Brands really do matter. And as the complex dynamics of reputation in higher education continue to shift, institutions are starting to pay closer attention.
Universities are increasingly dependent on tuition-based revenue, while the global economy and changing student demographics are forcing them to articulate clearly the return that students will receive from investment in their institution. As a result, hybrid models of curriculum delivery have contributed to an explosion of options for students, who are responding by taking control of their education as demanding, informed consumers.
Amid this chaos, universities need to find a way of distinguishing themselves from other available options, and branding helps them to do just that.
But what exactly do we mean by "brand?" There are countless highly sophisticated definitions. At its core, though, I consider a brand quite simply to be what people feel when they think about an institution (or a company, organisation, person or product). That impression, in turn, is shaped by the sum total of people's experiences with, or exposure to, that institution.
We have seen this for years outside academia. People identify so closely with some brands that they become part of their being, Harley-Davidson motorcycles being one great example. Harley's products, customers, culture and overall experience have grown to represent something so much more powerful than high-quality motorbikes. In fact, it is not uncommon for enthusiasts to tattoo the Harley-Davidson logo on to their bodies. Why would anyone permanently mark his or her body with a corporate logo? It is not the connection with the brand that explains the phenomenon, but rather what the brand stands for and how the individual experiences it. It is a feeling and a way of life.
We may not aspire to see students tattoo themselves with an image of a university crest, but it is worth examining the "sum of experiences" concept when thinking about university brands. If we consider the analogy of the sum of a person's experience, we should think about what factors contribute to that experience.
Any time an institution seeks to develop and protect its brand experience, it should look at four areas: awareness, brand familiarity, image and strength of preference (loyalty).
Awareness in terms of higher education could be defined as how a university's diverse constituents view their alma mater. Familiarity is defined as direct or indirect connections through word of mouth or knowledge. Image defines the unique association that represents what is expected (perhaps what will be gained by attending the institution). Strength of preference gauges the loyalty of prospective students, current students and alumni.
With many factors at play, how can an institution manage all this?
It goes back to experience. It is the student experience that drives the brand and consequently the reputation. Think of it as an equation: whether a website inquiry, a visit to campus or a call into the office, the sum of all these student interactions equals your brand -perception. But the experience does not stop when the student is enrolled: it continues through every event and occurrence at university up to and including graduation.
For better or worse, each interaction provides an opportunity, either positive or negative, to influence that student's decision to invest further.
Let's be clear: the brand is more than a logo. The customer, not the organisation, defines the brand. That control was relinquished once consumers gained the ability to share their experiences on social media networks. In the world of the consumer, the brand is set to be the most powerful strategic tool in the marketing toolbox.
While higher education is unable to control the message, it can control the experience and the factors that affect it - for example, the calibre of courses and staff. This is what students will talk about. If you are creating a positive "sum of experiences", that builds a positive reputation and therefore a powerful brand.
The brand will become one of the biggest factors in the global competition for university recruitment and admissions. When faced with hundreds of choices, which institution will the globally mobile student choose?
In my experience, successful universities know their audience and tailor their marketing accordingly. Most have switched from mass marketing to opt-in, essentially presenting niche offerings to clearly identified segmented audiences. Throughout the admissions cycle and beyond enrolment, they define expectations and link actual experiences with good use of technology, supporting communications that are consistent, informed, contextual and personalised.
Todd Gibby is president of higher education at Hobsons