The future may prove even tougher — Brand Ethos
11 July 2017 Brand | Brand strategy | Research | Student recruitment | University branding |

The future may prove even tougher

The final theme from Brand Ethos’s university branding research, plus summary key findings
It’s already tough, say participants in research carried out during summer 2016. But it’s going to get tougher, they tell Peter Mills

With 130 UK universities competing for the best students in a dramatically shifting market, participants agreed that university brand and branding is paramount to an institution’s success and survival.

The future of universities, particularly those that fall outside of the top 25 in national league tables, will be affected by:

  • Further reductions on fee restrictions for universities at the top of the league tables
  • Restrictions on the number of students that can be attracted from overseas
  • The unknown consequences of Brexit
  • Universities clambering for higher league table positions, as better students are sought and government support disappears
  • Students and their parents becoming ‘smarter customers’ who are aware of all university communications, not just student marketing material.

Universities need to understand the power of brand

Branding in the university sector is more complex than in other sectors, even government and the public sector. And participants taking part in research in summer 2016, Don’t ask me about the logo. University branding, but not as we know it, noted that universities are far behind the commercial sector in terms of understanding the branding process and the power of a strong brand.

Another challenge specific to the university sector is their ever-changing, elusive cohort of 16- to 18-year-olds, who can be hard to reach.

Branding many communities

Senior managements’ resistance to ‘brand values’ and their uncomfortableness with the ‘b word’ can also pose a challenge.

One participant compared branding and marketing for universities to doing so for a small town with all its various constituencies (academic, vocational and commercial) who hold different views about the identity and goals of the university.

The difficulty is managing the brand within this framework.

In a nutshell

This was never going to be easy. Even our seasoned practitioners admitted it was so. However, part of the story is convincing colleagues that the ‘brand project’ is (a) not a project, but an ongoing fulfilment of the strategic ambitions of the university and (b) certainly not a corporate identity project, which is tempting then things get tough.

Five things we’ve learned

The emphasis of this research was primarily on brand strategy that drives branding, support of the vice-chancellor, command and control implementation, and support of the academic staff.

Key findings that emerged include:

  1. Reputation is brand. It’s what others overhear

What people understand about a university, its reputation, is its brand. Those with less established reputations should reflect on authentic attributes and characteristics, exploiting their local and regional positioning so that audiences recognise truths and aspirations

  1. Senior support is vital

A brand and branding review requires the leadership and advocacy of the vice-chancellor and senior management team, although the director of communication and marketing needs authority for its wide-ranging implementation. Command and control processes are necessary

  1. Fear of the ‘b’-word

Misunderstanding of brand can bring about anxieties as it leads to uncomfortable conversations about a university’s purpose, positioning and personality. Specialist agencies can help to bring external challenge and needn’t be used just for creative delivery.

  1. Brand hierarchy and messaging

A clear brand hierarchy and taking away the clutter of self-imposed branding, such as the university’s commercial arms, is vital and brings greater brand clarity. Messaging is more important than logos. It is the responsibility of the many, not the few. Support of colleagues around campus is necessary to build a consistent reputation.

  1. Student recruitment is the start of the journey

Student recruitment can be a useful starting point for reviewing a brand. External-facing collateral, including digital content, should influence the whole of a student’s journey through to graduation and alumni communications, as well as wider communications with partners and internal communications. Alumni (and membership) of a university is a lifelong engagement based on mutual support, rather than just financial commitment.

This is the final theme that emerged from our research. Our final blog from this research will address our recommendations.

  1. Brand is, predominantly, about reputation
  2. League tables are becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy
  3. Branding authenticity is the key to success
  4. Branding strategy should reflect the university as a whole
  5. 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:

  1. 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
  2. Desk research and analysis of recent rebrands by universities and movement within leagues tables
  3. 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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