Sorry, marketers, but I am not your brand

Pathological corporate branding is detrimental to the very image universities want to portray to students, says Philip Moriarty

July 6, 2020
brand, advertising, marketing
Source: iStock

Dear Philip,
Please find attached an amended version of your slides for your mini lecture, “Artificial Intelligence, Atom By Atom”, as part of our virtual open day events. I’ve blended your slides with our template.
Is that OK?
Many thanks…

That is an excerpt from an email I received recently from our external relations and marketing team after submitting my contribution to the University of Nottingham’s virtual open day. My carefully crafted slides failed to “respect” Nottingham’s corporate identity guidelines. Hence, they were shoehorned into its PowerPoint template, with its relentless and utterly predictable brand positioning. The atomic background to my title page was replaced by a stock photo of the university, and the corporate logo, with its retro gradient background that sticks out like a sore thumb in just about every context, was slapped on every slide.

No, I’m afraid it’s far from OK.

Three years ago, I wrote a letter to Times Higher Education (“Mutual respect and teamwork are vital”, 6 July 2017) to highlight the importance of appreciating each other’s expertise and knowledge. “Just as it is arrogant for academics to dismiss out of hand the key contributions of their marketing colleagues, it is similarly unhelpful for university central marketing to ignore the advice and input of academics,” I wrote, ending with a plea: “Let’s talk.”

Fortunately, in this latest case, we did talk – although that conversation should not have been necessary – and I was graciously permitted to use my original slides. But I am very much an exception; the expectation is that all academic presentations for Virtually Nottingham should conform to the university’s corporate identity guidelines.

What’s especially frustrating is that this type of pathological corporatisation is detrimental to the very image and, if we must, brand that we want to portray. How many students come to a university because they admire the corporate identity guidelines and branding? Indeed, how many students and young people are directly opposed to the type of corporate branding that universities want to impose on academics?

We claim that our university embraces individuality, originality and critical thinking. And yet our marketing strategy homogenises all presentations to the point where the corporate identity smothers the differences between disciplines and faculties. Every university slavishly mimics what every other university does ad nauseam. Our promotional videos are indistinguishable, and there’s absolutely no attempt to embrace the diversity of teaching styles that should be the lifeblood of a university.

As Naomi Klein put it in her inspiring 1999 book, No Logo (which has been described as defining a generation), “Too often, the expansive nature of the branding process ends up causing the event to be usurped, creating the quintessential lose-lose situation.” Students, academics and marketing professionals – we all lose out.

In terms of effective promotion of universities, the corporate environment and ethos are entirely counterproductive. Compare and contrast the official Nottingham YouTube presence with the Sixty Symbols channel, to which my physics colleagues and I regularly contribute – a collaboration with the video journalist Brady Haran that was awarded the Institute of Physics’ Kelvin Prize in 2016 “for innovative and effective promotion of the public understanding of physics”.

Although the contributions are from a single school, Sixty Symbols far outstrips official university channels in terms of subscribers, views and reach. The same is true of Haran and colleagues’ other channels, involving the chemistry and computer science schools: PeriodicVideos, Computerphile and Numberphile.

Why is this? It’s not particularly difficult to fathom. One key reason is that these academic-driven channels forgo the corporate branding and imposed uniformity that is typical of science communication. We presenters all have our own type of script, style and structure: an unvarnished approach that humanises us and helps connect us to the audience. Think of it as “guerrilla marketing”, if you will.

The virtual environment, in which we will have to deliver our open day presentations and mini-lectures this year, already imposes a considerable distance – pedagogical as much as physical – between academic and audience. Forcing all academics to rigidly comply with corporate identity guidelines only expands that distance further.

Philip Moriarty is professor of physics at the University of Nottingham.

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Sorry, I am not your brand

Please login or register to read this article.

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Related articles

Reader's comments (6)

Although I agree that marketing can go too far, I must take issue with the idea that academics do not need a house style. I was a member of a research group in the 1980s where one of our number created the university badge in a predecessor of Powerpoint. This gave us a house style that put us in a different league at conferences to the rag-tag collection of presentation styles from others. It did help that we were a world-leading group but I have never understood why my colleagues have such a problem with all of our documents looking professional. It does not prevent one placing good material within the common framework and is something we accept from academic journals all the time. I enjoy the relaxed atmosphere of academic life but do recognise that my university is my employer and as such has some right to direct me in some aspects of my working life.
@msl_csp Thanks for your comment on the article. It's not a question of professionalism vs "shabbiness", however. Indeed, I would argue that the current University of Nottingham logo is far from the most professional or aesthetically striking; its blue gradient background means that it doesn't blend with anything and looks like it's been screen-grabbed-and-cropped into a presentation. In other words, the corporate identity guidelines mean that, in my opinion, we look less professional. The UoN logo that we had prior to the current version was much, much better. "...but I do recognise that my university is my employer and as such has some right to direct me in some aspects of my working life." The marketing team is not the university; the academics, students, researchers, administrative staff, technicians etc..., collectively, are the university. More broadly, where do you draw the line as to how you should be directed? Should the university dictate the content of your lectures, choose your research themes, and/or veto what you say publicly? What role does academic freedom play? Best wishes, Philip
Up top: "it is arrogant for academics to dismiss out of hand the key contributions of their marketing colleagues" In the comments: "The marketing team is not the university" "I would argue that the current University of Nottingham logo is far from the most professional or aesthetically striking....In other words, the corporate identity guidelines mean that, in my opinion, we look less professional." Sounds rather like you're dismissing your marketing team's contributions out of hand to me.
This is not an accurate quotation: the author didn't just say "The marketing team is not the university", but "The marketing team is not the university; the academics, students, researchers, administrative staff, technicians etc..., collectively, are the university.", which is a factual statement. The marketing team alone is not the university; the university is all these things collectively and they better all work together.
@JWightwick. Not at all. Marketing teams do important work and I respect many of their contributions. But that respect has to go both ways. Of course the marketing team is not the entirety of the university; they do not define who we are. There's no contradiction there at all. The university is all of its staff and students, marketing teams included. But universities are not homogeneous corporate blocs -- we should embrace diversity of opinion and style, not blandly assume a "one size fits all" branding profile. You left out the bit where I said that the previous logo was much better than what we have now. Respect does not mean automatic agreement with everything the marketing team puts forward; I respect many colleagues with whom I disagree. As I discuss in the blog post linked below, something has gone badly awry when, back in 2018, I was the only academic at a conference on marketing and communication in higher education. https://muircheartblog.wpcomstaging.com/2018/11/08/crossing-the-divide-communicating-with-the-comms-crew/ All the best, Philip
@stacuk Thank you for that clarification. You said it much more pithily than I could manage! Philip

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Sponsored

Featured jobs

Additional Support Coach

Bpp University

Information Technology Training Coordinator

United Arab Emirates University

Senior Lecturer/Reader: Midwifery

University Of The West Of Scotland

Innovation Adviser

University Of Greenwich