How universities can harness their brand as a catalyst for change

Brunel University London aligned its brand review and development to university-wide consultations to launch a new university strategy and values

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Brand & Reputation
14 Jun 2024
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Brand & Reputation at THE HashtagHigherEd UK 2024
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Brand & Reputation

Brand & Reputation

Explore how Brand & Reputation helps higher education institutions enhance their marketing and communication strategies

Marketing and communications activity can easily become detached from key considerations around strategy and core operations at universities. With multiple stakeholders and competing priorities and objectives, finding a clarity of brand voice alongside a dynamic institutional strategy and values can be difficult. Without this clarity, institutions may fail to present themselves in a compelling manner. 

During a session, held in partnership with Brand & Reputation, at the 2024 THE HashtagHigherEd UK event, Michael Lavery, founder and CEO of Brand & Reputation, and Maddie McGowan, director of marketing, communications and recruitment at Brunel University London, discussed some of the institutional challenges that can often hold back university marketing and communications. They offered insights on harnessing the power of communications to overcome these challenges.

The marketing communications professional community at universities can amplify leadership, collaboration and shared ownership to build an institutional brand voice that aligns not only with the market but also with the university’s strategic vision and culture. “We’re passionate about the connectivity between an organisation’s strategy and its brand,” said Lavery. As a marketing and communications consultancy, Brand & Reputation has worked with universities and complex non-profit organisations around the world to design and implement their brand and engagement strategies. “Our contention is that brand is king,” said Lavery.

McGowan and Lavery spoke about the experience of working together on a multi-faceted suite of projects for Brunel University London, bringing together its culture, strategy and brand consultations to ensure greater coherence. In McGowan’s words, universities sometimes struggle to “flex their brand muscles”, compared with their peers. “When I arrived at Brunel, an internal review revealed that we had been putting out the same creative campaign for several years and our visibility had fallen in the sector,” said McGowan. This led to the implementation of the university’s Brilliant Brunel campaign.

While strategies may change, an institution’s brand should have more permanence. Universities often experience a disconnect between brand and strategy. Brand & Reputation prioritised connecting these facets in its work with Brunel, synthesising the expert input from the university’s other creative and media agency partners.

“When partnering with Brunel, we undertook an extensive programme of consultation interviews, mapping all the university’s external stakeholders and key staff representatives,” Lavery said. “This led to a diverse set of consultation exercises and conversations to achieve the engagement we needed to generate advocacy around strategy, brand and values at the university,” he added. “We listen, we connect and we come up with a clear roadmap and narrative framework to join the dots.” 

According to Lavery, it is important to retain flexibility in brand communications to resonate with various audiences and stakeholders. Institutions need to apply nuance to their brand language to build the right relationships with a broad range of audiences. 

“The emotional aspect is really important,” said McGowan. She added that the goal was to encourage people to connect with the university’s brand. Although this was, at times, a complex process, the end result was the launch of a new, collaborative university strategy, a refreshed set of authentic values and an emerging, overarching brand narrative to guide future campaigns, she added. 

Brand & Reputation’s case study of its work with Brunel University London in 2022 and 2023 demonstrates how the marketing communications professional community can become a catalyst for transformative change. In less than two years, with the help of campaigns such as Brilliant Brunel, the university has reversed the trend of diminishing undergraduate recruitment numbers, with encouraging applicant numbers in current undergraduate recruitment cycles. 

“Marketing and communications professionals have a convening power to work across key operations and functions in the university – including strategic planning, human resources and partnerships – to do some of the important external horizon scanning before refining and building consensus,” Lavery said. “To be able to join the dots in this way was key to the work we undertook with Brunel University London and its ambitious leadership team.” 

The speakers:

  • Michael Lavery, founder and CEO, Brand & Reputation
  • Maddie McGowan, director of marketing, communications and recruitment, Brunel University London

Find out more about Brand & Reputation. 

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