League tables are becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy — Brand Ethos
20 June 2017 Brand | Brand strategy | Research | Student recruitment | University branding |

League tables are becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy

The second theme from Brand Ethos’s university branding research
Rebranding doesn't appear to make a difference in league tables. Research suggests universities should take care

Today, university ‘customers’ are not only students, but their parents as well, who spend time and energy researching value for money. League tables are an important part of their decision-making and influence a university’s reputation.

However, our research found that rebrands do not help appear to improve league table positioning (although this may be in part due to the lag time in publishing tables).

Be careful what you ask for

Newer universities without a long-standing reputation, participants noted, often use league tables as a branding tool, as a way to stake their ground in a fiercely competitive market. Even if a university is not in the top of the league tables overall, they’re pressured to look as though they’re competing in them.

However, one research participant taking part in research in summer 2016, Don’t ask me about the logo. University branding, but not as we know it, noted that league tables were in danger of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy: as universities place more importance and emphasis on tables themselves, students feel they need to pay more attention to them, too.

Do rebrands help in league tables?

We compared universities listed in The Guardian University Guide 2017 and the comparative movement of universities over the previous year and compared with the other two guides available online (The Times/Sunday Times Good University Guide), which only provide the top 50 universities through its online reporting.

Of those universities with an established rebrand occurring in the previous three years, there is no direct correlation between movement within the league tables and reported rebranding. In fact, about less than half (Falmouth University, Loughborough University, Plymouth University, University of Cambridge, University of Surrey) had remained the same or improved, and more than half had slipped in the tables (Brunel University London, London Metropolitan University, Royal Holloway, University of London, University of Arts London, University of the Creative Arts, University of East London, University of Warwick).

League tables are retrospective

League tables are compiled using data that may be up to two years out of date. The guides are competitive in nature, each claiming a more useful perspective for the university and the prospective student (and their parents).

Rebrands in the last three years reflect the increase in tuition fees to £9,000 per year for undergraduates, or more for overseas’ students, however, rebrands in the last year, or even within two years, aren’t necessarily comparable to league table reporting due to the time lag.

In a nutshell

Whatever universities feel about league tables they are increasingly influential to perspective students and their parents. Rebrands are mostly brand refreshes, sometimes with a new logo, sometimes not. It doesn’t look like rebrands make much difference to a position in table, however, since tables predominately focus on experience, which is perhaps what their rebrand should have been addressing as well.

Five core themes emerged from research, which we will address in blogs over the coming weeks:

  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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