Five ways to ensure your university has a strong brand

Max du Bois on how to avoid cultivating a bland, un-engaging brand, ahead of THE event on university branding

September 19, 2016
Personal connection with students
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Universities should tailor brand enhancement strategies to students' needs

Register now to attend the THE event on university brands in Berkeley, California, 21 September 2016


It is ironic that after years of shunning branding, those universities that are finally becoming adept at tailoring their unique identity are creating an imbalance that risks undermining all the hard effort, money and hope put into developing a strong brand identity. 

Universities who have turned to branding as a tool to compete more effectively and drive recruitment and funding often place all their focus on promoting their core identity, without allowing for individual faculty and campus brands to be promoted.

This results in an imbalance as they snuff out these increasingly vital and differentiating beacons. 

Perversely, many universities’ individual faculties send out their own messages, promoting their own strengths. Some also develop standalone research projects and initiatives. Far from helping the university, or faculty, this frequently results in unlinked, mixed messages and confusion that ultimately weaken the core brand and prevent a university’s brand from benefiting from all its activities. 

And in a world saturated with communication, these individual messages are often drowned out. 

So what’s the right balance? You will only ever have impact if you maximise and demonstrate the entirety of your institution's strength. In other words, you need to embrace the diverse complexity of your institutions with a ruthless clarity.

Five of the best ways to show off your university's collective power

An obvious truth

Our research shows time and again that students choose their university based on the courses, with the faculty playing the most crucial of roles. Within their mental clusters, this places the university’s core brand as an important, but secondary reference, "quality mark" point. 

As a consequence, the core university brand needs to take into account their faculty and campus activities, ensuring they leverage each other. This means identifying each activities’ specific role and raison d’être. It also means equal parts of give and take. The core brand must give and gain from all the activities. 

A new approach

Clearly interpreting their collective ambition means enabling each faculty to tell its own story, promote its own message and use the right visual cues for its market. 

There’s a world of difference for job hungry potential students between the working world of engineering and social sciences. They need a brand that takes each distinctive offering and meshes it seamlessly without loosing its own unique identity. 

This transformational new approach of layering multiple offerings will prove instrumental in breathing life and meaning into university brands. 

A balancing act

An important thing to remember is that there is no one-size-fits-all formula. A blanket style identity will only deliver a bland, un-engaging brand that neither appeals nor differentiates.  

Striking a balance between supporting goals both at an individual and organisational level and providing clarity and relevance to all audiences requires a clear brand hierarchy to capture the university’s key differentiator. 

The breadth and depth of it

Conversely, those universities with separate and unlinked brands that focus on each faculty risk creating silos that hide the collective breadth and depth of what they offer. 

In so doing they could squander a valuable asset that would help establish the credibility and authenticity of the university. 

A clear view

Finally, the core university brand must provide clarity and relevance to all audiences, it should also promote logic, synergy and a sense of order, purpose and direction to the university. 

Taking the time to carve out a balanced and powerful identity that brings together a university’s unique "offerings" and ensures their individual faculties have distinct identities will have a transformational effect on the way universities are perceived both internally and externally. 

Collectively, this means moving a brand from a dogged, and often ill-fitting philosophy of consistency, to a much richer one of coherence, celebrating the complex nature of these institutions, forging this into clarity and an ability to wrap round audiences. The rewards are there to be taken.

Max du Bois is executive director of branding firm Spencer du Bois. THE is hosting a university branding conference in California on 21 September 2016.

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