Brands' central station

Universities are brands whether they like it or not. In an increasingly competitive global marketplace, the right strategy can enhance institutions’ reputations and allow them to stand out from the crowd. Here, experts from marketing, law and academia explain the power and practice of branding

March 7, 2013

Ian Pearman

CEO of Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, the UK’S largest advertising agency

Branding and academia may seem like uncomfortable bedfellows. Creating a brand is a fundamentally reductionist process, distilling complex concepts into short words and simple visuals, while academia celebrates detail and discourse. Branding is commonly thought to be about short-term commercial benefit and thus wildly at odds with the longer-term values at the heart of academia.

But in reality, these caricatures overstate the differences. First, brands are deeply complicated conceptual structures built through every interaction consumers have with them - a logo is simply a shortcut. Second, strong brands are not built just for short-term sales uplifts. In the past 30 years there has been an extraordinary shift in the basis of value creation, from tangible assets (property, equipment, stock and so on) to intangible ones (employee skills, patents, systems and brands): indeed, many studies have estimated that the tangible assets of businesses globally account for as little as 25 per cent of the value investors place on them. Intangible assets - including brands - account for the remaining 75 per cent.

Wherever the target audience of an organisation faces a choice of alternative competitors, branding is incredibly important for justifying price, avoiding commoditisation, attracting and retaining talent and ultimately, resisting rivals. So a properly constructed brand is essential for any university competing in the modern global education market.

With this in mind, here are six observations about how the best commercial brands have been built. Some will be more relevant or surprising than others, but all hopefully demonstrate that branding requires more than regimental guidelines: powerful brands inspire as much as they cohere.

The importance of ‘purpose’

The best brands, said leading ad agency veteran Jean-Marie Dru, are not nouns but verbs: Nike exhorts, Benetton protests, Apple creates. For consumers, these brands fulfil a purpose beyond mere product offerings: as marketing strategist Maribeth Kuzmeski’s book …And the Clients Went Wild! discusses, Revlon does not sell cosmetics as much as “hope”.

For universities, it may not be possible - or even beneficial - to try to encapsulate their role in a single word, but it is nonetheless instructive for them to be clear about their purpose and whether this answers to what applicants truly want. (Future employability? A social circle where they fit in? Three years of hedonism?) These questions put the spotlight on the emotions behind the decisions people make - factors that neuroscience and modern psychology have shown determine our judgements much more than rational thought.

Fame versus anxiety

According to behavioural economics, the role of branding increases when purchases become “asymmetric” - that is, when a buyer’s personal outlay is greater than their level of rational assurance. For example, laptops are expensive, but it is difficult when you are standing in Currys to judge if a product’s quality will match what is claimed. In this context, a brand’s fame helps to suggest that promises will be kept.

As the UK’s Institute of Practitioners in Advertising recently put it: “If a brand is famous, people assume it has the endorsement of others.” Consequently, buyers ease their anxiety by turning to brands they are more familiar with.

Academia is especially asymmetric: university requires significant outlays in the form of time, energy and money, while the standard of facilities or the social scene is not certain at the start. This asymmetry is partly assuaged by league tables or peer recommendation, but fame can play a vital role, too, particularly if the brand’s familiarity has been built up over time.

Pre point of purchase relations

The link between familiarity and saleability can work particularly well for aspirational brands that reach people in their formative years. To use an industry anecdote: Len Heath, founder of British advertising agency KMPH, was perhaps giving the day job too much respect when he claimed that he was selling his industry shares and buying an Aston Martin because of an ad he had read. “But the point is,” he explained, “I saw the advertisement when I was 14.” It is easy to imagine that the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race has a similar impact. The brand connotations of heri- tage and status implied by the event - alongside further evidence of the universities’ fame - can only resonate with young, ambitious minds, whether they like rowing or not.

Implicit communication

In 1916, Coca-Cola set out to create a bottle that “a person could recognise even if they felt it in the dark”, according to The Man behind the Bottle by Norman Dean, the son of the bottle’s designer, Earl R. Dean. Nowadays, progressive brands are similarly trying to communicate their distinction not by simply advertising their products, but also by using technology to develop products that advertise implicitly.

For example, Nike+ FuelBand - the 2012 winner of the Titanium Grand Prix at Cannes, arguably the most prestigious award in advertising - is a wristwatch that builds the brand’s sporting credentials by helping people to track their activity - monitoring calories burned, setting future goals and competing with friends.

