Poor brand architecture leads to confusion in universities

Get your brand messaging streamlined, says Max du Bois of brand consultancy Spencer du Bois

As universities start to more fully embrace branding, many are encountering another major challenge – one that risks diluting all the hard work put into creating a strong identity.

It could be argued that universities have in the past shunned the concept of ‘customers’, with students often coming second to pure research. Knowledge has always been the mission; it was never about the bottom line. As such, branding was once perceived as of little importance and even less value.

However, over the years, increasing competition for private and state funding, and the proliferation of university choices, including for-profit and online learning options, has lead many universities to turn to branding as a tool to compete more effectively and drive enrolment.

And, after many wrong turns and internal scorn, a few are becoming adept at tailoring their unique identity and branding.

Yet as they do, we are starting to witness a glaring flaw, one that risks undermining all the hard effort, money and hope put into tailoring a strong identity.

As universities focus on promoting their core brand, they often do so without allowing for individual faculty and campus brands to be promoted, smothering these increasingly vital student entry points.

In many universities, the individual faculties send out their own messages, promoting their own strengths. Some also develop stand-alone research projects and initiatives. This frequently results in unlinked, mixed messages and confusion that ultimately weaken the core brand and prevent a University’s brand from benefiting from all its activities.

Many universities are on the cusp of re-building themselves as transformational organisations. However, they will only ever have impact if they maximise and demonstrate the entirety of their strength.

Here are five of the best ways to go about this and avoid smothering vital assets or loosing collective power.

An obvious truth

Time and time again, our research shows that students choose their university based on the courses, with the faculty playing the most crucial of roles. This places a university as an important secondary reference point. As a consequence, the core university brand needs to take into account their faculty and campus activities, ensuring they leverage each other. This means identifying each activities’ specific role and raison d’être. It also means equal parts of give and take. The core brand must give and gain from all the activities.

A new approach

Clearly interpreting their collective ambition means enabling each faculty to tell its own story, promote its own message and use the right visual cues for its market. There’s a world of difference for job-hungry potential students between the working world of engineering and social sciences. They need a brand that takes each distinctive offering and meshes it seamlessly without losing its own, unique identity.

This transformational new approach of layering multiple offerings will prove instrumental in breathing life and meaning into university brands.

A balancing act

It’s vital to remember that there’s no ‘one size fits all’ formula. A blanket style identity will only deliver a bland, unengaging brand that neither appeals nor differentiates. 

Striking a balance between supporting goals, both at an individual and organisational level to providing clarity and relevance to all audiences requires a clear brand hierarchy to capture the university’s key differentiator.

The breadth and depth of it

Conversely, those universities with separate and unlinked brands that focus on each faculty will create silos that hide the collective breadth and depth of what they offer. In so doing, they will be squandering a valuable asset that would help establish the credibility and authenticity of the university.

A clear view

Finally, the core university brand must provide clarity and relevance to all audiences. It should also promote logic, synergy and a sense of order, purpose and direction to the university. Taking the time to carve out a balanced and powerful identity that brings together a university’s unique ‘offerings’ and ensures their individual faculties have distinct identities will have a transformational effect on the way universities are perceived both internally and externally. The rewards are there to be taken.

Max du Bois is founding partner and heads up the strategy team at Spencer du Bois brand consultancy. For more info visit https://spencerdubois.co.uk


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