University branding needs a radical gear shift

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Earlier this year, I called for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to police universities’ marketing claims much more aggressively. And now it has.

This followed me, acting for University of Reading, agreeing with the ASA to phase out our claim to be in the global “top 1%” – based on a top 200 place in the Times Higher Education and QS World University Rankings. It was a fair cop, as I wrote in the summer. It is right the ASA has now investigated more potential breaches of its own Code – and now it seems the “top 1%” claim, as at last, been killed off for good.

This week’s rulings and forthcoming new guidance are a clear signal to universities about being responsible, fair and honest advertisers. It’s a positive step, and comes alongside alongside the new Office for Students proposing that it will ensure universities’ full compliance with consumer protection law.

However, all of this has exposed universities’ limited ambition when it comes to building their brand. That same lack of ambition is clear for all to see when marketing teams clumsily cite national and global league tables. Let’s face it, these rankings are a set of random metrics, randomly weighted, combined using opaque scoring methodology.

And they show enormous, dubious swings year-on-year. For example, in this year’s Sunday Times Good University Guide, Staffordshire University rose 29 places and City University London dropped 25 places. A stopped clock tells the right time twice a day – no wonder most universities can claim they are in the top 10 for something, at some point.

Three and a tree

Too many universities still see developing a brand as being about making pretty logos and “better PR”. And, I suspect, many governing bodies feel all their issues would be solved if they raised their league table placing or joined The Russell Group. Institutions talk-the-talk on brand differentiation, but lose their nerve. Too many revert to safe, tried and tested marketing and PR – generic straplines, identikit mission statements and hackneyed ‘three and a tree’ visuals. This is not limited to UK – the ‘Honest University’ spoof in the US has had 11 million YouTube views is painfully true.

Yet distinctive positioning is the be-all and end-all in commercial success and long-term sustainability. That demands university strategic planners go back to first principles. They need a deep insight and understanding of values and attitudes across the entire organisation. And only then can they powerfully articulate a university’s purpose, mission and values. 

The size and scale of a modern university makes that complicated though.

Multiple brands

Universities are corporate, service and employer brands. Together they offer thousands of taught courses, with tens of thousands of modules – virtually, physically, blended. They fundraise tens of millions from the private, public and third sectors. They operate professional services – everything from catering, cleaning and estates to accommodation, careers and welfare services. They manage an enormous range of commercial, industry and political partnerships. They own subsidiary businesses, have big stakes in spin-outs, are landowners and landlords. All this makes them very tough, perhaps impossible, to brand within a single wrapper.

Yet the brand positioning in the sector likes to avoid this complexity. It is boiled down to the undergraduate student journey – and that focuses the decisions on improving the business operation for recruiting, teaching and then maintaining contact with students. Yet this vision sells the sector short. Universities are a complex ecosystem with many parties having vested interests and stakes in its success. Brand strategy cannot be imposed from the top-down – it cannot be dogmatic or linear. It needs to be agile, flexible and constantly evolving – created and ‘owned’ in partnerships with all these constituencies.

What are universities anyway?

The current European university model is now an uncomfortable mix of the old 19th century hierarchical Humboldtian vision writ large by 21st century massification, corporatisation and globalisation. University leaders are battling in vain to retain their role as the guardians of objective facts, reason and evidence or the protectors of core liberal, democratic values.

Digital and post-digital revolution means new spheres of knowledge and influence are emerging day-by-day. Social networking is now integrated fully into our lives. Brands use data-driven customer relation management and programmatics to drive tight personalisation – which will be extended through artificial intelligence, augmented reality and virtual reality technology.

We live in an age of genuine engagement and conversation, not one-way broadcast. Universities need to build an emotional connection with audiences – not simply ‘broadcast’ shiny visuals or headline messages.

From the top!

Branding is not for everyone. It will be criticised and picked apart. It will require long-term investment. And it needs support from the top down. If you don’t have a vice chancellor willing to stand and argue “This is who we are. It is my driving passion and mission. And I want to work with you to make it happen” (and if no one is willing to stand by their side), then it will be doomed to failure.

Brand infuses every single aspect of an organisation – its culture, its leadership and its governance. It must be a set of clear, guiding set of principles which sets out a clear social purpose, values and mission, projecting its entire community as a force for good. You can’t employ a PR firm to do that alone. And just shouting louder is not the way to cut through the constant noise of social media, people are sophisticated in sniffing out marketing cliches. The recent flat footedness of the sector in justifying vice chancellor pay, debt, tuition fees and value for money is a stark reminder of a continued failing to strike the right tone.

Introducing your students

University leaders need to understand their own students – the “Generation Z” cohort born between the mid-1990s to mid-2000s who grew up up post 9/11, post-ISIS, post-Gulf War, post financial crash, post-recession and austerity. They will be working longer, have lower pensions and struggle to afford to buy their own homes. They are unlikely to have a job for life, but face stagnant wages, and in-work poverty. This is also the generation that is competing with AI and automation.

Unsurprisingly they are losing trust in political and corporate hierarchies – and instead rely on personal networks for their news, advice and validation. They value, align, and identify online with value-led social movements, organisations and products.

So smart universities will move away from being seen to obsess over league table rankings, pile up student tuition income, or strategise how best to game the TEF, REF and forthcoming KEF. They will look more deeply at the social capital they create – and identify the values which tie prospects, students, academics, alumni, professional staff and external partners together.

Then universities will be able to harness Generation Z’s energy to project the community as force for good – fighting for social justice; driving forward economic justice; combating intolerance and promoting equality. Small, specialist, niche institutions should embrace this attitude as a real strength – it’s the traditional broad-based universities in the squeezed middle which will struggle for definition.

Kissinger may or may not have once said that university politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small. But the stakes are no longer small. Ministers are clear that the government will not bail out failing institutions. A university cannot spin its way to survival. But a clear, intelligent differentiated brand strategy can set it on its way.

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