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January 2, 2004

Branding has become a buzzword for universities, but many academics remain sceptical at best. So we asked Robert Mighall, a former Oxford English fellow who is now a branding consultant, to do email battle with 'Mr No Logo' Gary Day in a bid to win over hearts and minds

Dear Gary,

Branding is becoming increasingly important and useful for universities by providing ways for them to say something distinctive and attractive about themselves in a crowded market.

But many academics are less than convinced, seeing it as spin and a waste of resources. So we often see some of the sharpest, most progressive and open minds refusing to engage with what is, in essence, the process of defining collectively what individually they are extremely adept at doing: building reputation and raising profile.

A brand should provide an authentic, credible and sustainable articulation of what an institution - comprised of individual talents, specialisms and reputations - has to offer. Branding is about truth, not spin. It's the means by which a university raises its voice to make a genuine and genuinely distinctive statement about itself.

Best wishes,
Robert

Dear Robert,

What a master of words you are, moving effortlessly from "brand" to "reputation" as if they were the same thing. But they're not. A reputation is something that grows slowly over time, whereas a brand is an instant way of differentiating one product from a host of similar ones.

McDonald's or Burger King, they both make you fat, yet you won't find that in the adverts.

"Branding is about truth"? Come on. Remember the McLibel trial? The judge ruled that McDonald's did "exploit children" and produced "misleading" advertising. We know that as early as the 1880s branding was used to personalise goods and so reassure consumers anxious about the anonymity of mass-produced commodities. Think of Heinz, Campbell's and Quaker Oats.

The purpose of branding is not to inform, it's to sell you an attitude, a set of values, even an identity. To suggest that each university should have its own brand is a betrayal of everything the university stands for: culture, critique, truth, ethics and the opening up of new frontiers.

Universities are about peeling off labels, not pasting them on.

Best wishes,
Gary

Dear Gary,

I see you are in-Klein-ed to equate brands with logos and labels and to cite examples from the "fast-moving consumer goods" end of the spectrum, and therefore at the furthest remove from higher education. The points you raise are most certainly valid, but they support my view that brands reflect "truths" and are built on reputations, good or bad. Quaker Oats gained a reputation for quality and reliability of product and supply.

With this came a responsibility to uphold that reputation. Citing McDonald's, as an exposed and discredited brand, further supports this equation between truth/reputation and the rigours of branding.

Most UK universities have evolved outside of market forces. But times change and, like it or not, there is now a need for institutions to be more self-conscious about what they have to offer and to demonstrate what it is that stops their product being a mere commodity or, worse, junk food.

And if you say universities eschew labelling, you forget the taxonomies of scientists and the "isms" of the humanities, not to mention the ritual of graduation day, where each year universities label and grade new products for the job market, and even flog some branded merchandise.

Best wishes,
Robert

Dear Robert,

You are quite right to point out that some subjects produce taxonomies, but that is not, as you suggest, the same as labelling. Brands close things down, give them a fixed meaning, whereas taxonomies are always subject to revision and change. Look at the Gap advert for kids, which not only equates the wearing of Gap clothing with being cool, but also encourages young children to mimic the sexual cavortings of the average pop band - and in a society that professes to be horrified by paedophilia.

As for the "isms" in the humanities, they are complementary and so you cannot compare them to "brands". You can use a range of "isms" to enrich your reading of literature, whereas the process of branding demands that you choose this product rather than that one.

The first appeal of branding is not to our minds but to our pocket.

Advertising executives are not going to have a Pauline conversion when it comes to branding universities or to abandon a strategy that has proved so successful elsewhere. The problem with branding a university is that it makes it appear as if it stands for only one particular thing. But universities are diverse intellectual communities that cannot be packaged in the way you suggest.

Your entire argument rests on the premise that universities should enter the market and compete with one another to attract consumers. But this could seriously compromise research, as it will become more dependent on business and it will certainly accelerate the trend to make most universities centres of training rather than places for independent thinking.

Please, let universities go down fighting and don't force this further humiliation - that they should brand themselves rather than be branded by their masters - upon them.

Best wishes,
Gary

Dear Gary,

You paint branding as some monstrous King Kong of greed and corruption that from stalking the skyscrapers of the corporate world now turns its clammy palms and slavering maw to an ivory tower in pastoral setting where sensitive figures debate the eternal verities and cower from the hot breath of the brute that eyes his next chaste victims.

