Branding authenticity is the key to success — Brand Ethos
27 June 2017 Brand | Brand strategy | Research | Student recruitment | University branding |

Branding authenticity is the key to success

The third theme from Brand Ethos’s university branding research
Branding projects often find inconvenient truths. Peter Mills explains why universities shouldn’t shy away, but look for ways to celebrate them

Branding isn’t about catchy slogans, but is, more importantly, the control of a message that should permeate every fibre of the university.

Marketing and communications, senior leadership and academics should ‘live the brand’ and have the platform to discuss what the university really stands for.

According to participants taking part in research in summer 2016, Don’t ask me about the logo. University branding, but not as we know it, senior leadership is the key driver, the ‘command-and-control tactics’ necessary in the day-to-day implementation.

Feel the brand

Reviewing a brand is not just strategic, but also carries with it empathy. One participant noted that because of the nature of universities, the brand has to be linked to all aspects of the institution, its business strategy, cultural ethos, and vocational versus commercial characteristics.

Not involving staff, in particular, beyond the vice-chancellor and their senior management team, can mean, however, that someone ends up being outside of the process, or feeling as though they are.

Celebrating the truth in the brand

One research participant discussed their work with the brand at a UK university over the past seven years. The approach focused on being a ‘challenger brand’, going back to the university’s founding principles and unpicking the university’s ‘brilliant basics’.

Rather than be embarrassed of the university’s origins, part of their founding philosophy is now described as the ‘[the university’s] spirit, that part of history and present that is tenacious, challenging and bold’.

Discovering these basics, being honest about them and encouraging colleagues, alumni and students to share stories reinforced the university’s authenticity.

It was never about the logo

The participant explained that while the ‘rebranding’ focused initially on student recruitment, it has now been embedded through all marketing and communications channels, but also more deeply within the university, including curriculum review and the alumni programme.

Additionally, the participant discussed the university’s approach to alumni: the idea that university is for life, not just for three or four years. The university has recognised that rather than just potential donors, alumni are their biggest cheerleaders and vital to their strategic branding goals. The aim is to keep people engaged and feeling positive about the university.

Keep it real

University staff, the participant noted, is also pivotal in creating authenticity. Staff must embrace the messages as much as alumni, prospective and current students and other business and community stakeholders.

However, many may resist being part of what they view as a ‘commercial brand’ or ’product’.

Understand academics’ point of voice

The typical professional academic is a subject specialist. Most will value their subject and academic freedom above everything else. University marketers have to understand that, because they need to meet academics on their terms to develop a successful partnership and create long-term buy-in.

Good relationships with academics are fundamental to brand credibility and confidence: they feed and breed within the organisation, facilitating brand ambassadors at all levels and reinforcing confidence externally.

In a nutshell

Everyone should know that brands aren’t about logos. In fact, few vice chancellors want the legacy of being the one that changed the logo. However, understanding the brand, finding its ‘brilliant basics’ and permeating it through every aspect of a university’s business, from new build to student recruitment, from curricula to alumni events, helps fix a shared differentiating positioning for the university in the minds of its audiences.

This is the third of five themes that emerged from our research. We’re addressing the remaining three themes in blogs over the coming weeks:

  1. Brand is, predominantly, about reputation
  2. League tables are becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy
  3. Branding authenticity is the key to success
  4. Branding strategy should reflect the university as a whole
  5. The future may prove even tougher.

More about our research

This is truncated version of a fuller report. Contact us to hear the whole story.

The author would like to thank the generous contributions of Gary Hughes, Ivor Lawrence and Vanessa Potter who participated in interviews and gave me insights and stories to support their views. He would also like to thank Helen Coleman at Brunel University London for commissioning the research and contributing to the final report, and her assistant, Becky Moore in gathering resources. Thanks also to Claire Rigby, who facilitated the introductions to Gary and Ivor.

Methodology and objectives
Brand Ethos, a brand strategy consultancy was commissioned to prepare an independent report for Brunel University London to investigate and make recommendations about good practice in the branding of competitive universities, particularly those that fall outside the top 25 in national league tables.

Research found that universities, whether single- or multi-sited, ‘suffer’ from a proliferation of sub brands and on-campus promoters of events, activities, clubs and societies, and the general running of a university. Most brand, branding and design experts agree that this can weaken the strength of a parent brand. Research aimed to determine from a group of university ‘brand owners’ how they mitigate the proliferation of ‘off-brand’ collateral and communications on campus (both printed and online), and good practice for encouraging content generators to be compliant.

Three approaches were undertaken:

  1. Reflective analysis of the experience of the researcher, Peter Mills, brand strategist at Brand Ethos, of working with universities, including Royal Holloway, University of London and Brunel University London
  2. Desk research and analysis of recent rebrands by universities and movement within leagues tables
  3. Primary research among three leading directors currently working in the university sector and having responsibility for university rebranding exercises.

Desk research, using data obtainable with online searches. The three main university league tables were considered: The Guardian University Guide 2016; The Times/Sunday Times Good University Guide 2016; and The Complete University Guide 2016. Branding refreshes in the previous three years for a university were noted and compared with a movement up or standing still position, within at least two of the guides.

Face-to-face and telephone interviews lasting between 60 to 90 minutes with university ‘brand owners’.

Research aimed to understand the following:

  • The perceived value in consistent branding
  • The value of branding by senior members of the university’s management
  • Branding management
  • Factors that enable successes and achievements
  • Barriers, challenges and issues that brand owners face in implementing a consistent brand identity across all university communications
  • Compromises made and why
  • Ambitions for the future

Participants were drawn from an existing network of senior marketing and communications directors and included:

  • Gary Hughes, former director of marketing, communications and development at Manchester Metropolitan University, and interim director of marketing and communications at Leeds Trinity University
  • Ivor Lawrence, director and interim director roles at Liverpool John Moores University, University of Wolverhampton, Manchester Business School and Sheffield Hallam University
  • Vanessa Potter, director of communications and external relations, at University of Essex.

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