Strong brand to boost student numbers

Richard Gillingwater, Director of Brand Strategy at Accrue Fulton, looks at the best ways to attract student applications

The introduction of tuition fees has sharpened the commercial focus of the UK’s universities. The removal of the cap on student numbers that the Chancellor announced in last year’s Autumn Statement has the potential to take this commercialisation to a whole new level and to transform the sector altogether.

Experts predict that the change in legislation could increase numbers by 20% or 180,000 students. Up and down the country universities are preparing for this change, not only developing facilities but also refining their offer to the young people who will be their students – and revenue streams – of tomorrow.

It is moment of both opportunity and challenge for higher education, a sector where not so long ago marketing meant putting together a quarterly newsletter and organising alumni events. Yet there is a vanguard of universities that are recognising the moment and embracing previously unthinkable notions of branding and marketing.

Not advertising soap powder

Among those in that vanguard is the University of Gloucestershire, a teaching-led institution with campuses in Gloucester and Cheltenham. For its 2015 undergraduate student recruitment campaign it brought in our agency to help create a creative concept and execution that is bold, contemporary and distinctive that will achieve cut-through in a crowded market, and so ‘sell’ the institution and its courses to prospective applicants.

Branding an organisation like a university is not like branding a product. You cannot approach the task as if you are advertising a soap powder, and yet all too often people apply product branding techniques to an institutional environment. They look for hard features – unique selling propositions – that can be evidenced consistently.

This is not how you brand an institution which has multiple diverse audiences, offers and stakeholders, and trying to apply those standard branding principles is ineffective and ultimately damaging. Gloucestershire took an alternative approach: ‘Brand Texture™’.

Another approach – Brand Texture™

Brand Texture™ is about understanding how a brand makes people feel, and the emotional bias with which they make decisions and engage with brands. How they feel about something influences their behaviour, and there are four key elements that make up that feeling.

The first is the big idea that expresses a higher purpose. This is the carrier bag, the throwaway line or concept that people remember and can build association around. In itself this carrier bag is of little value, but it gives people something concrete to hold onto, and into which they can begin to place ideas, values, and associations.

The second element of a Brand’s Texture™ is the narrative. This is the underlying story and tone of voice that runs through everything it does. The final two are the visual language and the user experience, which create a series of touch points along the stakeholder journey that make what you say believable.

Finding Gloucestershire’s brand texture

For the University of Gloucestershire the brand campaign personality needed to be aspirational but authentic and aligned to the University’s brand values, purpose and culture. So, the first step was a series of engagement workshops with representatives from the University’s marketing and academic teams.

The collaborative approach continued via a brand mapping exercise using a series of creative mood boards that helped the University select a particular approach which focused on a vibrant ‘look and feel’ and call to action based on the proposition of ‘Fast forward to your future’.

This message is reflected in a series of designs featuring brightly coloured vertical stripes, bold chevrons and impactful typography. The overall sense is one of real dynamism, with the premise that an undergraduate degree at Gloucestershire, coupled with the University’s excellent personal support scheme, will prepare young people for successful futures, whichever paths they decide to pursue.

Increased applications

For a university to invest in something as alien and vague as branding is a brave move. Yet Gloucestershire’s investment is already reaping rewards in the form of increased Open Day enquiries and a host of positive comments about the campaign from both internal and external audiences.

As the removal of the cap on student numbers draws ever nearer more and more universities will recognise the transformation this could have on the sector, and as a result we can expect to see a greater number looking to follow Gloucestershire’s example and discover, and then communicate, their brand textures.

Richard Gillingwater, Director of Brand Strategy at Accrue Fulton. A strategic and creative thinker, Richard has spent over 20 years helping commercial and educational organisations find better and more compelling ways to tell their story.

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