Managers who feel the need to rebrand their institutions should ensure they have enough in their coffers - and then get expert advice, advises Harriet Swain
You've had enough of your fuddy-duddy image. You feel confused about who you are, and other people just don't understand you any more either. You sound like an institution in need of a rebrand.
But don't get too starry-eyed about it. Robert Mighall, senior consultant with branding consultancy Lloyd Northover, says first you need to figure out whether you've got the money. The cost of a branding exercise usually ranges from £60,000 to £250,000 depending on how much consultation and market testing is involved. He warns against doing it on the cheap by relying on internal expertise; those outside the business are unlikely to be aware of certain tricks of the trade, such as ensuring that logos work across media, from leaflets to websites. However, he concedes that branding is expensive and that institutions must be realistic about this.
With the cash in the bag, you need to think about what you want to achieve.
Leslie de Chernatony, professor of brand marketing at Birmingham University Business School, advises staying true to yourself. "You have to recognise that each university has its own personal DNA," he says.
Alisdaire Lockhart, chair of the Higher Education External Relations Association, says you need to decide what you are and what you would like to be and then see if there is a mismatch with how you are perceived.
While Mighall says it helps if you have a clear idea of what you want, he warns that sometimes it is tempting to believe that, because you already have a mission statement, half the strategic thinking about branding has been done. In fact, the mission statements of most universities look the same; most are based on the latest government pronouncements, he says.
"There has to be an understanding that what you say to political masters and to yourself isn't going to motivate students."
Once you have defined what you want, you need to decide how far you are going to go in order to get it. "Generally, if an institution wants to rebrand properly, it needs to make it not just a rebadging exercise but use it as an opportunity to think what it is about," Mighall says.
Getting that kind of insight involves talking to as many people as possible across the institution and outside. It is at that point, Mighall says, that you really need to use the help of an outside agency, not only because it will know the right questions to ask, but because it can put its thinking in the context of competitor institutions. Outside consultants can commission research and test ideas on the institution's core audience.
Jenny Ibison, chief executive of Heist, a specialist marketing services agency focusing on higher education, agrees. She compares university managers who fail to employ a consultant to overconfident competitors on the TV show Who Wants to be a Millionaire? "The whole world is screaming at the TV 'No, no, no' and they have the option to go 50/50 or phone a friend - and they don't and they get the answer wrong," she says. She recommends thinking about all people involved with the university, from staff to students to members of the university council, as resources to be tapped for their views.
Chris Clark, head of external relations at Royal Holloway, University of London, which is rebranding, says finding out what internal and external audiences think about your university - and then following it up once rebranding has taken effect - is an important way of measuring the success of the exercise. Mighall warns that although consultation is essential, it must not lead to decision-making by committee. This often ends in results being "scuppered by timidity", he says. If you are going to the trouble and expense of employing an external agency, you should trust its to make the best recommendations based on experience.
De Chernatony says that if consultants are any good, they will stand their ground. If they change decisions under pressure, you should consider whether all they are thinking about is their fee.
Ibison says that once decisions have been made, you must communicate them effectively to staff. You don't want staff grumbling that all this money has been spent but they don't understand why and they're the ones delivering the service, she says.
De Chernatony suggests finding "brand guardians", people who are looked up to within their departments who can be used to encourage positive attitudes about a branding exercise. But avoiding jargon is crucial in talking to academics about branding, Clark says, as is stressing the benefits it offers them and their departments.
Ibison advises benchmarking against your competitors, using a tool called MaXimizE, set up with funding from the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which enables comparisons of missions, corporate strategies and visions between institutions.
However, Mighall warns against rebranding for rebranding's sake.
"If you are doing it because you think everyone else is doing it, then don't do it." Or at least just stick to the first stage of working out what you want to achieve. "The second stage is making that visible and that involves financial commitment."
www.maximize.ac.uk, MaXimizE, benchmarking evaluation system for higher education institutions seeking to improve student recruitment and retention www.heera.ac.uk, Higher Education External Relations Association L. de Chernatony and M. McDonald, Creating Powerful Brands , Butterworth Heinemann, 2003
Set a budget
Don't think branding is just about the logo
Get outside help
Avoid making decisions by committee
Consider rebranding in stages rather than all at once