Success in student recruitment hinges on three factors: overall institutional reputation, location and how well the courses offered are aligned with what entrants want to study. So says research undertaken by marketing consultants into post-1992 universities.
The study by David Roberts, managing partner of The Knowledge Partnership, found that about two thirds of the difference in market share between the best and worst performing universities could be explained by their subject spread. In other words, the best performing institutions had more courses in subject areas that were in demand.
To underline his point, Roberts reveals that half his workload is now related to advising universities on their subject portfolios and the development of specific courses. Five years ago he was not involved in these areas. "It's always been the case: courses become popular, careers become popular, professions become popular. The antithesis of marketing is holding on to courses that nobody wants to do," he says.
"The early Nineties was the period of quality assurance, but now I think it is about market assurance as the sustainability of programmes comes to the fore. The key variable in success in my mind is the title assigned to the programme, as much as the content. However, dishonest titles are easily found out."
Roberts' experience indicates an increased willingness among university managers to use marketing professionals to sell courses. But it is only one part, albeit a controversial part, of a much bigger picture. According to a poll of press officers conducted for Times Higher Education, more than two thirds of institutions are undergoing some form of rebranding. In some cases this will be little more than a tweak to a logo, while in others it will be full-scale rebranding that may or may not include course design.
For some, it is absurd and distasteful to apply the same image and branding processes to universities and academic courses as one might to a pair of training shoes.
"It's certainly part of their job to make courses attractive, but that's a completely different thing from designing courses that can sell," says Tom Hickey, lecturer in cultural and critical theory at the University of Brighton.
"What happens is that even the courses that have been well designed and well devised then come under pressure to alter their content. There's a sense in which you get the tail wagging the dog."
A market-driven approach to course provision and design also poses a risk to unpopular subjects. The trouble is that when subject trends shift, and inevitably they do, the institutions that axed once unpopular courses - and the academics who taught them - are in no position to capitalise on any new-found popularity.
"You can do the university a lot of economic damage because if you narrow your academic interests, you lose flexibility," warns Elizabeth Lawrence, senior lecturer in sociology at Sheffield Hallam University. "For the health of the university as an institution, and the academic community in general, you need to keep some subjects alive."
Not everyone concurs with this view. Nick Foskett, dean of the faculty of law, arts and social sciences at the University of Southampton, believes that the higher education sector is already too conservative in its approach to how the academic curriculum should be adapting. Today's students are more akin to consumers.
"Whatever subject you do, you might expect that it's rooted in some way in the real world. For the majority of university programmes, it's about ensuring that what they deliver has some connection to the world outside," Foskett says.
But the picture is piecemeal, he adds."I think you can find examples of where essentially it's the same old thing being done in the same old way - but with a change of title - right through to places where programmes are being fundamentally restructured and rebuilt from scratch to try to make them market-effective," he says.
Whether rebranding amounts to a full-scale makeover or a small change on the letterhead, universities appear to be in a race to keep up with one another. Brand revamps create a domino effect. A makeover by one university can make competitor institutions look tired, static and complacent. There is a sense that universities are "keeping up with the Joneses".
Richard Taylor, the director of marketing and communications at the University of Leicester, fears that the higher education sector may have fallen into playing "logo wars" with their identity, a continual game of one-upmanship.
"There are times when institutions will need to address their logo, but it's easy to get too caught up on the logo and think of it as being the same thing as brand and reputation," Taylor says. "Institutions need to accept and understand that there is an awful lot more to marketing than where the logo is and how many millimetres tall it is."
Distilling and then promoting a brand successfully requires care and more than a little delicacy. Universities are trying to capture something of their unique ethos in their identity, exploiting the common ground between staff and students.
As Taylor explains: "Fundamentally, marketing says what you stand for as an organisation: where you are headed, how you are going to be successful, what message you want to project. We can't make something up. We can't say we believe in x when the academics actually believe in y. They are the brand. They are the people who define the institution's reputation."
Changing a logo will not change the institution itself, although this is the trap that Taylor fears staff fall into when engaging in sparring matches over image. "If you focus on a logo, you might back yourself into a corner. Academics can be quite sceptical people and sometimes, if they perceive that marketing is just about logos, they're unwilling to engage in that wider debate. Unless you have to do it, it's not something you should go for just for the sake of it," he says.
Rebranding is a costly process that sets the average institution back between £50,000 and £100,000, and the typical life of a brand is just ten years. Much of this money is spent on design and branding consultancies, and this can create friction within an institution if, at the same time, resources are being cut from departments and subjects.
