in the UNC School of Media and Journalism are prepping students for this new era of digital communication, which has seen the growth in popularity of social media as a key platform to market one's self or one's products.

“MEJO 490.005: Advertising in the Age of Alexa, AI, and Algorithms or: How to Stop Worrying and Build Your Brand" — taught by Lecturer Louis Killeffer — discusses how branding has changed in the fast-paced digital age and how students can leverage digital technologies to construct a brand. “MEJO 577: The Branding of Me” — taught by Teaching Assistant Professor Gary Kayye — opens students' eyes to what sets them apart in the applicant pool and teaches them how to create the best self-image possible. Kayye also incorporates knowledge of new technology through his prerequisite course, “MEJO 477: New Media Technologies: Their Impact on the Future of Advertising, Marketing, and Public Relations," giving students the tools to successfully promote and market their brand on the appropriate media platforms.

"MEJO 477: New Media Technologies:" Their impact on the future of advertising, marketing and public relations

Offered each fall semester, the new media technologies course explores what media platforms are like in the present and how they will likely develop in the future. Kayye teaches students how to leverage personal platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn to successfully market and advertise both who they are and what they do. This course is a prerequisite for those who want to take Kayye's "The Branding of Me" class, which teaches students how to brand themselves through social media, blogging, vlogging, resume-building and search engine optimization.

Kayye presents the concept of media technologies by looking at the past, present and future. In August, students study the brief history of media and define what new media is — though the focus does not remain in the past for long.

"This class is designed to start where we are today, always looking forward rather than spending much time looking back,” Kayye said.

In September, Kayye introduces the landscape of new media through the topics of email marketing, digital signage, blogging and social influencers. From October to the end of the semester in December, students study the influence powerful enterprises have on media, as well as the prospective picture of new media technologies.

"The class starts at the edge," Kayye said. "We’re focusing on where the industry is right now with regard to Facebook’s influence, Google’s influence, Snapchat, specific influences like Instagram, and we move forward from there. We go into what’s likely to happen with the future of that and, say, the impact of Tik Tok as an emerging app, and then we go into virtual reality and augmented reality and their impact on reporting news and advertising and branding purposes."

Kayye continued, explaining that part of the class is dedicated to a real-world project. Prior to when the MJ-school changed from the School of Journalism and Mass Communication to the School of Media and Journalism in 2015, Kayye and his students worked on assets for the rebrand, including a launch plan and launch video. Another year, students built a UNC bucket list of things to do before graduating. Approximately 11,000 students participated in the bucket list challenges, thinking that it was an official University activity.

"That was an artificially created project," said Kayye. "The purpose was to show how powerful and how quickly you can produce something without spending a lot of money, and because students know that, they know they can do that for themselves the next semester."

"MEJO 577: The Branding of Me"

The following spring semester, students can take "MEJO 577: The Branding of Me" or "part two," as Kayye referred to the course. With a foundation of new media technology comprehension, students tackle their existing LinkedIn and social media profiles. They focus on sharing content constantly in order to build up their online presence and natural search engine optimization. The prerequisite "New Media Technologies" prepares them to identify which platforms are more popular with which audiences, and how to go about leveraging them.

"For example, Twitter is the primary platform for news," Kayye said. "And what’s interesting is we’re seeing a resurgence of young kids using Twitter — mostly 13- to 18- or 19-year-olds. It’s like a cycle. It's also one of the few social platforms that’s indexed by Google. The more you participate on Twitter, the better it is for your personal brand. Things like that come into play as well."

Kayye, who has developed an in-depth understanding of social media and social motivations over his career, acknowledges that Snapchat is declining for a few reasons: it’s a closed platform without any indexing or search engine optimization, and while it's great for connecting with friends, it does nothing to benefit one's personal brand. However, search engine optimization, or SEO, is not the be all and end all of branding.

“Search engine optimization is a moving target," Kayye explained. "If you’re trying to build your personal brand around SEO, then you’re wasting your time. What’s more important is that you’re online being yourself and talking about things you care about and sharing that and inviting people to share that with you.”

Kayye stresses the importance of authenticity and building an authentic persona on social media; trying to keep up a false image is not only difficult, but ineffective. Additionally, this could affect brands a person is affiliated with, like his or her place of work. 

"You have to realize that your personal brand matters because it’s not just your personal brand, but also representative of everything you’re connected to — the school that you go to, the business that you work for and the friends that you have," Kayye said. "So, therefore, when you go down, they go down with you, in a lot of cases."

Former students of Kayye agree, attributing his knowledgeable, ethical and uplifting teaching as a professional guide.

"I can safely say that at every pivotal moment within my career so far, I’ve used Gary’s teachings to guide me," said Lucy Thomas, an exchange student from City, University of London. "The toolkit acquired over those two semesters made me more confident and more passionate about my career, and as a result, I’m one of the youngest managers within my company."