Your choice of referent in the term "Pauline conversion" is apt, given the absolutes of good and evil that inform your picture of "advertising executives" and their strategies. I do not suggest that "universities should enter the market" - they are already there and have been for some time. Yes, branding does provide a way of encouraging consumers to choose one product above another, but prospective students have always had to make that choice. Brands help them decide.

Are you telling me that Oxford and Cambridge aren't brands? Or the Open University? The OU's success is a clear example of how branding opens things up (literally) rather than closes them down.

At the other extreme, Oxbridge, interestingly enough, does exemplify your "fixed" brands. For, despite its eminence as a brand, its image is not really of its deliberate making, and not in its control, especially Oxford, which is largely fixed as old, out-of-touch and elitist. Few tears will be shed for Oxford's enviable dilemma in this respect, but it does illustrate how branding can allow more control in an unforgiving market and an inflexible media circus.

And what of the others? You say universities should be left alone or "go down fighting". But taking control of perceptions about them and their image, rather than leaving these wholly predetermined by historical legacies and funding structures, at least offers a way of putting up a fight.

Best wishes,
Robert

Dear Robert,

You have surpassed yourself this time. Universities as ivory towers in pastoral settings "where sensitive figures debate the eternal verities"? I work at De Montfort, for goodness' sake! It's made of brick and is in the heart of Leicester. And we're far too busy with student retention, strategic plans, peer observation, appraisal and internal and external reviews to "debate the eternal verities". I'm afraid the extended metaphor of your last email merely demonstrated that branding is about distortion.

I loved your bit about branding helping students choose which university they would like to attend. How on earth have they managed up to now? Branding is invidious because it promotes the idea that we are all equally free to choose whatever is on offer. By doing so, it masks inequalities and debases the idea of freedom. If universities start branding themselves, they will only perpetuate this process.

You ask me if Oxford and Cambridge aren't brands. No, they're not. They are centres of privilege and power. I agree that universities are already in the market and perhaps always have been. But where we differ is that I am not sure that the relationship between intellectual values and market demand is as harmonious as you make out. Are you really saying that corporate sponsorship presents no threat to the integrity of research?

And I don't condemn all branding as you suggest. My main argument is that, although it may be appropriate for a car or a bar of chocolate, it is not appropriate for a university.

Best wishes,
Gary

Dear Gary,

You're right. You can't treat universities like chocolate or cars, and equally you cannot indiscriminately apply your critique of the methods used to promote these products to how universities respond to market conditions to survive or flourish.

Wrong or right, market conditions exist, and government policy will exacerbate this, making the need to rise to this challenge an even greater necessity. While you can't treat universities like chocolate bars or cars, they both compete for market share; and therefore the simple fact of competition suggests that supply needs to connect with demand, and the supply side might wish to influence this process.

Although I can buy both a Twix and a KitKat at the same time, prospective undergraduates have one final choice to make, and this involves higher stakes, so arguably they need more help with the process. You accept that, lamentably, universities are in the market and yet you deny the validity of using market methods or tools to allow them to at least adapt to unavoidable conditions. Perhaps you are happy to allow them to "die with dignity", but I doubt if your vice-chancellor or marketing department would concur.

I accept that branding alone is not responsible for how a person chooses a university, and I have not gone into other factors such as class, gender and race. But is it branding or the exercise of free will, as opposed to political or ideologically conditioned will, that you are objecting to? I fear, though, that we're in the terrain of metaphysics, which exceeds the scope of our debate. Given these circumstances and the fact that an individual needs to choose one institution above another based on his or her expectations, tastes, abilities and, increasingly, pocket, institutions will seek means to influence and inform that choice.

Even yours, as the sea lions in that De Montfort TV ad demonstrate. Your worry that universities might "start branding themselves" indicates that you are defending a position of prelapsarian innocence that has long-since passed, if it ever existed.

Oxbridge is not merely a "reputation": Oxford has a history (or merely a head start) of producing illustrious reputations that have contributed to its own and allowed it in time to trade as a "brand". In the same way, Sony's brand is based on a string of innovative and reliable products that encourage the assumption that a new Sony product is a continuation of this line. That's how it differentiates and builds customer loyalty or aspiration.

Your question about whether corporate sponsorship necessarily, and in all cases, compromises the integrity of intellectual values could be posed equally about the integrity of the debate we are having here, and especially your defence of "pure" thought from market values and the iniquities of promotion, appearing as it does in a Murdoch-owned newspaper that depends on advertising revenues to function.