As one marketing manager comments: "Quite often, there is a lot of resistance internally, and that resistance comes from the fact that for quite a lot of the institutions a vast amount of resources is put into the rebranding project."
Precedent is one such branding agency. It has worked with universities for seven years, most notably with Middlesex University and, more recently, Southampton.
James Soutter, consultant at Precedent, says that although the fees for branding experts may seem steep, going it alone is dangerous and the cost of getting your brand wrong can be high. "It can be very expensive to try to do things internally. It can be a big mistake," he says. "There may be a feeling that (universities) have the necessary skills in-house to do this - and that's probably true - but academics are extremely good at doing what they do: research and teaching. They're not always comfortable in taking the hands-on approach."
Soutter says that branding within higher education is very different from that in the commercial sector and, although the language used may often be the same, universities cannot be marketed the same way. For a start, students do not necessarily see themselves as consumers in the traditional sense. Their relationship with their university is more complex. Though they part with money and buy into an institution's brand, entering into education is more of an agreement or a partnership than a simple transaction between provider and customer.
In a developing marketplace, universities must also focus on what distinguishes them from other universities, and not simply in terms of academic prowess. They must also be aware of their place within the sector.
"A Russell Group university should not market itself like a post-1992 university. It's got a very different sort of message and needs to dress in a very different kind of way from a university that's there to create opportunity," Soutter warns.
Southampton recently dropped its logo featuring a dolphin because it was felt that the image it projected was, among other issues, "too 'new' university". It worked with Precedent to develop its new image, which emphasises the importance of the city of Southampton to the institution, says Adam Wheeler, the senior deputy vice-chancellor.
"After 17 years, the world has changed and the university has changed. It's a very different organisation. It's a much more successful one, it's a clearly established institution, a world-class academy and research-leading university," Wheeler says. "We needed to think about how we communicated that excellence."
Royal Holloway, University of London, has also just completed a major rebrand, a process it began half a decade ago. Stephen Hill, the vice-chancellor, says the university lacked a strong public profile. "I was not willing to come up with a quick fix. You've got to project an image that your institution, your staff and students accept," he says.
The university also took time to agree its new image with its alumni, a group that Hill considers very important. Like Nokia, Sony or Mercedes-Benz, Hill wants Royal Holloway to be a brand that students and graduates are proud to associate themselves with.
"We want people to feel that they belong, that they are members and ex-members of an institution that has a clearly recognisable name, and that that name is associated with values and ideas that they feel they agree with," he says.
According to a study conducted by the university, awareness of the institution increased between 2005 and 2006.
Hill is not surprised that there is a groundswell of interest in branding in higher education. Where some have succeeded, others are keen to follow.
"Some of the early innovators are showing how well they have done, and other people are realising that they have to do something as students are becoming fee-paying customers," Hill says.
Other institutions have opted for a minor rebrand instead of a complete image makeover. At London South Bank University, director of marketing Beth Jenkins hopes that changes to the university's colour scheme will give the university's image a boost. Unlike others, it has decided not to change its logo.
Jenkins says that a university's brand is about much more than visuals and quick fixes. "History will certainly favour those who've founded their corporate ID on solid brand development and management, and evolved it regularly, with integrity," she says.
The influence of marketing also extends to university departments. After years, Warwick Manufacturing Group has renamed itself simply WMG. Zoe Howard, head of communications at WMG, says the group had simply outgrown its old name.
"There had been a number of tweaks to the logo over the years, but there was never a major attempt at rebranding. We're now involved in much more than just manufacturing. It was felt that we needed to have a new brand identity to reflect the breadth of what we did and also there was a general need for updating. The old logo was tired-looking and quite Eighties."
WMG worked with typographical experts Factor Design to create the new WMG logo. It consulted all 400 staff throughout the process. The rebrand, it is hoped, allows the department to reach out to a range of stakeholders, especially business.
"Some industrial partners can be put off by the idea that they're working with a university. They can view it as academics in their ivory towers. WMG isn't like that," Howard says.
Effective branding is particularly important for those institutions that pride themselves on their expertise in design. The Royal College of Art has updated its image to ensure that it remained competitive online. "This wasn't a vanity exercise. We needed to make sure that the crest was web-compliant," says Aine Duffy, the head of marketing. "We wanted to make sure that what we had was fit for five years, which is generally considered the lifetime of a website."
In redesigning the crest, the RCA took an opportunity to promote homegrown talent. It commissioned its own graduates, who had established a design firm and were typographical experts, to come up with the new image. The college also chose to use the Calvert font, designed by Margaret Calvert, a student at the institution in the 1950s.
