Above all, participants taking part in research in summer 2016, Don’t ask me about the logo. University branding, but not as we know it, agreed that support of the vice-chancellor was essential to a brand’s successful implementation.
The vice-chancellor and management team were identified as the conveyors of the overall strategy, those who have to buy into the brand and articulate it.
However, participants added that the conversation must be allowed to take place lower down the organisation, so that others feel they have an influence and can buy into it, too.
Not for the fainthearted
Building a brand takes time.
It’s no wonder that the process can be frustratingly long and prove challenging. Investigating a university’s identity is a bit like soul searching; difficult questions and tension may arise, and a vice-chancellor’s own vision and agenda of the university may be challenged.
As a result, members of the senior team often withdraw from the process and fall back on corporate identity.
Confidence maker, confidence giver
Participants all reiterated that confidence across all levels of the university was vital for the success of the university’s brand.
Beyond strategic decision-making, confidence building should include training staff and crafting the university’s communications and environment.
Universities have to work hard to constantly shape, manage and control their confidence and how it is presented. Research participants recommended the help of professional marketers at the top table to help achieve this.
Consider the wider family
Universities should also have close working relationships with student unions and their commercial arms to support their overall ambitions, rather than aim to differentiate themselves. However, this should be considered on a case-by-case basis.
Particular reference was made to art schools, which generally compete with (mostly unaligned) schools nationally and internationally, while business schools mostly compete with aligned schools and therefore benefit from close brand association.
Confidence allows you take control
Generally, the principal elements of success, participants noted, was the control of branding and messaging. However, one participant added that faculties and their teams should be allowed to hold the reins, to some extent.
For instance, there are thousands of daily interactions between staff, students and stakeholders outside the remit of the marketing department, which add to the richness and character of a university and are fundamental in shaping the university’s brand and reputation.
Colleagues need to be trusted that they aren’t negatively impacting the reputation of the university, or themselves, by offering them guidance and practical support.
Work with the outliers
Participants agreed that there are always ‘compromises’. There are limits to how much marketing and communications team can control what happens at a faculty or course level.
One participant noted that even if a university has a clear strategy and management of channels, anomalies from staff may arise, such as partnerships or sponsorships with various organisations. While it may be an outlier in relation to planned strategic activities, it may be important to staff and advantageous to the university’s brand in the long term.
In a nutshell
Strong brands require strong, sustained leadership. Involvement is not a one-time visit, but a continuous journey. Brand needs to be a servant of the university’s overall strategies, business and academic. Buy-in across the university, including its ‘non-core business’, is vital to achieve a coherent whole.
This is the penultimate of five themes that emerged from our research. We’re addressing the remaining theme and our summary recommendations in blogs over the coming weeks:
- 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.
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