As Stefan Olander, vice-president of digital sport at Nike, told Adweek.com: “The products and services are becoming the marketing.” Of course, such marketing is only sought out and appreciated if people find it beneficial.

Act generously

The digital world offers an increasing number of ways to engage consumer attention while simultaneously increasing the ability of consumers to respond if that attention is abused. As a result, modern brands are obliged to provide something useful, entertaining or memorable - in short, to think and act “generously”.

For example, Fiat’s eco:Drive (an app that helps owners drive more efficiently) and Tate Modern’s Tate Tracks, which offered gallery visitors the chance to listen to specially commissioned songs when viewing paintings, worked backwards from audience interests to figure out a credible role for the brand.

For universities, this means asking: what “products” (lectures, academics, research papers, facilities) can we provide that are relevant to our audience? What experience do such products generate? And who exactly are our audiences?

Right fit for relevant audiences

Universities have several groups to consider: first, the existing body of academics and students, who - through their day-to-day experience of the university - should ideally accumulate enough enthusiasm to identify with and support their university “brand”. In a world of growing online social media, any such peer-to-peer recommendation has increasing impact.

Second, if alumni feel like they can benefit from retaining contact with the university community (for example, through networking events or industry-specific lectures), they are more likely to become ambassadors.

Third are the potential students. Here, universities need to embrace new communication channels that are not only familiar to this group but also allow for richer interaction beyond the prospectus: interactive virtual campus tours (such as Yale University’s YouVisit) or the chance to “shadow” a current student through social media being just two examples. The emphasis in each case is on providing the university’s “brand experience” rather than simply communicating its brand message. The latter can seem reductive or hyperbolic; the former is often richer and more likely to generate word-of-mouth support.

To implement any of these principles, short-term demands, competing internal interests or other ingrained attitudes probably will have to be overcome. It is easy, of course, to spout theory when far away from the practicalities. But as John Stuart, former chief executive of Quaker Oats, put it decades ago: “If this business were split up, I would give you the land and bricks and mortar, and I would keep the brands.”

With the evolution of higher education, there is good reason to heed his philosophy.

Université Paris-Sorbonne (Paris IV) webpage

David Copping
Senior associate at Farrer & Co LLP

In the strict legal sense, a university’s “brand” consists of a combination of its name, associated goodwill, related design elements and reputation. In the UK, these intangible elements are protected by a range of rights including trademarks, copyright, design rights and the law of defamation. The exact nature of these rights differs across the globe, but most countries will offer some level of legal protection.

The brand as an intangible asset can be of real commercial value for a university, whether directly through licensing agreements or indirectly by attracting high-calibre students, donors and collaborative projects.

The strength of the brand both depends upon and feeds into the success of the institution itself. If a university thrives, the value of its brand will increase, in turn creating a virtuous feedback loop as academics, students and funding are drawn in. But the reverse is also true: failures of compliance or strategy can tarnish and even destroy this key asset, trapping the institution in a downward spiral.

An increasingly competitive international environment is forcing institutions to adopt a more coordinated and strategic approach to branding. But some aspects of the universities themselves can make this difficult.

Their decentralised nature, for example, can make it harder to adopt a single coherent approach to brand management. This is especially true where different parts of a university are evolving in different ways (such as when a research department becomes a leader in its field and seeks to establish a distinct brand identity).

Major donors and sponsors that insist on the joint branding of departments and facilities with their names can also pose challenges. Such requests raise a number of difficult legal questions around who owns the new or combined name, whether the university can impose any restrictions on the wider use of the title, and the extent to which the university is bound to comply with the requests and demands of the party providing the funding.

Nowadays, most universities are undertaking a range of collaborative activities in which their brands are used, including joint ventures, degree validation and overseas campuses, e-learning, executive education programmes and technology transfer arrangements. All these activities are likely to involve licensing the university’s brand on some level.

To avoid brand damage in these scenarios, the university should: perform thorough due diligence on third parties to whom any rights are assigned or licensed; check whether and how intellectual property rights are protected in the relevant territory; agree a robust contract, to be reinforced by registered trade mark and possibly design protection; and monitor activity and enforce legal rights where necessary.

Appointing brand guardians and having a proper media management strategy can also reduce the risk of brand damage arising from problems with internal core activities.

With appropriate management, the brand should play an important part in promoting and sustaining the institution. Universities should give careful thought to how best to provide a strategic and operational framework that protects the brand as an asset.

Todd Gibby
President of higher education at Hobsons

Brands really do matter. And as the complex dynamics of reputation in higher education continue to shift, institutions are starting to pay closer attention.