The RCA admits to being involved in the growing branding war. "If other colleges are spending vast amounts of money on presenting a new look, a new image, a new identity to the world, then in order to compete for students and academics one needs to refine a new image," Duffy says. The college will launch its new website mid-April.
Academics may remain sceptical, but there is no denying that rebranding is sometimes necessary and that, when done well, its impact can be staggering.
When the University of Luton merged with De Montfort's Bedford campus to become the University of Bedfordshire, the institution took the opportunity to reinvent itself. Luton had a serious image problem and, unfairly, the name had become associated with unhelpful tabloid phrases such as "dumbing down" and "Mickey Mouse".
"Damage had been done to the brand in the past," admits Les Ebdon, the vice-chancellor. "It just seemed that people picked on us. It was quite common. When (Sir) Richard Sykes (rector of Imperial College London) was looking to give an example of a university that he didn't think should receive as much money as Imperial he picked Luton out of thin air."
The new brand made much of the ethos of the university. "I believe that universities have to be value-driven," Ebdon explains. "We're very much about access, about scholarship, about employability. If we're going to be an access university, then we have to be very welcoming and friendly because the kind of students we seek are going to be anxious about going into higher education."
The exercise was certainly effective. The university noted a 42 per cent increase in applications in its first year, and the upward trend looks set to continue. Although the cost was about £,000, Ebdon says the money was spent effectively.
In fact, Ebdon's success could have contributed to the outbreak of "logo wars" in higher education. Many vice-chancellors have been in contact with him, asking for advice and confessing that they, too, are considering an identity shake-up.
Whether or not other universities replicate Bedfordshire's success depends not only on the image they choose to project but, as Richard Taylor says, on whether the brand is congruent with the ethos of academics and students. This surely applies as much to branding at an institutional level as it does to the design of individual courses. Those trying to change ethos by changing the university brand or the title of a course court disaster.
Market forces and the power of branding are the new realities for higher education, and their influence on the academy looks set to grow. But more than perhaps most businesses, universities will effect positive change only if they carry their staff and their students with them.
THE SUBSTANCE BEHIND THE IMAGE: A BRAND CONSULTANT SPEAKS
Five years ago, my job as a brand consultant seemed a lot more fraught with danger. Back then, taking part in a university "branding workshop" was not dissimilar to the experience of having to defuse an unexploded bomb.
Academics are paid to question, and in an acquiescent, homogeneous world, universities are the last bastions of intellectual dissent.
Yet this spirit has often taken on a Daily Mail character when it comes to branding, resisted as yet another innovation (with innovation suddenly a bad thing) that "they" are imposing on "us".
Those who have vehemently denied the reality or the importance of branding have also been the most vociferous in their loyalty to an old logo once it has been marked for the chop.
But this is all changing. The language of branding, once whispered nervously in marketing bunkers, is now being embraced and used deftly by vice-chancellors and senior academics. At worst, they regard it as a necessary evil and at best, as a way of coping or thriving in the advancing free market economy.
The reality is finally dawning, and the alert institutions are thinking long, hard and more imaginatively about what they are offering, what makes this distinctive and valued, and how it can help attract business or justify their price tags.
But a league-table position is not a brand. Universities that feel confidently assured of their ranking may well get a run for their money from less complacent competitors that will be ready to really go to market with a clear and distinctive statement of why their "customers" should choose them above another.
Branding is not new to the higher education sector. Fifteen years ago, I was a PhD student at the University of Wales, Lampeter, and just a year later I was a junior research fellow at a prestigious Oxford college - and how differently my conference name tag was received in each case.
Branding determined where I published articles and monographs, what jobs I forlornly chased, and was ultimately the reason I defected from academe. I left to edit the Penguin Classics, where I was very popular among former peers, who were attracted by the power of that brand.
Academics are acutely aware of their own reputations and of how they feel about their own alma maters. They intuitively know and do branding all the time, and their institutions have brands whether academics like it or not.
But how much better it is to be in control of these brands and to benefit from them. How much better if all those individual stars formed a constellation, with a clear, distinctive shape.
Branding does not add anything that is not there already. It joins up the dots, helping the people that the institutions depend on to make more informed choices.
Will branding and marketing end up designing courses? Unlikely. Even in the crassest corners of commerce, the brander does not determine the shape or content of a product or service. But he or she does know the market and, armed with a clear knowledge of an institution, can help to more effectively connect supply with demand.
Know thyself is the start of all wisdom, even commercial. Yes, even the Delphic oracle had a strapline.
Does anyone wanna buy a second-hand flak jacket?
Robert Mighall is senior consultant in brand strategy at branding agency Lloyd Northover.