The state of things

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


According to Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum we are on the brink of a technological revolution that will fundamentally alter the way we live, work, and relate to one another. As Schwab remarks, every country and every sector needs to understand their changing environment, challenge the assumptions of their operating teams, and relentlessly and continuously innovate.

We are already seeing this play out in higher education. The ways in which people choose to learn and their methods of selecting where they learn have changed dramatically. Tomorrow’s universities are being re-shaped. Universities need to take ownership of this process, to ensure they fully embrace the unprecedented growth opportunities of the ‘digital age’, rather than letting hyperconnectivity erode their brand messaging. 

For all their academic abilities, many universities seem stuck in the “jurassic phase” of the current technological revolution. They dabble with different forms of social media, run banner advertisements and hold open days, but communicating what makes them less middle of the road and more “just what I was looking for” may currently feel out of their hands.

By involving their target audience in the co-creation process, the university taps into their combined ambitions, wisdom and passions to define what the brand is all about

Young people want true insight on a university. They want other students’ perspectives instead of what the university wants them to see. As a consequence, chat rooms, websites and word-of-mouth have become important sources of information. Potential students will develop a view of the brand and reputation of the universities they explore, so how do institutions ensure it’s the one they want them to have?

To get a better understanding of the situation, we honed in on the current maturity of universities’ digital brand states. Of course they vary, but they all share one common factor: their lack of differentiation means they risk becoming faceless. 

We identified five key digital brand states and set out to gain a clearer picture of the current situation universities find themselves in, and, more importantly, what needs to be done to turn digital into a transformative force for change for universities and their brands 

‘Business as Usual’ defines those who regard digital as just another communications channel. Digital is used to disseminate print based content in an un-engaging online format. The student’s experience here is one of having to bypass an awful lot of clutter on their way to choosing the right establishment 

‘The Wrapper’ is the next stage on. Digital brands are being used to pull all the various silos together in a bid to provide coherence and clarity to the outside world. This tries to cure the proliferation of fragmented, incoherent messages, with an over abundance of websites, campaign sites and various social media handles as each stakeholder fights their corner. This is often piled up on an equally prolific set of non digital, siloed channels and leads inevitably to incoherence of brand message.

‘The Supercharger’ emerges as we move up the scale of efficient use of digital. Here we find brands that tailor their messages to wrap around and actually engage their audiences with the right story through the right channel. These are the brands that acknowledge the different needs of their varying audiences (such as students, researchers and business partners) and relate to their individual ‘journeys’.

Even here however we are a long way off disrupting the sector in a truly dynamic way. This is still ‘brand as broadcast’, a far cry from brand using the full power of digital connectivity. 

Which brings us to the fourth digital brand state, using ‘Brand as Dialogue’. This requires a shift away from the dictatorial ‘I’ of brand and moving into ‘you’, what ‘you’, the audience, want of the brand. In so doing we can move away from the current reliance on mass personalisation and use big data to craft much more tailored communications. This is where universities could benefit from taking a leaf out of the commercial sector’s book – who do this very well indeed.

However, there is still a higher state of brand being. This is the fifth brand state, which occurs when connectivity is used to ‘Co-produce the Brand’By involving their target audience in the co-creation process, the university taps into their combined ambitions, wisdom and passions to define what the brand is all about. This empowers the stakeholders to become part of the brand. This is using digital’s power to revolutionise the way we construct our brands, to transform them into something living and therefore fundamentally more powerful.

In the second issue, we will look at how to capitalise on the evolving digital maturity of universities’ individual brands and identify what needs to be done to turn digital into a transformative force for change.


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