Universities should focus on building a “personal connection” with students rather than concentrating on prestige to promote their brands, new research has found.
The authors of “The role of brand attachment strength in higher education”, published in the Journal of Business Research, also found that this “customer-orientated” approach should extend to graduates as well as to current students if universities are to build their brands.
“Universities’ positioning strategies may be focusing too much on building prestige, whereas strategies aimed at improving student satisfaction could have more positive effects on brand equity,” the paper concludes.
Eleftherios Alamanos, one of the co-authors and lecturer in marketing at Newcastle University, told Times Higher Education that while universities’ dedication to “degree quality and quality of staff” were essential, they should zone in on the individual student’s experience to enhance their attachment to the brand.
One of the key findings, he said, was that there was a negative relationship between brand attachment strength and student satisfaction, indicating that the more attached a student becomes to an institution, the more difficult it is for them to be satisfied.
“What satisfies a student in the first year may not satisfy them in the third year,” he said.
“The best solution to that is to try and understand what is important to students in their life in the university. The main contribution of our work is the importance of the brand’s meaning on the overall perceptions of the students – the personal connection that students develop with the university where they’re studying.
“The thing universities are missing and tend to get wrong is building on this personal connection. They focus too much on keeping the students satisfied [in some areas], for example by focusing on degree quality and staff – which is absolutely important, don’t get me wrong – but our argument is, if they put efforts into building the personal connection, the results will be even better.”
Dr Alamanos said that the rewards of improving the personal connection that students had with a university were manifold.
“It’s really important keeping this connection, because the commitment can take many forms – donating to the university, not only in terms of money, but the personal time (coming in as a guest lecturer), sharing experiences with the students,” he said.
The study, which surveyed more than 600 students and graduates from the US, could easily be applied to UK institutions because there weren’t “massive differences” between the two sectors, Dr Alamanos said.
When asked whether he thought UK universities were addressing this issue, he said that “many were doing very well in terms of their brands in the global market” where they’re competing with European and US institutions.