Plymouth's 'enterprising' spirit is called into question

Businessman complains to ASA over 'misleading' brand slogan. Hannah Fearn reports

January 21, 2010

The University of Plymouth is assessing reaction to its branding strategy after a complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority about it labelling itself "the enterprise university".

The complaint was filed by Ian Benson, a businessman, who claimed that Plymouth was misleading both applicants and local firms with its slogan.

Data obtained by Mr Benson under the Freedom of Information Act suggest that of the 10,000 students who graduated from Plymouth in 2008, only two went on to start a business with the university's support.

And of 3,000 Plymouth staff, only one had formal "expertise" in enterprise, Mr Benson said.

The businessman also claimed to have contacted 5 academics named by the university as experts in their fields to ask for their opinion of the slogan.

He said only one of the responses was positive.

The ASA did not uphold Mr Benson's complaint, ruling that "the enterprise university" tag was open to interpretation.

But Jane Hopkinson, university secretary and academic registrar, says in an email sent to Mr Benson that Plymouth had not commissioned any formal market research about the likely public interpretation of the term "enterprise" before it launched the brand.

Mr Benson said: "I think there is a distinct possibility that students could be attracted to Plymouth expecting a hotbed of new-venture creation, only to find a normal university with rather less enterprise activity than many others."

The case highlights the difficulties for universities in relation to brand design.

James Allan, digital strategist at consultancy Mission Media UK and a former student president of the University of the Arts London, said: "If Plymouth had asked their students to support the rebranding of the institution, what would they have said?

"Would Plymouth have chosen to declare itself 'the' enterprise university? Would it have chosen 'enterprise' as its unique selling point in the first instance?"

Universities are "just as answerable to their consumers as any other brand", he said, adding that any false expectations whipped up by a brand would inevitably cause problems.

In an age in which people, including students, can easily post criticism online, disappointment could result in serious reputational damage, he warned.

Jane Chafer, director of marketing at Plymouth, said the university saw its slogan as a "visionary, inspirational phrase" that reflected its mindset and culture.

In 2009, Plymouth was named the "most enterprising city" in the South West for the second year running, and the university has been asked to lead a project on managing enterprising universities by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, she said.

However, she admitted that market research would now be carried out to assess how the university's brand was being received.

"We are currently finding out what our external audiences think of us, and it is on the basis of that evidence - and where we want to be in the future - that branding changes, if any, will be made," she said.

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