The UK’s university sector is a uniquely competitive market, with 130 institutions all competing at a national and often international level, though most people would be hard-pressed to name more than a few.
University branding is more important than ever. It’s one of the driving forces in a student’s selection and has been in the spotlight for the last decade, since the first spike in university fees in the UK.
Yet research confirms that universities still struggle immensely with investigating a brand, communicating what truly differentiates them from competitors, and undertaking wholescale strategic branding, rather than simply focusing on creative wordsmithing and logo design.
Brunel University London commissioned this research since it is keen to confirm good practice among leading brand guardians in the UK universities.
Brand and reputation go hand-in-hand
Research participants agreed that brand is, predominately, about reputation. And a good reputation is vital to universities because their ‘product’ is so ubiquitous and expensive.
Yet reputations don’t happen overnight. Historically, universities have taken decades, if not centuries, to develop a strong reputation.
In the UK, there is just a small number of ‘big brands’ recognisable and distinctive enough to preclude them from having to significantly invest in brand and branding.
Today, the stakes are high: nearly all higher education institutions (HEIs) are competing for undergraduate students and, in some courses, are now referred to as ‘recruiting’.
For the competitive universities that fall outside of the top 25 in national league tables, brand-building and reputation are imperative to attracting the right students, staff and partners.
The trick is to get branding and reputation to converge: yet for this to happen, branding must be authentic, capturing the reality of campus life and educational, research and employment possibilities.
Refreshed branding isn’t necessarily the answer
Surprisingly, research found that refreshed branding does not appear to have a direct impact on the all-mighty league table positioning, but can amplify reputation and greatly influence a student’s (and their parents’) decision making.
Universities today are threatened by unprecedented market forces, many of which they are unprepared for.
Game-changers include increased competition on an international scale, a decrease in funding support, the potential of further loosening of restrictions in fee caps for better performing universities, restrictions on international students, the unknown ramifications of Brexit, and increased competition from other vocational training.
Standing in the shoes of students
In addition, the future of millennials is bleak: simply earning a degree no longer guarantees a good job and for those who do secure employment, many are facing an income lower than their parents, as well as long-term debt, potentially higher than even for students going to a home state public university in the US.
Not everyone ‘gets’ brand
Part of the branding challenge can be senior leadership teams’ fear of the ‘b word’. Participants said that many fail to define a clear mission for their university that sets them apart from competitors.
Often the implications are overwhelming. The support of the vice-chancellor is seen as vital, as well as their trust in the director of marketing and communications to implement the brand and influence decision-making.
The truth will out
Changes in branding and messaging must authentically reflect the universal truths held in the minds of all audiences. Portraying something that the university is not can be rejected by staff, current students and alumni, all of whom are key players in student recruitment.
While their involvement in the branding process is critical, academic staff can be a barrier to success, particularly as they may cling to the past or reject feeling part of a ‘commercial brand’.
Students are also an important player in the process: universities should now see their relationship as a lifelong journey. Alumni are increasingly viewed as a mutual support network, with universities continuing to offer resources in return for advocacy to perspective students and support for current student cohorts, rather than just potential deep pockets, as welcome as that may be.
In addition, student recruitment is seen as a starting point for the evolution of the brand message because of students’ long-term relationship with their university through graduation, possible further education and as an alumnus.
For brand building to succeed, all parts of the university’s physical and digital environments, such as the student union and commercial brands, need to cooperate. Proliferation of brands and branding adds to ‘noise’ and dilutes the parent brand. Logos are seen as less important than message, since messages support both the brand’s purpose and personality.
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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