Thomas isn't the only Tar Heel who praised Kayye's sociological and professional insight.

“His class will not be the cheat sheet to happiness or success, but it shines a light on how each person can get there," said alumnus Patrick Almquist ’13. "It took me about two to three years after taking it for things to go into effect, but I do think back to that class as a catalyst of sorts in my education about emotion, vulnerability and being myself."

Kayye strives to give students the best chance for success after graduating, and while the class may not be a "cheat sheet," the outcome is often a positive one.

After forging through the interview process, employers are typically left with three or four applicants to choose from. With a difficult decision ahead, they often seek more information about their potential employees online and through social media. Students from Kayye's classes have a better chance of success in securing jobs after graduation because of their strong online presence. Employers can see their writing style, what they stand for and what their philosophies and ethics are through their blog posts and LinkedIn profile, which they work on tirelessly. More effort is given to LinkedIn than individual resumes in "The Branding of Me" class because Kayye knows LinkedIn is where employers will end up spending more time.

There are, of course, social and technological aspects of new media that Kayye knows will alter his teaching as time goes on.

“Over the course of teaching this class for eight years, I’ve figured out that what works now may not work next year," Kayye said. "I’ve got to always change it and make it better for the current generation of students, because we’re moving from the Millennial generation to Generation Z. They think differently. That means the class is ultimately going to change."

Some see change as disruptive, but Kayye sees it as an opportunity to mold the future of media. Similarly, Killeffer takes change head on, teaching students how to create a profitable brand through the dynamism of the digital era.

"MEJO 490.005: Advertising in the Age of Alexa, AI, and Algorithms or: How to Stop Worrying and Build Your Brand"

A Carolina alumnus and a seasoned branding expert, Killeffer has helped create many prestigious brands before lecturing at the MJ-school, including AT&T, FedEx, Nikon, Timberland and UPS. In this new section of MEJO 490 — offered for the first time in Spring 2019 — Killeffer walks his students through the nature of the digital age, the importance of branding and how to successfully reach an audience. The ways to reach customers in the digital age have changed, but the essence of the business remains the same.

"The advertising business has been completely disrupted by the advent of digital technology. Everything has changed," said Killeffer. "However, in reaching consumers and making them consistent purchasers of premium products, the single-most important thing, in my view, is still the relationship with the brand."

Killeffer brings in guest speakers from various companies to give students a more holistic understanding of branding and offer opportunities to students to interact with experts in the field. Speakers have included Chief Creative Officer Leland Maschmeyer of Chobani; President Jeremy Holden of Clean; Brand Strategist Elsie Karsten of Clean; and CEO Esther Campi of Campi & Company. Some of the topics covered were driving business outcomes via creative, media, influencer marketing and the continuing and evolving role of creatives at the top ad agencies in New York.

"I think I have a more clear viewpoint about where I am right now and what I’m supposed to do after I graduate," said Yiqiong Xia '21, who enjoys the networking opportunities in the class. "Although I haven’t built really in-depth relationships with them, I know I have the opportunities here in the Triangle area, and it’s also helpful to me because I’ve met these people before. I’ll have something to say when going through the interviews and applications."

The class is inclusive, open to students from all majors and backgrounds. Some study information science outside of the MJ-school, while others are on the public relations track within the MJ-school. To ensure everybody can benefit from the course, Killeffer apporaches branding knowledge by talking about topics that are relevant to everyone: the cultural and social trends set by existing digital platforms.

"I think Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Netflix all have extraordinary influence on the current societal trends and norms as they are evolving. They also have credible influence as businesses," Killeffer said. "They increasingly have influence as unregulated public platforms, but also as publishers. I think there are many issues that transcend advertising that are interesting, if not critical, regarding those companies and how we relate to them."

Killeffer cultivates students' critical thinking and teamwork skills by assigning student groups to work on a research project. Student teams choose their research topic to investigate student media usage, advertising awareness and avoidance, brand awareness and shopping behavior. This gives insight into how much time students spend on various media platforms and formats, as well as how much and what kind of content students see daily. At the end of the semester, each team present their research findings to the class.

"I think the reason why I’ve included that in the class is to push forward their critical thinking skills," Killeffer said. "It’s about critical thinking within the construct of marketing and branding, which is really about understanding human behavior, human wants and needs, and how to affiliate and associate them with an iPhone."

Staying up-to-date with emerging technology and ever-changing media platforms — along with being in-tune to social constructs — is the present challenge for media and journalism students. With Kayye, Killeffer and other faculty members spearheading branding courses within the MJ-school, students are equipped with the tools needed to keep up with the changing times.

In a profession that is primarily gray on a black and white scale, it can be hard to pin down the most effective branding methods, but these two instructors are taking that challenge head-on, adding persistence and dedication to their own personal brands.