What struck me when carrying out the research, apart from the generosity of the participants taking part in research in summer 2016, Don’t ask me about the logo. University branding, but not as we know it, was that university brands are hard nuts to crack, but those who persevere benefit enormously.
Brand can be a battleground, but those that get it right can benefit from clarity of purpose and understanding of desired positioning that steers decision-making and attracts students, staff, business and stakeholders who sign up to your shared promise.
Five ideas for better university brands
Here are five things universities should consider when reviewing their brand.
- Brand reviews should impact the overall image and reputation of a university. They should strategically instigate change, including cultural change, and unite audiences, especially staff, in a distinctive shared purpose.
- Branding projects alone appear to have limited impact on a university’s brand because there are often more powerful factors influencing reputation. However, they are valuable if used to signal change or a mismatch with the brand’s reality, the university’s strategy and positioning, and shared perceptions of audiences.
- Reviews of brand and branding should have a collective understanding of expected change and outcome at the outset, driven by the vice-chancellor and senior management team, supported by the governors. The director of marketing and communications should be given full operational responsibility and a brief that goes much wider than brand identity.
- In line with recommendations of other researchers, universities should ‘find out what the institution does well, and present it in an appealing way’. Branding should reflect the universal truths held in the minds of all audiences, and be a consistent and uninterrupted journey, affirmed through experience. The strength of advocacy comes from a shared understanding, enhanced and developed over time.
- Investment in brands and branding benefits from external challenge, yet the conversation should extend beyond the marketing and communications team. Widespread staff, student and stakeholder involvement builds advocacy and a brand that is believable, achievable and relatable.
Our research found five themes, which are shown below.
- Brand is, predominantly, about reputation
- League tables are becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy
- Branding authenticity is the key to success
- Branding strategy should reflect the university as a whole
- 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:
- 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
- Desk research and analysis of recent rebrands by universities and movement within leagues tables
- 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.