Universities are increasingly dependent on tuition-based revenue, while the global economy and changing student demographics are forcing them to articulate clearly the return that students will receive from investment in their institution. As a result, hybrid models of curriculum delivery have contributed to an explosion of options for students, who are responding by taking control of their education as demanding, informed consumers.

Amid this chaos, universities need to find a way of distinguishing themselves from other available options, and branding helps them to do just that.

But what exactly do we mean by “brand?” There are countless highly sophisticated definitions. At its core, though, I consider a brand quite simply to be what people feel when they think about an institution (or a company, organisation, person or product). That impression, in turn, is shaped by the sum total of people’s experiences with, or exposure to, that institution.

We have seen this for years outside academia. People identify so closely with some brands that they become part of their being, Harley-Davidson motorcycles being one great example. Harley’s products, customers, culture and overall experience have grown to represent something so much more powerful than high-quality motorbikes. In fact, it is not uncommon for enthusiasts to tattoo the Harley-Davidson logo on to their bodies. Why would anyone permanently mark his or her body with a corporate logo? It is not the connection with the brand that explains the phenomenon, but rather what the brand stands for and how the individual experiences it. It is a feeling and a way of life.

We may not aspire to see students tattoo themselves with an image of a university crest, but it is worth examining the “sum of experiences” concept when thinking about university brands. If we consider the analogy of the sum of a person’s experience, we should think about what factors contribute to that experience.

Any time an institution seeks to develop and protect its brand experience, it should look at four areas: awareness, brand familiarity, image and strength of preference (loyalty).

Awareness in terms of higher education could be defined as how a university’s diverse constituents view their alma mater. Familiarity is defined as direct or indirect connections through word of mouth or knowledge. Image defines the unique association that represents what is expected (perhaps what will be gained by attending the institution). Strength of preference gauges the loyalty of prospective students, current students and alumni.

With many factors at play, how can an institution manage all this?

It goes back to experience. It is the student experience that drives the brand and consequently the reputation. Think of it as an equation: whether a website inquiry, a visit to campus or a call into the office, the sum of all these student interactions equals your brand perception. But the experience does not stop when the student is enrolled: it continues through every event and occurrence at university up to and including graduation.

For better or worse, each interaction provides an opportunity, either positive or negative, to influence that student’s decision to invest further.

Let’s be clear: the brand is more than a logo. The customer, not the organisation, defines the brand. That control was relinquished once consumers gained the ability to share their experiences on social media networks. In the world of the consumer, the brand is set to be the most powerful strategic tool in the marketing toolbox.

While higher education is unable to control the message, it can control the experience and the factors that affect it - for example, the calibre of courses and staff. This is what students will talk about. If you are creating a positive “sum of experiences”, that builds a positive reputation and therefore a powerful brand.

The brand will become one of the biggest factors in the global competition for university recruitment and admissions. When faced with hundreds of choices, which institution will the globally mobile student choose?

In my experience, successful universities know their audience and tailor their marketing accordingly. Most have switched from mass marketing to opt-in, essentially presenting niche offerings to clearly identified segmented audiences. Throughout the admissions cycle and beyond enrolment, they define expectations and link actual experiences with good use of technology, supporting communications that are consistent, informed, contextual and personalised.

Speed racer in cockpit of solar car

Hanneke Teekens
Member of the board of directors at Nuffic

The Netherlands is a relatively small country and is proud that all 13 of its research universities feature in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2012-13 (12 in the top 200). But it is not commonly known for its innovative knowledge production: for most, it is synonymous with windmills, cheese and tulips - not very appealing when branding the country as a destination for international students and scholars.

Nuffic, the Netherlands Organisation for International Cooperation in Higher Education, is responsible for promoting the Dutch academy. The main challenge in developing our campaigns was to fuse the country’s traditional image with one of a dynamic higher education sector, reflected in one of our mottoes: “Most people come for the tulips, you come for an international experience!”

We have a lot of positive attributes to promote the sector’s brand globally, but plenty of challenges, too.

The Netherlands has an open economy. As a trading nation, an international outlook is part of the Dutch tradition and this is reflected in its academy. The use of multiple languages (most notably English) has long been integral to the university culture, in contrast with the rest of Europe. International students in the Netherlands take more courses side by side with local students than in any other non-English-speaking country. The international dimension of the classroom is viewed as an important quality indicator and is evaluated by our accreditation procedures.

