League tables impress few would-be students. Universities must be more imaginative in building brand identity, especially with top-up fees on the way, argue Jim Bodoh and Robert Mighall
It is hard to imagine a more brand-savvy individual than the typical undergraduate. The people who are the core market for the university product are acutely aware of image and are preoccupied with doing, saying and wearing the "right" things. With the die now cast for free-market pricing, and almost half of students unconvinced that their courses provide value for money, universities are going to have to think hard about how they attract, retain and satisfy this new generation of discerning customers. Like any provider of a product or service in a competitive market, they will need to look to their "brands" to communicate the benefits of what they have to offer and what sets them apart.
Branding would have been anathema to academe not ten years ago, but it is now emerging as a hot topic for those who want to consolidate their positions or save their skins. This is understandable, as successive government edicts or competitor's initiatives have compelled institutions to think hard about how they can position themselves in a fiercely competitive market.
But developing compelling and credible brands will present some real challenges in a sector that has been slow to embrace the basic principles of branding - to identify, to differentiate and to communicate what is unique about a product, institution or service. This constitutes something of a missed opportunity. Undergraduates, ten years after the event, still talk in terms of old and new universities, despite having been eight when such distinctions emerged. When top-up fees turn a hierarchy of reputation into one of remuneration, the opportunity and the challenge will be to define the unique benefits of a particular "package" (combining learning, lifestyle and location) to justify its price tag.
But there are real opportunities here owing to something that is unique to universities but has gone largely unexploited in this country - the peculiar personal investment that is involved in choice of university. We are not primarily talking about financial investment (which can obscure the deeper issues here), but rather a more powerful emotional relationship that is inaugurated at matriculation and potentially lasts through life. For the university brand the undergraduate chooses is subsequently internalised:
"branding" him or her in turn. It becomes one of the most important entries on a CV and makes a major contribution to an individual's social networks, employability, self-esteem and attitude.
Few areas of life that compete for market share have the potential to elicit and nurture such powerful identification and potential loyalty; but few UK universities have risen to this challenge or gone to the lengths of their US counterparts in exploiting it in their alumni relations. How many UK graduates proudly display the pennants of their alma mater, and why is it only tourists who wear Oxford University sweatshirts?
The university experience involves a unique form of personal investment that will be put to the test when top-up fees put a cash value on it. When matriculation involves calculation of the long-term value of what this investment means, universities will need to ensure that their product is not only distinctive, compelling and attractive, but that it taps into a more emotional level that is the basis of this profound personal investment.
Of these basic branding criteria, perhaps the most important is distinctiveness, which is also perhaps the most sorely lacking. This is a largely undifferentiated market, created when targets were not an issue and demand was a given. Visual conformity is reflected in the sector's attachment to heraldry, with generic coats of arms failing to say anything distinctive or meaningful to most undergraduates. But this is merely the visual expression of a more deep-seated reluctance to articulate what in marketing jargon is called a USP (unique selling proposition) - what defines you, sets you apart and you can claim as uniquely your own.
Take university mission statements. Most people would agree that King's College London and Leeds Metropolitan University are very different entities. And yet one claims to "engage in teaching and research of high quality and of value to society"; while the other is "dedicated to the advancement of knowledge, learning and understanding in the service of society". Although it is unlikely that the average undergraduate chooses his or her university on the basis of a mission statement (should they even be aware of it), this is fairly indicative of a general failure to define and articulate what individual universities uniquely have to offer. Ask most academics if their institution has strengths in teaching or research, widening access or relevance to business and the community, the chances are they will tick all these boxes.
Even the most prestigious university brands are defined by factors that are not of their making nor within their control. Most UK institutions define themselves according to their performance in the research assessment exercise or other league tables. But there are snakes as well as ladders in this game; and it is a risky, unrealistic and potentially self-defeating strategy for all institutions to stake their claims entirely on a slippery vertical plane. This emphasis on ranking may be valued by academics and vice-chancellors, but is not necessarily attractive or compelling to most prospective undergraduates, who are largely unaware of RAE ratings and would put them way down the list of determining factors, below awareness, location, word-of-mouth recommendation and whether the institution in question was considered "cool" by their peers.
Although it is easy to dismiss that last factor, it at least implies an emotional attraction or attachment and a degree of personality that is fundamental to most successful brands but is wholly absent from the largely rational, one-dimensional league-table positioning. It is time for institutions to think laterally, identifying something unique, credible and compelling about themselves, and using this as the basis of a competitive positioning.
Talking of cool, Goldsmiths College, London, was recently voted a "Cool BrandLeader" by the Superbrands council, on the strength of its alumni's contribution to the Brit Art and Brit Pop phenomena of recent years. "Cool" is admittedly a shaky foundation for a long-term brand proposition. But it does at least identify consistency of product and a distinctive "attitude" that can be rearticulated in ways that are relevant to the whole university. Creativity put Goldsmiths on the "cool" map, and this can serve as a more durable foundation for a defining principle across all the disciplines within its humanities-focused offer.
It might be objected that universities are not washing powders, and that branding is inappropriate to something that still serves its social and liberal agenda of educating citizens, notwithstanding the stark realities of the new competitive landscape. But the call to diversify in the sector has also come from on high. The government recently decreed that universities should "stop pretending they are all the same and develop distinct missions". Of course, this challenge goes deeper than what is generally understood by the concept of brand. It implies organisational changes and a more pragmatic approach than the current far-from level playing field with all pursuing the same glittering prizes. It could offer a way out of the impasse of homogeneity, allowing institutions to play to their strengths, be true to themselves and to allow some distinctive voices to emerge.
Jim Bodoh is director of international brand consultancy Citigate Lloyd Northover. Robert Mighall is a consultant on corporate identity and communications. Both are former academics.