Universities that are not top of the league tables are marketing themselves like a teenage girl who “spends all her time wearing a wardrobe that doesn’t suit her body shape”, a branding consultant has said.
They need to be honest about their ranking position rather than using meaningless statistics such as “we’re 93rd in the country for the quality of coffee in the student union bar”, argued Rebecca Price, partner at the recently founded agency Frank, Bright & Abel, which partly focuses on higher education.
Speaking to Times Higher Education, she said that universities were generally “very poor at communicating their offer”. Higher tuition fees had driven institutions to “chuck statistics” at applicants rather than communicating the uniqueness of their “ethos”.
The use of statistics was “fine if you’re top of the tree but most aren’t”, Ms Price added.
She recounted a project she had worked on to rebrand London South Bank University. The institution, which often finishes near the bottom of domestic university rankings, had constantly been “apologising” for this fact, Ms Price explained.
In 2012 it was rebranded as “‘the brighter choice’ – not everybody’s choice, not the first choice, but the brighter, smarter choice for those in the know”, she continued.
Universities were trying too hard to emulate their rivals, Ms Price said, when there was “always a story to tell” about their differences.
“It’s a bit like…the teenage girl who’s got black hair and brown eyes who longs to be blonde-haired and blue-eyed, and spends all her time wearing a wardrobe that doesn’t suit her body shape,” she explained.
“Universities…like that teenage girl need to get to the point where they realise: ‘Look love, you may not be blonde-haired and blue-eyed, but you’re lovely, and this is how you’ll make the best of it’.”
It would be “vacuous spin” for universities to pretend otherwise, she said.
But Lynn Grimes, director of marketing and UK student recruitment at London South Bank, said that branding was “not as simple” as focusing less on statistics and more on an institution’s atmosphere.
“Some students want to know facts about employability and student satisfaction, perhaps at different points through the decision-making process,” she said.
Frank, Bright & Abel started work in June and has seven staff. Ms Price said it was working with a private “start-up” that would “hopefully” become a university, and also with a Russell Group institution, which she declined to name.