How to ensure your university’s branding isn’t as bland as blancmange

Universities’ promo materials and slogans play it safe to the point of indolence, says Jonathan Wilson. He explains how to take a leaf from the global brand playbook

Jonathan Wilson's avatar
Regent's University London
6 Dec 2021
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Universities need to make sure their promo materials and slogans are not as bland as blancmange

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Growing up in the UK in the 1970s, blancmange was branded as a fancy dessert with a posh name derived from the old French for “white dish”. It was made from milk, cornflour, sugar and vanilla extract. And if you were lucky, a touch of pink food dye. But if you go back to the times of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, written in the 14th century, it’s also mentioned then – although it included shredded chicken or fish, rosewater and spices. Like blancmange, universities have gone backwards.

I often talk about branding as finding your winning recipe. And like blancmange, university brands are not the fanciest option on the global sweet trolley – most of our brands are too similar to one another to deliver a competitive advantage.

In the battle for better box-ticking, our stock-image promotional materials and benchmarking play it safe to the point of indolence. And the more we chase league table rankings and bums on seats, the more we lose our tasty ingredients.

Carry on like this and universities will have their brands eroded by more exciting, salient alternatives that spend more money, truly resonate with audiences and spend more time engaging with them. These will be organisations from outside our sector – alternative desserts that seize opportunities.

So what can we do?

First, fix our merchandise. Most of it, with the exception of some universities in the US, is terrible. The cost of going to university places us as premium or even luxury brands. Yet can you imagine such brands skimping here? Think of sports teams, hotels and airlines and how they find ways to place their logos on quality items in quality places.

University brands are strange beasts because the location is often in the name and implicit in the identity of the brand. However, unlike destination or heritage branding in other sectors, the dilemma we face with celebrating our international faculties and students is being able to articulate a unique experience and offering.

We have slogans, but they don’t speak and are meaningless unless you spend a lot of money showing and explaining why. They also need to be supported by structured communication, presented as a three-stage, logical argument: fact, followed by information/description and then a conclusion/outcome.

Here’s an example of how that could be done:

Fact: we have 100 different nationalities on campus.

Information: classroom discussions and assignments are enriched by varied perspectives and lived experiences, where you have the space to find your voice and connect it to a truly global community.

Outcome: you will get a place to stay, local insights and connections with potential future business partners in up to 100 countries.

Findings from my doctoral thesis in branding argue that this application of Aristotelian logic is evident in effective branding and advertising campaigns as it helps audiences digest information better and picture themselves being engaged with the brand directly.

But top brands also look to add a wow factor – those salient, inimitable things that resonate. It’s likely there will be several factors that collectively deliver the “wow”, depending on your audience. Therefore, slogans should be aspirational with a touch of ambiguity, allowing people to fill in the gaps from their perspective.

Let’s look at some top brands: Just Do It (Nike); Impossible is Nothing (Adidas); Think Different (Apple); Because You’re Worth It (L’Oréal); Hello Tomorrow (Emirates); For Successful Living (Diesel).

Those slogans are meaningful, memorable and effective, not just because they encapsulate the essence of what the brand is promising, but also because they help you form a picture in your mind of the brand’s identity, personality and the types of people that consume and are associated with those brands.

Also, it’s important to consider that building a brand is a collective responsibility – where everyone has a part to play. Remember those times in a shop, restaurant or hotel where staff weren’t living the brand? You probably felt a sense of disappointment or disconnect that reduced the value you place on the branded offering.

So what can you do differently when thinking about branding your university? Here are some suggestions for questions that can set you on the right path:

  • Ask people what are the three things that come to mind about your university?
  • What are three things you do better than anyone else, and does everyone know about them?
  • What do you stand for and what brand promises are you willing to go to market with and defend over time, even if it splits the crowd? (You can’t and shouldn’t target everyone – so pick your audiences and battlegrounds.)
  • Is your institutional brand something that people proudly evangelise about? Is it authentic – and by that I mean are people comfortable being themselves and do they feel a sense of belonging?

After all, brands are increasingly being held to account in terms of social impact, representation and inclusivity. Furthermore, recent worldwide activism on equality and sustainability points to younger generations (ie, your customers) wanting evidence of change.

On top of that, with fewer jobs for life and greater competition for roles, students’ valuations of universities are increasingly skewed towards employability. University brands can’t just be built on pitching centres for learning and fancy facilities – they need to articulate a clear voice and position, supported by examples of staff and students who walk the talk and are employable.

But, equally, don’t fall into the trap of short-term glory seeking. In marketing we use the term customer lifetime value (CLV), which is the total worth to a business over the whole period of their relationship with a customer. Premium and luxury brands start that relationship well before their customers are in a position to spend. Do you remember playing with a toy sports car as a child? That’s when the seed of desire was planted.

Also, top brands want to create meaningful relationships – you’re aiming to build a brand narrative that is inclusive, where people feel like you’re on their side through thick and thin. In today’s market, this means taking online, mobile-first and social media seriously – including how you engage with gripes and banter online.

Plus, many university websites are hard to navigate and information is buried – which, considering we’re in the knowledge business, actually goes against what we claim to offer.

Now you’ve imbibed all this information, think: is there a disconnect between the brand identity you’ve crafted and how you’re seen? What is that wow factor that will make people come to you rather than go somewhere else?

Finally, do not make the mistake of assuming that because you’ve been around for many years, you’re doing enough. Branding takes time, iterative experimentation, persistence, bravery, a bit of luck, money and focus on a long-term strategy. After all, in the increasingly competitive university sector, you can’t afford to still be whipping up blancmange when your customers want an altogether more modern offering.

Jonathan Wilson is professor of brand strategy and culture at Regent’s University London.


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