What sets you apart?

The answer to that is what a brand provides. Robert Mighall argues that far from being deceptive, alien and wasteful, branding is essential for telling the world what a university stands for and values

July 23, 2009

The idea of branding has met with a lot of resistance in higher education, and its appropriateness for universities has been vigorously questioned.

Cynical brickbats are usually hurled by academics staunchly defending the last bastion of intellectual independence and integrity against the relentless onslaught of market forces. These missiles roughly come in three main shapes: branding is unethical because it is intrinsically deceptive, either superficial spin or hollow deception; branding is alien to the culture of higher education; and branding is a wasteful indulgence, squandering resources better invested in the core business of learning and research.

These objections rest on misconceptions, and I feel the urge to set the record straight. So here follows an apologia for branding in higher education, from an academic-turned-branding consultant.

'Branding is unethical because it is intrinsically deceptive'

Academics are paid to question, and much of their scepticism about branding derives from their professional prerogative of intellectual dissent. Some of this draws on left-liberal critiques of branding as a socio-economic phenomenon - what could be called the "no logo" position after Naomi Klein's famous polemic of the same name. Klein described how certain consumer and lifestyle brands dupe people, usually those from poorer backgrounds, into buying expensive stuff they don't need because the items bear an arbitrary insignia of aspiration or tribal identification. The world of higher education couldn't be further from such imposture and enslavement, and the role of branding in this specific context couldn't be more different, either.

Aimhigher, a brand I was involved in developing a few years ago, refutes this rather narrow and sinister view of what branding is about. It was created in 2001 by what was then the Department for Education and Skills to inspire young people from backgrounds not traditionally associated with higher education to consider applying to university. The role of the branding was to provide a consistent point of contact throughout the whole process - from inspiring through initial advertising, through to providing information and support on application and funding. Aimhigher is now an established and trusted brand that is synonymous with widening participation, and it is recognised by young people and institutions alike. Its role is to connect these two worlds. But this is branding pure and simple, targeted at the very demographic Klein sees as most vulnerable to its pernicious practices. "Just do it" can have a very different resonance when education is the product.

Campaign initiatives are one thing, it could be argued, but do individual universities really need brands? At the most basic level, brands exist wherever there is competition in the marketplace for goods or services. They help customers choose. This need is most obviously and characteristically present on the supermarket shelf or in the car showroom, but it operates in the public and not-for-profit sectors, too.

Charities compete for funds, patronage and "mindshare", and are sometimes dedicated to the same cause. Macmillan Cancer Support, Marie Curie Cancer Care, Cancer Research UK - how do you decide which to support? Where there is choice, there is branding, and choice is increasingly central to the higher education market. Universities use their brands to help people make more informed decisions about investments that might very well affect the rest of their lives. Rejecting branding doesn't make it, or the reality it reflects, go away.

'Branding is merely cosmetic - changing a logo doesn't change the reality'

If branding isn't considered sinister, then it's seen as simply superficial, a costly cosmetic exercise associated with logo changes. Part of this misconception derives from a preoccupation with branding as a process that is actively done to an institution. "Brand" is generally understood as a verb, which the institution can choose to do or not. But it makes more sense to understand "brand" (especially in higher education) as the sum total of ideas, emotions and associations attached to a given institution. Universities have brands whether they like it or not, and branding is the effective expression and management of those ideas, emotions and associations. Not as spin, subterfuge or superficial image makeovers, but the authentic expression of what that university genuinely has to offer. Participating in branding is less about changing or tinkering with a logo than it is about the active management of how an institution is perceived relative to its competitors.

'Universities have reputations, and so have no need for brands'

While "brand" is a dirty word in some institutions, "reputation" is embraced as somehow more wholesome and authentic, reflecting the intrinsic and well-earned merits of an institution, rather than the mendacious machinations of external spin doctors. I won't enter into semantics here, but I would question whether reputation is sufficient if this simply reflects the hierarchical structures enshrined in the major league tables. If reputations are merely good or bad, according to these rankings, then all but the elite and most established had better give up trying to compete here and now.

Reputation, in this narrow sense, is currently dictated by league tables, and these tables are shaped largely by factors that a good many "customers" don't value overmuch. A storming performance in the research assessment exercise may nurture a glorious reputation, but that counts for little if it means contact hours are negligible, guidance non-existent, and students' overall experience and return on investment are disappointing. If student satisfaction data start to have an impact on reputation, then the research-intensive elites may be compelled to consider this concept in terms that are more meaningful for their core customers.

Brands don't belong only to the elite and are not covered entirely by this notion of reputation. The Open University has a brand founded on a clear, compelling and, at its inception, radical idea. It also happens to have a good reputation for research, but this doesn't define its brand. The question shouldn't be whether an institution's reputation is simply good or bad, but whether it has a reputation for delivering within its own competitive set.

