If your university brand disappeared overnight, would anyone miss it?

Research suggests that most brands are instantly forgettable – but what can universities do to stay memorable? Max du Bois takes a look

June 20, 2017
Brand sign
Source: iStock

Universities have come a long way towards recognising the value of a brand. However, while some do an excellent job explaining what they are good at, there are still so many that fall at the first hurdle when highlighting what they are good for. 

It seems that everyone is trying to win students over by using the same statistics. Just how many universities have similar high employability rates? Is every one really a world leader? In terms of communicating with students, universities appear to have two speeds: those with content that rarely gets refreshed, and those that offer a confusing deluge of unfocused content, from research news and trends to more banally smiling graduates.

Media agency Havas released their global brand analysis earlier this year, and the results made uncomfortable reading. Some 84 per cent of people expect brands to produce content, yet 60 per cent of all content created by brands is poor, irrelevant or fails to deliver. It gets worse. The research claims that if 74 per cent of global brands disappeared overnight, no one would miss them. In the UK that figure rises to 94 per cent. 

So how well are university brands performing? Are they as meaningful as they can be? And, is being meaningful the single most important factor?

Understanding what sort of content works for a university’s target audience requires going beyond blandly functional content, but stopping short of becoming too superficial and entertaining (like so many consumer brands). 

It is a fine line to tread. But not if you have defined your brand and what you stand for. Getting the balance right will reap its rewards. Falling short will mean sliding towards that dismal 60 per cent of content that fails to lift a university brand to anything near above average. 

So what exactly are the most meaningful ways for universities to engage and connect? 


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Many brands across a wide range of sectors appear to believe that they need to entertain to be memorable. As a consequence, there is a clutter of clever campaigns or videos, often individually good but lacking the connection to a deeper brand differentiation. Missing out the more powerful links to a university’s defining purpose results in inadvertently distracting and diluting the brand message. 

Treading the fine line between entertaining and inspiring is about combining the required priority content with the real life values that make the target audience feel understood, connected and motivated. 

This brings us to the need for a university to ensure its communications are not just meaningful, but salient. While we can be busy building positive sentiment by delivering on a meaningful brand promise, the results may still disappoint if we don’t also ensure that we are noticeable, and communicating important information. 

Salience is not simply top-of-mind awareness that occurs when a university name is familiar. To be effective, salience has to mesh with meaningfulness. This will define what the university is good for and will ensure it doesn’t languish as a clicked-on but ultimately ignored option, or a shortlisted but second choice.

Of course, nailing your colours to the mast in this way has its dangers. Universities need to accept that they will not be right for everyone. One of the basic rules of brand is “go for everyone, get no one”, especially in the changing landscape of potential students’ needs. 

Being meaningful, salient and memorable requires drawing from a number of core factors that are individual to each university. It combines their location, their staff, their ethos, the reason they were founded and the reason they are popular today. It most certainly must be inspired by the people it is currently targeting and this will require regular tweaking and updating as this evolves. 

And it will ask two fundamental questions of its target audience: how can it better contribute to their lives and their future, and how can it become the most meaningful brand for their students’ current needs. 

The dichotomy is obvious. As we strive to combine salience with meaningfulness, highlighting points of differentiation along the way, it is all too easy to fall into one of the biggest branding traps – content clutter. 

Max du Bois is executive director of branding firm Spencer du Bois.

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