The UK’s university sector is a uniquely competitive market. While there are over 130 institutions competing at a national and often international level most people would be hard-pressed to name more than a few.
New research reveals the need for increased focus on universities’ brands
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* carried out by brand and creative strategy consultants, Brand Ethos, in summer 2016 confirms that universities still struggle 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.
Reputation is important, but universities can’t rely on it alone
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.
For others, the stakes are high. Nearly all higher education institutions (HEIs) are competing for undergraduate students and 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: for this to happen, branding must be authentic, capturing the reality of campus life and educational, research and employment possibilities.
A rebrand isn’t a guarantee for an improved league table positioning
Surprisingly, our 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, and the unknown ramifications of Brexit. Added to this are the impacts of the Teaching Excellence Framework and a generational dip in 18-year-olds are making it even more competitive, especially as alternatives to HEIs are being actively promoted by government and others.
In addition, the future for 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.
The five key findings emerging from the research were:
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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
Building a brand takes time. It’s no wonder that the process can be frustratingly long and prove challenging. Investigating a university’s identity is a bit like soul searching; difficult questions and tension may arise, and a vice-chancellor’s own vision and agenda of the university may be challenged. As a result, members of the senior team often withdraw from the process and fall back on corporate identity.
4. 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.
5. 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.
From the research we were able to draw up recommendations for universities considering aligning their strategy with their brand.
- Brand reviews should impact the overall image and reputation of a university. They should strategically instigate change, including cultural change, and unite audiences, especially staff, in a distinctive shared purpose.
- Branding projects alone appear to have limited impact on a university’s brand because there are often more powerful factors influencing reputation. However, they are valuable if used to signal change or a mismatch with the brand’s reality, the university’s strategy and positioning, and shared perceptions of audiences.
- Reviews of brand and branding should have a collective understanding of expected change and outcome at the outset, driven by the vice-chancellor and senior management team, supported by the governors. The director of marketing and communications should be given full operational responsibility and a brief that goes much wider than brand identity.
- In line with recommendations of other researchers, universities should ‘find out what the institution does well, and present it in an appealing way’. Branding should reflect the universal truths held in the minds of all audiences, and be a consistent and uninterrupted journey, affirmed through experience. The strength of advocacy comes from a shared understanding, enhanced and developed over time.
- Investment in brands and branding benefits from external challenge, yet the conversation should extend beyond the marketing and communications team. Widespread staff, student and stakeholder involvement builds advocacy and a brand that is believable, achievable and relatable.
* Brunel University London commissioned this research since it is keen to confirm good practice among leading brand guardians in the UK universities.
This is precis of a much fuller report, ‘Don’t ask me about the logo. University branding, but not as we know it.’ A version of the full report can be obtained by getting in contact with the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Peter Mills is brand strategist and co-owner of Brand Ethos’