The institution's brand can help provide this awareness, going beyond the two-dimensional focus of the league tables and allowing a richer understanding more in tune with how people actually engage with universities and, dare I say it, "purchase" their "products". About 90 per cent of the decision-making process in choosing an institution or degree is rational, involving subject, location, type of institution (urban or rural), league-table ranking and word-of-mouth reputation. The final 10 per cent, and usually the clincher, is more emotive: how do I "feel" about this institution, how would I feel about spending three or four years there, and how would I feel about being associated with it for the rest of my life? This is where brand comes in, going beyond reputation as recorded in vertical columns of newsprint. Brand is simply the sum total of how people think and feel about an institution. Branding is its effective management.

'Universities are not chocolate bars or shoes'

I've heard it claimed that to talk of branding universities trivialises institutions, as if they were being promoted in the same way as chocolate bars or trainers. But it is precisely because a university degree is so important - arguably the most important item on one's CV for a good many years, if not one's whole life - that branding has an vital role to play. How an individual will market him or herself on graduation will be affected enormously by the perception of the degree from that institution. You could say that the university brand becomes part of the individual's own brand.

Indeed, the implicit claims made by consumer and lifestyle brands - that they can change your life, your attractiveness, your confidence - are legitimately, maybe even uniquely, delivered by a university experience. Far from being inappropriate in this area, it could arguably be seen as one of the few areas where the more grandiose promises of branding actually hold true. Universities are far too important not to use branding to help themselves and their customers in this way. And it is precisely because they are not chocolate bars, but far more complex and multifaceted, that universities have to work hard to communicate more clearly what they are about. So much is invested in students or other stakeholders making the right choice that universities have a responsibility to help ensure that this happens. This is the principle role of branding in higher education.

'Branding is alien to the culture of universities'

Many people resist the very idea of branding for universities, considering it a recent and regrettable incursion from the commercial world that is alien to the principles and culture of higher education. But branding, properly understood, is not an innovation, nor does it belong exclusively to commerce. It has had a long and diverse evolution, and it fulfils fundamental needs and desires that it shares with other areas of our cultural life. Its history is illuminating. A brand is a mark of identification that should inspire trust through awareness of certain values or qualities guaranteed by its originator. In the commercial sphere, this trust encourages purchase or repeat purchase and a degree of loyalty, and the same principle applies to institutions with which people identify. These include charities, churches, religions, regiments, guilds, Inns of Court, schools, colleges and universities. Everything a brand employs to encourage a commercial transaction - symbols, colours, names, mottos, uniforms, rituals - has been used to evoke similar responses in diverse areas of culture and community for a very long time.

People need to trust, they need to believe and they need to belong. Branding as a professional discipline in the service of commerce evolved in response to the Industrial Revolution, when populations had been uprooted from their traditional communities and didn't know who or what to trust. Branding fulfilled a basic human need in a new context. The holy grail of commercial branding is the generation of loyalty, belonging and identification. Churches, regiments and colleges had all these things before commercial branding evolved and emulated their practices. Far from the objectives of branding being alien to higher education institutions - enduringly fond of their insignia, colours, mottos and proprietary dress codes - branding is arguably drawing on the desires, needs and practices inherent within such institutions since their foundation. Schools and colleges were among the first to develop elaborate coats of arms beyond the fields of valour and conflict, and they could teach modern commercial entities a thing or two about corporate identity. They were among its inventors. Universities as communities, even before they were considered businesses, have been branding for a very long time.

'Branding is a waste of money'

If branding is understood to mean merely a change of logo, without reference to a deeper, truer and more all-encompassing reality, then it's not surprising that the sensation-grabbing headlines have prejudiced the academic community against this concept, especially in these challenging times. But this is a very partial view, failing to acknowledge the slow, quiet and rather mundane role that effective brand policy can play in saving - yes, saving - an institution money. Far from being a profligate cosmetic indulgence, branding can be an investment that assists the prudent management of resources to be spent on all those things that are supposedly sacrificed when the logomongers come to town.

Take sub-brands, a mushroom growth that is surprisingly prolific in a sector supposedly resistant to branding. How many research units, enterprises, hospitality centres, business schools or innovation centres in the typical university are adamant that they need their own (often amateur) branding? The sub-brand habit in universities simply proves the strength of the human urge to identify with entities, and to then identify those entities in turn. But these constituent entities not only require significant resources to maintain, they very often dilute the recognition, strength and goodwill associated with the university brand. This is where branding can indeed be a waste of money, hatched by academics themselves rather than central management and its supposedly slick and parasitical advisers. A central, coherent and rational branding policy comprising and controlling all aspects of a university's identity and its image can bring significant efficiencies and ensure that any expenditure in a brand is invested rather than dissipated by renegade entities emblazoning their fiefdoms.

Coherence is the key here, and this is perhaps the most useful contribution branding can make to higher education. And that contribution is ultimately the efficient management of limited resources in an ever-more demanding marketplace. The more coherent and focused the brand proposition, and the more control an institution has over how it is perceived, the more its expenditure on marketing - including prospectuses, online activities, recruitment fairs and international agent networks - becomes an investment rather than a drain on resources that could be better spent on the core business of universities. It doesn't take many extra international students each year to pay for a little more systematic thought about what a university has to offer them or their domestic peers.