Both our institutional bylines will appear under our words on the understanding that there is some value communicated by our profiles in print. I must say I prefer seeing your photo to a sea lion any day,

Gary.

The issue of intellectual values and branding is something I would have loved to debate. If we can accept the postlapsarian status of the sector, acknowledge Labour's betrayal of trusts and accept that if you compete for market share, then brand awareness might allow you to define and articulate your proposition, then we can consider how a university can be true to itself.

As a consultancy, we do not do chocolate bars or cars, but we have worked for 15 major universities. They were not looking for lies, and we didn't try to sell them lies; they were looking for ways to define what makes them special or unique, and to express these properties for those who are eager to listen. But I fear we have run out of space and time.

Perhaps you would like to make an appointment to discuss De Montfort's brand. Hmmm. That name's a bit of a PR issue, as I recall. Had you but sought our advice at the time...

Best wishes,
Robert

Dear Robert,

Thank you for the compliments, and I take the criticism in the spirit it's intended.

But, no matter how you dress it up, branding is about competition, which is about capitalism, which is about exploitation. I'm not so daft as to assume that those in power are one day going to wake up and say: "Hey, this is all wrong. Let's redistribute wealth, stop polluting the environment, make education free and tell the truth" - but I do believe that not everything in life needs to be marketed.

You could argue that since we all try to present ourselves in the best possible light, we are already in the business of marketing - but that would be a loose use of the term, as would my saying that because branding once referred to ownership and slavery that is how we should regard it now.

In fact, I would say that you use "branding" far too freely. You try to justify your argument by claiming that everything is a form of branding, but this does not survive scrutiny.

Let me content myself with an observation: beware university marketing departments. I have heard tales of them altering what academics have written, making it ungrammatical and nonsensical. A friend who teaches sociology reported that his copy for the prospectus came back with the addition that a degree in his subject could get you a job as a lifeguard.

Presumably you toss them a copy of Talcott Parsons and say: "Hold onto that and you won't sink." I have even heard stories of universities hiring consultants at great expense to redesign logos that come back looking pretty much as they did before.

I find it bonkers that a university's management hires a team of consultants to tell them what is distinctive about their institution. If they don't know, what the hell are they doing in the job? Hasn't it occurred to them to ask their own staff? But don't get me started on that.

The real point is that you accuse me of being naive and out of touch. I don't know whether this is due to my failure to communicate or to your inability to understand what I write. So, to try to be absolutely clear, my argument is that a key part of a university's function is to turn a critical eye on the values of wider society. The more they adopt market values, the less they are able to do this.

The idea that universities should brand themselves conflicts with their pursuit of truth because branding involves distortion, hyperbole and even lying. They should instead try to analyse why branding has become such a phenomenon in the contemporary world. My view is that it keeps alive the illusion of individuality in an age of mass conformity.

I'm not saying that universities don't differ from each other, but we shouldn't forget that they also share common goals that include critique, student self-realisation and the production of new knowledge and thought that will get lost if we start branding them. What are you going to say? "Come to Derby to do nursing, but go to Cardiff to do critical theory"? What if you live in Derby but can't afford to go to Cardiff?

The difference between universities lies less in the quality of staff or the content of what they teach than in their being unequally resourced, and branding will only reinforce that. It will fragment disciplines, thereby aggravating the sense that a degree in English from, say, Manchester is worth far more than one from, say, Plymouth. And why should people go to university for a degree that will count for so little in the market? If, on the other hand, they were to go to university for the joy of learning, the delight of self-discovery... Sorry, don't know what came over me there.

As I was saying, to look solely at differences between institutions risks undermining the concept of the university and its relation to society, a concept that is already under threat from the government, which wants universities to specialise in anything from teaching to foundation degrees.

Where is there space for experimentation, for meeting new people? Whoops, I'm forgetting myself again.

You want universities to be concerned with their image; I want them to be concerned with their role. You will say those things are the same. I say they are not, that it's a question of discrimination. You will say "but that's what branding is about", to which I say, as it's the pantomime season, "oh no it's not!"

Branding is about persuasion with the purpose of getting people to part with their money, and claims about one brand are likely to be exaggerated to appear more enticing than a rival one.

A glance at cable TV will show you what happens when market values hold sway. Is that what you want for universities? It's not too late to change your mind.

Best wishes,
Gary

Robert Mighall is a former academic and consultant at Citigate Lloyd Northover, which has worked for a number of major UK universities and for the Department for Education and Skills.
Gary Day is principal lecturer in English at De Montfort University.

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