Although not low, tuition fees in the Netherlands are not high, either. The teaching culture emphasises interactive methods plus project and problem-oriented group work, while placing a strong emphasis on fostering creativity and innovation.

To protect the interests of students, Nuffic and the Dutch institutions drew up a code of conduct for international education that has been in use since 2006. It obliges universities to adhere to strict minimum language scores and to be transparent in their communications and admissions policies, and also includes a special student complaints procedure. The code has worked well, but the question has now been raised: is the Netherlands too hard on itself?

Research funding in the country is “equitably distributed”. This means that we have no “top” university: what distinguishes one from another is its specialist teaching or research areas. Although every institution can boast at least one faculty member at the top of their field, no one outshines the others. All 13 Dutch universities are among the best in the world, but none appears in the WUR top 10. This has raised questions about whether the country should strive to create a Dutch Oxbridge through targeted funding or mergers. This issue remains politically sensitive and highly divisive.

Dutch universities, so far, have hardly invested in offshore activity, thus losing an important foothold in developing economies. Is it too late for them to catch up? The topic is hardly a hot-button issue in the Netherlands, a fact I think is worrying.

More pressing is the debate about labour issues. The further development of the Dutch knowledge society will require talent - talent that will have to come from outside the country.

International graduates are invited to stay on after completing their degrees, and they can obtain one-year visas to find work. Nuffic plays a very active role in linking graduates to the world of employment: “Most students build their knowledge, you build an international career” is the slogan for our latest call.

Oxford University, Arms of Oxford, The Colleges

Chris Chapleo
Senior lecturer in marketing at Bournemouth University

Branding has been a very topical subject in the sector in recent years. The inexorable march towards a form of marketisation has led to an increased sense of competition and the implementation of quasi-commercial marketing approaches.

Of all the areas associated with marketing, however, branding is perhaps the most maligned and misunderstood. So as an academic specialising in branding in the non-profit sector (and a former marketer), some of the particular aspects of university branding seem ripe for exploration.

First, what do we mean by a higher education brand? Is it the same as reputation? Although the two terms may be used interchangeably, they are actually different. Commonly, reputation is historical and earned, whereas brand may encompass reputation but does so as part of a clear set of ideas and values that is proactively managed. This has led to the perception that brands can be “manufactured”.

Some may suggest that a brand is therefore something superficial and perhaps even trivialises what higher education does. This certainly should not be the case. It is not about making hollow promises: good branding can and should define what an institution can authentically offer.

Many conceptualisations of brands break them into two broad areas - the functional and the symbolic/emotional. This essentially means that university brand analysis not only needs to consider hard facts (such as location, position in rankings and incorporation date) but also “softer” values such as “vibrancy”, “support” or “tradition”.

The key point here is that brands are important. We live in an age where we are overloaded with communications; good branding should, at least to some degree, enable an organisation to communicate what is best about it in a clear, cohesive and consistent fashion. It shouldn’t mean that we have to trivialise or commoditise what universities do - it is more about communicating the sum total in a clear fashion to the appropriate stakeholder groups. Also, importantly, it enables universities to get the brand positioning they want communicated in a proactive fashion, rather than by default.

That said, university branding is not the same as soft drink or airline branding: universities are large, complex organisations that often offer (as they should) a broad and inherently quite similar range of courses and services that makes identifying points of distinctiveness on which to build a brand difficult. Universities are of course distinct in terms of where they are located (and many use elements of destination branding as part of their approach), but it has been suggested that The Open University, Cranfield University and Birkbeck, University of London are the only truly distinctive higher education institutions in the UK.

The culture of universities also makes the simplistic application of commercial branding techniques without some adaptation difficult: it can be very difficult to get people “behind the brand” in the way that commercial companies do, and indeed the rightly cherished concept of academic freedom can allow scholars to occasionally act in ways that dilute or damage the organisational brand. Sub-brands can also be problematic, with schools, faculties or centres creating their own identities. Most institutions have largely resolved this, however, and there may be a strong case for certain departments (such as business schools) to be distinct.

So how should those responsible for university brands, notably vice- chancellors, deal with these issues? Well, a good start would be for them to take the time to understand branding in its fullest sense and what it can offer. They can also perhaps contribute to an interpretation of branding that takes account of the particular qualities of higher education.

Overall, universities have brands of a sort whether they like it or not: branding is the effective expression of how stakeholders think and feel about the university, and institutions have a choice over whether to manage and maximise its value or to leave it to chance. While we have increased competition between universities, the theory and practice of branding, used judiciously, can empower us all.

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