Universities were not founded as businesses, but they now have to act as such. They can ignore this reality, confusing the issue with dismissive references to consumer goods, or they can accept the responsibilities and opportunities of branding that are unique to their sector. The choice is theirs - because ultimately, it's also their customers'.

Robert Mighall, a former fellow in English at Merton College, Oxford, is now a consultant at branding agency Radley Yeldar.

FORGET THE ICING, IT'S ALL ABOUT THE CAKE

Sacrilege though it seems, there are some people who, when following a Delia Smith cake recipe, visit a website that gives alternatives for the various rare and pricey spices the instructions call for.

Two options are generally offered - a cheap substitute your local supermarket is bound to sell, or the advice that the recipe works fine without it. But is a cake made without those few grams of that special ingredient still a Delia cake? Or is it just a cake? Well, if you've ever eaten the real thing after trying the fake, you know that yes, that seemingly insignificant amount of spice made the cake. Which is all a way of saying that Delia Smith's brand isn't about expensive ingredients, as so many think, but particular flavours. Without them, it's just a cake.

I was reminded of this when I read Steve Eagan's advice that universities should say what they are "really good at" ("Restructure or die, funding chief tells cash-hit universities", 9 July). His statement was described as a call to "restructure" - a term with managerialist overtones that stirs fear and revolt among many academics.

But what Eagan describes is really a branding exercise, a normally positive process designed to remind everyone involved what it is you do (and I mean everyone - management are often the most in need of it). What is it that makes your university distinctive? What is the difference between a degree in subject X from you and one from someone else? (Branding isn't about being competitive, it's about being distinctive - there's a difference.) And more than that, how does subject X contribute to the overall flavour and feel of the place?

That last point seems to be missed by many universities, which think it's enough to say they're good at teaching and research. So "restructuring" comes to mean "saving money" by getting rid of the expensive areas for the profitable or cheap ones - like shopping around for that cheap and tasteless alternative for a recipe - or dropping them altogether, pretending the result is still the same. And branding then means spending a small fortune on a shiny new logo or a prospectus, or sending out press release after press release. Like tarting up a dull sponge with a bit of icing.

None of this is right. Branding is not about the icing - it's all about the cake. And a good cake has a variety of flavours, fruits and spices combined. Ignore that and you get something bland, like Madeira cake.

Once the ingredients are sorted, branding is in essence a matter of communication. And universities are pretty bad at doing that because they have no sense of narrative, just facts. For example, most universities tried to turn the research assessment exercise results into PR, yet the story wasn't the result (what on earth does four-star mean?), but what contributed to the result. Tell me the stories behind the facts. Don't just tell me because someone else has come and asked you to show them what you do with their money. This sort of communication should be constant, not something you engage in every few years. (And don't call it "dumbing down" - communicating complex information to non-experts is a skill, not a sin.)

Some places get it right: when I visited Newcastle University last year I arrived at the railway station and found it covered in banners about the research going on at the university. Simple, direct communication to a wide range of people about what the university does beyond simply producing graduates, and not a statistic in sight. It wasn't targeted at potential students, or other academics, but at the people of Newcastle and visitors - simultaneously affecting views of the university and the city. And that positive image will in turn have had an effect on potential students, businesses, investors and funders, much more than proclaiming its RAE rating. (My hometown of York has a banner proclaiming it as the birthplace of a certain chunky chocolate bar - oh well.)

It's what branding types call "buzz". It's what people are saying about you, and it's remarkably important. Buzz is more than just PR, which is what people you've never met tell other people about what you do. Buzz is what you tell other people. Or what your students say. Or what the people who employ your graduates say. It exists through conversations, blogs, Twitter and YouTube and in those chats you have at conferences. Buzz doesn't get counted in the RAE, but it has a massive effect on enrolments, partnerships and grant applications.

In 2005 I started hearing great things about a new postgraduate design programme called the d.school at Stanford University. They had a new approach; they were innovative; everyone wanted to study, give talks or teach there; and everyone wanted to employ its graduates. In fact, it was a new course in temporary accommodation, its approach wasn't really that new, and it hadn't accepted any students yet. Which suggests that the d.school approached branding the way the "professionals" do when they launch a new product. But the external excitement was in many ways secondary, because when you're building a brand you have to do it internally first - you need a clear vision that you use to recruit staff and students, and to set your agenda within the wider institution. The d.school became a sub-brand ("d.school at Stanford"). It attracted the interest of powerful friends and commentators. It attracted external funding. And it controlled the story. Which meant that when it started delivering, its graduates could wave the old school tie before it had even been woven.

This is a powerful lesson on branding. A brand has to come from within or it's meaningless. It has to drive everything, including recruitment of staff and students. It has to be organic, not fixed. Most importantly, branding isn't something you wait for the university to do to you, it's something you do to yourself. Otherwise you risk being the rare and expensive spice that can be replaced or done away with altogether.

Jonathan Baldwin is programme director for design studies, University of Dundee, and co-author of Visual Communication: From Theory to Practice (2005).

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