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Playing it safe is the most dangerous thing you can do

By Max du Bois of brand design experts, Spencer du Bois

It would be reasonable to say that, on the whole, universities are risk averse organisations. This is particularly so when it comes to a university’s brand, where the rule of thumb appears to be ‘play it safe’. This is clearly demonstrated in three big, apparently reasonable ways: maintaining the status quo, trying to retain control, and attempting to only do things that can be measured.

We define these as the ‘only whats’ of trying to play it safe.

Only what I know now
Only what I can control
Only what I can quantify

As it turns out, all of these are exercises in futility. Effective brands demand coherence and vision, not consistency, which we will debunk later. You have to be comfortable with all three if you’re going to create and keep a brand alive. Let’s think about each of them in turn. 

What I know now is afraid to rock the boat – sometimes this can be a good and necessary instinct to trust. But if universities won’t risk change they will be generic and undifferentiating. They will just follow the pack when people want vision and leadership. And if some of the brightest people in the country can’t lead and don’t have vision, who can and does?  

Rebrands, so expensive and time-consuming for universities, most often occur at moments of significant strategic change, and that can be challenging. But repositionings are just that – moving into new territory in order to take advantage of new developments within the sector or changes in audiences requirements. We have seen a profound shift in this over the last few years with no sign of the rate of change slowing down.

When researching the bases of new positionings we often find ourselves looking for the ‘canary in the coal mine’, the voices that are different, the gut reactions from the people who most closely match our target audience. When developing brands, we have to be prepared to take leaps of imagination, then judge how they are received, never assuming that we know in advance how people will react.

No-one can know the future, but we can listen carefully to the people who represent it for us. This means worrying only to the appropriate degree about what our current audiences will say, and instead actively seeking out the things we don’t know, and the voices we hear less of, as we build our brand. It will quickly date if we only stick to what we know now.

Only what I can control is worried about how to manage the brand if too many people have a hand in it. These are the brand police, the Communications, Publications or Marketing Officers who bizarrely still view brand as a logo and a set of visual guidelines to be strictly guarded and controlled. They are the Digital Managers who won’t let go, through whom all tweets must be passed before approval. It hardly seems revolutionary any more to state that the best brands let go, knowing themselves to be in dialogue with their customers. University brands need to embrace this more, but it requires some deep thinking about structural change. 

No-one can know the future, but we can listen carefully to the people who represent it for us

The challenge for universities in the future will increasingly be authenticity. As digital technologies become more and more ubiquitous in ways that will continue to revolutionise how we work and live, it will become increasingly apparent that brand and digital are twin sisters in the drive to create real engagement with students through to alumni. There is an urgent need to break down the barriers between all audiences and creating universities that humans who share certain ideals or attributes, identify with. 

Universities need to focus on letting go, empowering staff to naturally make decisions that will be ‘on brand’, ensuring that we don’t inadvertently create a mindset of ‘this is the way we do things here…’ We’re human, and a bit of that is inevitable, but keeping in touch with our audiences, not getting set in our ways, being responsive – these are the hallmarks of brands that will succeed in the new world.

Only what I can quantify worries about creative leaps that can’t be precisely evidenced. But every brilliant piece of advertising or brand work that has ever moved anyone to action has been based on true creative thought. That creativity may be grounded in evidence, and based on thorough research and an understanding of market position, competitive edge and so on, but imagination is just as vital as insight when it comes to creating and building great brands. 

Between 2012 and 2013, UK universities increased their combined marketing spend to a total of £36 million. This high spend can be futile when seeking to attract more students and funding if universities cling to the supposedly tried and trusted status quo.

Ultimately, playing it safe is the most dangerous route to take.

W: spencerdubois.co.uk