Traditional, linear models of branding don’t stack-up for universities. You can’t brand a university – you engage its constituencies in a forensic process of discovery, insight, co-creation, testing and validation. This journey is non-linear, elective and challenging to measure.
University brands are unique. They need to function as corporate brands, service brands, employer brands and product brands. They are complex not only because of the socio-economic and geo-political landscape, but also the range of stakeholders, and the fact that universities seldom deliver one service or product.
Why the old way no longer works
Brand traditionalists will tell you that if you don’t manage your reputation, your audiences will manage it for you. But there has been a paradigm shift in recent years: brands now have participants not audiences – the relationship dynamic has changed.
This shift has been driven by a number of factors including the exponential growth and integration of communication technologies into our lives; our rapidly expanding (and global) social networks, and brands’ own data-driven CRM and marketing in pursuit of ever-closer personalisation. This is only set to expand further with brands now looking to exploit artificial intelligence, augmented reality and virtual reality.
We have also become far more sophisticated in our understanding of how we’re being marketed to, and who we’re giving our data to, leaning towards our trusted, personal networks for information, advice and validation. The age of broadcast became the age of conversation; social media has enabled us all to create, edit and share instantly and brands have encouraged this participation.
The divide between brands and real-life has become fuzzy. Brands always aimed to be part of our lives, but they expected it to be on their terms – however, brands are now what consumers tell each other they are.
So what does this mean for universities?
Universities are competing harder than ever before to recruit students, attract and retain the best staff, maintain and improve service and product, and secure funding for research and innovation. Potential staff, students and funding are internationally mobile which makes attraction and retention an on-going challenge.
In addition to meeting educational criteria for entry, students now have to pay fees. They also believe that a university’s brand can attach itself to their future careers. As a result, like consumers, they are highly specific about their choices and can be vocal about their experiences, for example via the National Student Survey (NSS scores) – one of many criteria (e.g. the impact of research, the quality of teaching and even how up-to-date and integrated their tech is) against which universities are now judged.
Staff can be equally vocal, researchers have international reputations, partners hold important local, national and international relationships.
A strong, differentiated, trusted brand is now of great strategic significance for a university. It’s essential to cut through the noise of the competition, and a brand that is ‘owned’ by its community will enjoy the benefits of (global) promotion through trusted social and professional networks.
Brand engagement is essential
A university is a rich community – and finely balanced ecosystem – of students, academics, teachers, professional services staff and key external partners. They all have a vested interest, and a stake, in the university’s success.
Brand engagement is therefore essential to success – this means harnessing co-creation and deep collaboration, and being agile, not dogmatically linear, in your approach. Effective university branding is created with its constituencies, not done to an institution.