To build digital brands, universities need to relinquish control

Universities should use online platforms for conversations, not broadcasting, says Max du Bois

April 10, 2016
Letters saying stand out

Tomorrow’s universities are being reshaped as I write this. Next year’s students are already fundamentally different in attitude and mindset to those who were making their university choice just five years ago.

These students don’t want the “polished” version of what a university can offer and they don’t want a cookie-cutter response to their questions.  The real experience of a university is already being created via social media forums. 

This is why, if universities continue using traditional means of marketing themselves, they risk becoming faceless or – worse still – irrelevant.

In a world where league tables often act as judge, jury and executioner, universities need to delve deep into their hearts and define unique facets that will resonate with an increasingly savvy and critical audience.

This communication of what makes a university less like educational wallpaper and more “just what I was looking for” comes from many elements that are all within a university’s power to improve.

Looking at the current maturity of universities’ digital brands shows a remarkable opportunity for the forward thinkers and an established order waiting to be upset. As with so many other markets, those who master the ability to connect will reap benefits and those Luddites that don't will slip into irrelevance. 

We identified five key states of university brands in a hyperconnected world and we set out to gain a clearer picture not just of the current situation, but, more importantly, of what needs to be done to turn the existing digital apathy into a transformative force for change.

Business as Usual defines those who regard digital as just another communications channel. This is where digital is used to disseminate print-based content in an unengaging digital 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. This is where digital brands are being used to pull all the various silos together in a battle to provide coherence and clarity to the outside world. This tries to cure the proliferation of fragmented, incoherent messages, with an overabundance of websites, campaign sites and various social media handles as each stakeholder fights their corner. 

Eighty per cent of universities fall in one or the other of these two states.

The Supercharger occurs as we move up the scale of efficient use of digital. 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 university brands that genuinely communicate well with their audiences. 

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 connectivity.

Which brings us to the fourth digital brand state, that of using brand as dialogue. This requires shifting away from the dictatorial “I” of brand and moving into what “you”, the student, want of the brand. In so doing we can move away from the current reliance on mass personalisation and use big data to craft tailored communications channels.

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 all stakeholders in the co-creation process , the university taps into their combined ambitions, wisdom and passions to define what the brand is about. This empowers the student to become part of the brand. This is using digital to revolutionise the way a brand is shaped, to transform it into something living and therefore fundamentally more powerful.

For a higher education organisation to thrive in an environment of change, spun ever faster by technology, what are the behaviours we should address to make best use of technology?

A change in attitude to assets and knowledge is a first step. The thriving university of the future will always retain its own unique approach to education but it should allow itself to be shaped by its audiences and to be responsive to society’s needs.

As terrifying as it may sound, relinquishing control is part of the necessary change in behaviour that a university needs to accept before being able to become a transformational organisation. 

To evolve the digital maturity of a university means shifting away from siloed executions focused on a particular platform and getting involved, gathering insight and co-creating a living breathing brand that is relevant to the very people who will be using it because it was created by them.

In our experience, the focus needs to be on sharing rather than selling, joining the conversation rather than taking over the microphone. It is no longer about the individual, it is about the group as a whole and it is as far away from good old-fashioned persuasion as a marketing team can get.

This shift means universities generously handing over the reins and allowing their students and academics to use digital to converse rather than broadcast. 

Max du Bois is executive director of Spencer du Bois.

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Reader's comments (4)

I agree with the general sentiment Max. The very notion of 'brand' in universities is socio-culturally problematic in academic already facing up to the challenge of improving the way that learning & teaching is delivered. The idea of 'co-creating' a university brand with students is a laudable one (indeed we've co-created one in support of student entrepreneurs here in Portsmouth) but this is no excuse for taking brand leadership. University brands - however 'broadcast' through digital channels - still maintain an element of aspiration for prospective and current students that is built on long-established reputation. It is when there is a mismatch between this reputation and the student experience in the lecture theatre or studio that problems occur. Universities like our own do accomplish this necessary balance between broadcasting and co-creating - from lecturing to researching. Nevertheless, students still clamour for voices of authority, of credibility, of expertise. The creation of a university 'brand' is a socially-shaped one that enrols all its communities. However, like any other branded product or service, a university brand requires vision and leadership primarily from its executive sponsors. Co-creation is all well and good, but it is an approach to learning (and brand-building) that alone a Supercharger it will not make. Finally a comment on this notion of 'brand'. Like you, I know a lot about brand-building and design thinking. How academic communities (in particular) perceive this notion of 'brands' is itself a major obstacle to overcome. Experienced design thinkers acknowledge that when we talk about 'brands' we are describing not only the visual manifestation through corporate identity but also the tone-of-voice through our marketing and communications. Importantly, we are also talking about the personality of an organisation - how it interacts with its clients and partners; how it acts out its values. Extolling the virtues of 'brand' to a community of sceptics and developing dynamic global university brands will only be possible, I argue, through bold leadership and inspiring design. We might enrol students, alumni and staff in the co-creation process, but ultimately we're all looking for inspiration and motivation emergent from design- and people-led leaders.
Business as usual at UoP then?
Sorry but I have just read this again and before I go further I should state that I am a paid up card carrying post graduate students at UoP... Now having read this nonsense a second time I am actually sadend that some one would go to the bother of writing such drivel and given my fees are paying their wages I am even more appalled. In fact I am dumbfounded which I guess is a little better than just being dumb (sorry will I have to leave the chamber for the rest of today's sitting?).
Thank you for the piece Max. Brilliant and precise and comes at the expense of hard won experience I am sure. I have spent over ten years in the Canadian university sector. Universities have been ripe for the picking by big branding agencies and led down the shadowy path of increasing advertising to support growth. The ironies abound. Universities, the connectors of research, teaching and service to define new paths forward are the last to make the change.

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