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Attendees mill around the Blackberry booth at the Consumer Electronics Show Thursday, Jan. 6, 2011, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)

Isaac Brekken/AP

"Everyone has a brand – you don't have a choice. Your choice is, are you going to manage it or not?"

So says Dr. Brad Davis, the newly minted chair of brand communication at Wilfrid Laurier University. His position, announced last week, is the first of its kind in Canada.

"Having a chair in brand communication brings a certain amount of credibility. It says, this is an academically credible field with important industry implications," he said.

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Dr. Davis, a long time marketing professor, said Laurier's brand communication program started after a "fateful" meeting with marketing expert Rupert Brendon in 2003. The men realized there wasn't enough focus on brand communication in Canadian universities, given the size of the industry, he said.

"The country needed a program that looked much more seriously at marketing communications," Dr. Davis said. "Also, the industry really needed it – they needed people with a different skill set to deal with the demands that were being placed on them."

The solution was a program at Laurier, funded by a marketing education foundation that Mr. Brendon leads. Forty-five Canadian businesses have donated $1.9-million to the program since 2003. Among them are branding heavy hitters Unilever, Pepsi, and Tim Horton's. The program launched in 2006 and has quickly become a popular specialty in Laurier's undergraduate program.

Following is an interview with Dr. Davis on the importance of brand communication, preparing students for the workplace, and why BlackBerry shouldn't be the only brand representing Canada.

Why do we need a special program in brand communications?

To a very large extent because Canada has not done a great job of building strong brands.

Only two Canadian companies made the Interbrand best global brand's list. One was Thomson Reuters, which not everybody knows, and the other is BlackBerry. Now we have cover stories asking if RIM is going to survive.

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We've been a resource-based economy. We need to build strong Canadian brands to be able to compete internationally. In universities, we should be the ones training people to build those Canadian brands.

Why now?

The recession reinforced how important it is to build Canadian brands that can weather recessions.

What's the difference between brand communication and marketing?

That's a common question. I talk about marketing as this whomping, big thing. Brand communication is a subset of marketing. It focuses in on the communication side.

It started out as integrated marketing communications, a movement that was founded by the Medill School of Marketing in the States. The problem was that integrated marketing communication was really seen to be more tactical, calling for consistency across media, when it was supposed to be about strategy. There was lot of discussion on whether to change the name to brand communication, because brand is strategic.

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I brought back brand communication to capture the idea of the brand as the driver behind everything you have to do in communications. It's understanding what you have to say and being able to articulate it effectively.

How does the program benefit the industry?

The first thing is the cost of hiring and the cost of hiring the wrong people. To get graduates who come out and hit the ground running, who can step in and start to contribute immediately, is a tremendous cost saving feature for businesses.

The second part is with social network stuff. Grads coming out now are part of the generation that lives on the social net. They understand that world, they understand that culture, and they're in demand because of that. If we can combine that with specialized branding training and academic rigour, the grads will become very important to companies who need to navigate the new landscape.

How does it benefit the students?

We're really trying to better prepare students for what they're going to encounter, so that they're going to be able to step into an organization and contribute right away, or work for themselves and do it.

Our old models are just old models. That world doesn't exist any more. Suggesting to students that it's a nice, organized, four-P [product, price, place, promotion] mass-media world is doing them a disservice. We have to prepare them for what they're going to encounter, which is a lot different than what's in the textbooks.

You already have backing from 45 major companies. Why is it important to have academe communicate with business?

It's about practicality. That's what we're supposed to be doing, training people for their futures. As a professor, I want to know what's going on in industry. What are the pressing issues, the pressing questions? It keeps me going as a teacher to know that I can teach my students what matters in industry, that my stuff is contemporary. That feedback is important.

From a practical perspective, industry has so much data, and it is underused dramatically. If we can take a database, it doesn't even have to be current, it becomes a tremendous learning opportunity for students.

There are some sectors I'd like to get much more involved with. Financial services and high-tech firms are under-represented on the list [of donors to the program]

What's unique about this program?

We already have a brand communication course and a creative thinking for marketing managers course – for both BBA and MBA students. I'm also working on a course in social media and digital marketing.

We're also working on new formats for courses. The world just doesn't live in three-hour time slots. We're looking at doing much more integrated courses. We want it to be highly experiential and have a lot of individual involvement.

We tried to get away from the mindset of 'Let's just offer new courses.' How are we teaching this stuff? Does that make sense any more? Maybe we should blow up that old model and teach in a fashion that's more consistent with how people are forced to think when they get out there.

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