Leader: It's about what you're about

It's easy to mock branding, but the vital job it does in telling the world what a university does and why it matters is priceless

July 23, 2009

Names are important. As a female student, would you really have wanted to attend Beaver College? You're unlikely even to have asked about it. Testosterone-fuelled adolescent boys might have been more eager to explore the Animal House connotations; but even they were prevented from seeking admissions information by obscenity filters in school libraries that blocked access to the Beaver website. So when the Pennsylvania college became a university, it unsurprisingly seized the opportunity to rebrand itself - as Arcadia University. Numbers of applications increased, from both sexes.

Colour too can make a difference. Some colours are perceived as having more authority than others. The university that replaced the red in its logo with a new, "deeper" red was ridiculed by some. But for the institution, the message it conveyed was vital: the new shade, it said, would "reflect a more serious and professional focus ... while still reflecting our creative and innovative strengths".

Sometimes, however, things don't go as planned. One university spent thousands on its new brand only for the local paper to point out that it bore an uncanny resemblance to a pair of breasts. Another suffered the ignominy of having its logo appropriated by the spoof "University of Bums on Seats" because it was said to resemble a pair of buttocks.

Other universities just take it all far too seriously. When one developed a new "corporate identity", it provided staff with a 51-page "style guide", complete with a list of "personality words" to use in written communication and a helpline number for staff struggling to appreciate the concept.

It is, of course, easy to mock these efforts to establish a clear brand identity. Academics rightly argue that university reputations are earned through years - often hundreds of years (just ask Cambridge, which is celebrating its 800 years of excellence this summer) - of delivery. Prestige cannot be conferred by a shallow makeover, they say.

Then there is the cost. In tough times, it is easy to argue that money spent on such a seemingly superficial pursuit - with its attendant extras such as new stationery, signage and so on - is money wasted.

But the truth is that in difficult times, when universities have to compete globally for students, a strong brand is essential. Branding, done well, is more than simply an image makeover. As Jonathan Baldwin, programme director for design studies at the University of Dundee, says in this issue, the brand has to come from within and has to drive everything, including staff and student recruitment. It must be organic, not fixed. Most importantly, branding is not something you wait to be done to you, it is something you do to yourself.

Branding is, he says, a "positive process, designed to remind everyone involved what it is you do ... What is it that makes your university distinctive?"

But it is wise to ensure that you are being distinctive in the right way. The Institute of Oriental Studies at Brazil's Federal University of Santa Catarina probably thought that its logo of a column piercing a rising sun gave the impression of an eminent, upstanding institution. But it was a design cock-up of massive proportions, earning the university not the prestige it was seeking but first prize in the Phallic Logo Awards.


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