Participants taking part in research in summer 2016, Don’t ask me about the logo. University branding, but not as we know it, agreed that brand is, predominately, about reputation.
Branding helps to reinforce reputation, although it must be consistent and authentic, smartly managed and used with the right channels.
But can too much branding and marketing be a bad thing? One participant noted that some universities promote everything they do—all activities and achievements on social media, news and events channels—without applying qualitative filters, which actually weakens their reputation and in turn, their brand.
Reputation doesn’t happen overnight
In the UK, there are a few ‘big brands’ that have become household names where filling the seats isn’t a problem. In most cases, these more established institutions have taken decades, if not centuries, to build their reputation and brand.
Participants agreed that these so-called ‘elite’ universities don’t need to invest in branding and marketing in the same way as others do, regardless of other factors.
Not all universities have had the luxury of time
However, it’s essential for newer universities to build their brand and reputation, especially as perspective students and their parents shop around to ensure value for money for their fees.
As these institutions fight to survive, one participant noted that they often kneejerk in to new ways of doing things, which can damage their underlying brand confidence and credibility, both internally and externally.
In addition, many of these universities don’t understand the branding process or the power of a strong brand.
Not your average marketplace
In a fiercely competitive market of 130 universities all competing at a national and often international level, participants emphasised the need for distinctiveness. However, many universities’ brands are interchangeable with competitors’.
Brand-building isn’t just about catchy slogans and cleverly designed logos. As the market continues to dramatically change and become more competitive, it’s vital that each institution clearly defines what separates them from the pack and consistently and strategically communicates that difference.
Being true to your purpose
Confidence and authenticity, one participant noted, are also important factors for successful branding. For instance, some vice-chancellors can be unrealistic about what they’re trying to achieve for their university. Not every UK university can be ‘world-class’ and an internationally-recognised institution with outstanding research, partnerships, income and status.
In a nutshell
Brand and reputation are different, but for universities they are increasingly heavily interdependent. Brand revolves primarily around experience, whereas reputation can be perception alone. When the two collide one either affirms, or not, the other. With so many universities competing, brand will increasingly have to build reputation by enabling favourable experiences and opportunities to share them.
Five core themes emerged from research, which we will address in blogs over the coming weeks:
- Brand is, predominantly, about reputation
- League tables are becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy
- Branding authenticity is the key to success
- Branding strategy should reflect the university as a whole
- The future may prove even tougher.
More about our research
This is truncated version of a fuller report. Contact us to hear the whole story.
The author would like to thank the generous contributions of Gary Hughes, Ivor Lawrence and Vanessa Potter who participated in interviews and gave me insights and stories to support their views. He would also like to thank Helen Coleman at Brunel University London for commissioning the research and contributing to the final report, and her assistant, Becky Moore in gathering resources. Thanks also to Claire Rigby, who facilitated the introductions to Gary and Ivor.
Methodology and objectives
Brand Ethos, a brand strategy consultancy was commissioned to prepare an independent report for Brunel University London to investigate and make recommendations about good practice in the branding of competitive universities, particularly those that fall outside the top 25 in national league tables.
Research found that universities, whether single- or multi-sited, ‘suffer’ from a proliferation of sub brands and on-campus promoters of events, activities, clubs and societies, and the general running of a university. Most brand, branding and design experts agree that this can weaken the strength of a parent brand. Research aimed to determine from a group of university ‘brand owners’ how they mitigate the proliferation of ‘off-brand’ collateral and communications on campus (both printed and online), and good practice for encouraging content generators to be compliant.
Three approaches were undertaken:
- Reflective analysis of the experience of the researcher, Peter Mills, brand strategist at Brand Ethos, of working with universities, including Royal Holloway, University of London and Brunel University London
- Desk research and analysis of recent rebrands by universities and movement within leagues tables
- Primary research among three leading directors currently working in the university sector and having responsibility for university rebranding exercises.
Desk research, using data obtainable with online searches. The three main university league tables were considered: The Guardian University Guide 2016; The Times/Sunday Times Good University Guide 2016; and The Complete University Guide 2016. Branding refreshes in the previous three years for a university were noted and compared with a movement up or standing still position, within at least two of the guides.
Face-to-face and telephone interviews lasting between 60 to 90 minutes with university ‘brand owners’.
Research aimed to understand the following:
- The perceived value in consistent branding
- The value of branding by senior members of the university’s management
- Branding management
- Factors that enable successes and achievements
- Barriers, challenges and issues that brand owners face in implementing a consistent brand identity across all university communications
- Compromises made and why
- Ambitions for the future
Participants were drawn from an existing network of senior marketing and communications directors and included:
- Gary Hughes, former director of marketing, communications and development at Manchester Metropolitan University, and interim director of marketing and communications at Leeds Trinity University
- Ivor Lawrence, director and interim director roles at Liverpool John Moores University, University of Wolverhampton, Manchester Business School and Sheffield Hallam University
- Vanessa Potter, director of communications and external relations, at University of Essex.
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