Universities are brands whether they like it or not

January 1, 1990


Branding and academia may seem like uncomfortable bedfellows. Creating a brand is a fundamentally reductionist process, distilling complex concepts into short words and simple visuals, while academia celebrates detail and discourse. Branding is commonly thought to be about short-term commercial benefit and thus wildly at odds with the longer-term values at the heart of academia.

But in reality, these caricatures overstate the differences. First, brands are deeply complicated conceptual structures built through every interaction consumers have with them - a logo is simply a shortcut. Second, strong brands are not built just for short-term sales uplifts. In the past 30 years there has been an extraordinary shift in the basis of value creation, from tangible assets (property, equipment, stock and so on) to intangible ones (employee skills, patents, systems and brands): indeed, many studies have estimated that the tangible assets of businesses globally account for as little as 25 per cent of the value investors place on them. Intangible assets - including brands - account for the remaining 75 per cent.

Wherever the target audience of an organisation faces a choice of alternative competitors, branding is incredibly important for justifying price, avoiding commoditisation, attracting and retaining talent and ultimately, resisting rivals. So a properly constructed brand is essential for any university competing in the modern global education market.

With this in mind, here are six observations about how the best commercial brands have been built. Some will be more relevant or surprising than others, but all hopefully demonstrate that branding requires more than regimental guidelines: powerful brands inspire as much as they cohere.

The importance of 'purpose'
The best brands, said leading ad agency veteran Jean-Marie Dru, are not nouns but verbs: Nike exhorts, Benetton protests, Apple creates. For consumers, these brands fulfil a purpose beyond mere product offerings: as marketing strategist Maribeth Kuzmeski's book...And the Clients Went Wild! discusses, Revlon does not sell cos-metics as much as "hope".

For universities, it may not be possible - or even beneficial - to try to encapsulate their role in a single word, but it is nonetheless instructive for them to be clear about their purpose and whether this answers to what applicants truly want. (Future employability? A social circle where they fit in? Three years of hedonism?) These questions put the spotlight on the emotions behind the decisions people make - factors that neuroscience and modern psychology have shown determine our judgements much more than rational thought.

Fame versus anxiety
According to behavioural economics, the role of branding increases when purchases become "asymmetric" - that is, when a buyer's personal outlay is greater than their level of rational assurance. For example, laptops are expensive, but it is difficult when you are standing in Currys to judge if a product's quality will match what is claimed. In this context, a brand's fame helps to suggest that promises will be kept.

As the UK's Institute of Practitioners in Advertising recently put it: "If a brand is famous, people assume it has the endorsement of others." Consequently, buyers ease their anxiety by turning to brands they are more familiar with.

Academia is especially asymmetric: university requires significant outlays in the form of time, energy and money, while the standard of facilities or the social scene is not certain at the start. This asymmetry is partly assuaged by league tables or peer recommendation, but fame can play a vital role, too, particularly if the brand's familiarity has been built up over time.

Pre point of purchase relations
The link between familiarity and saleability can work particularly well for aspirational brands that reach people in their formative years. To use an industry anecdote: Len Heath, founder of British advertising agency KMPH, was perhaps giving the day job too much respect when he claimed that he was selling his industry shares and buying an Aston Martin because of an ad he had read. "But the point is," he explained, "I saw the advertisement when I was 14." It is easy to imagine that the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race has a similar impact. The brand connotations of heritage and status implied by the event - alongside further evidence of the universities' fame - can only resonate with young, ambitious minds, whether they like rowing or not.

Implicit communication
In 1916, Coca-Cola set out to create a bottle that "a person could recognise even if they felt it in the dark", according to The Man behind the Bottle by Norman Dean, the son of the bottle's designer, Earl R. Dean. Nowadays, progressive brands are similarly trying to communicate their distinction not by simply advertising their products, but also by using technology to develop products that advertise implicitly.

For example, Nike+ FuelBand - the 2012 winner of the Titanium Grand Prix at Cannes, arguably the most prestigious award in advertising - is a wristwatch that builds the brand's sporting credentials by helping people to track their activity - monitoring calories burned, setting future goals and competing with friends.

As Stefan Olander, vice-president of digital sport at Nike, told Adweek.com: "The products and services are becoming the marketing." Of course, such marketing is only sought out and appreciated if people find it beneficial.

Act generously
The digital world offers an increasing number of ways to engage consumer attention while simultaneously increasing the ability of consumers to respond if that attention is abused. As a result, modern brands are obliged to provide something useful, entertaining or memorable - in short, to think and act "generously".

For example, Fiat's eco:Drive (an app that helps owners drive more efficiently) and Tate Modern's Tate Tracks, which offered gallery visitors the chance to listen to specially commissioned songs when viewing paintings, worked backwards from audience interests to figure out a credible role for the brand.

For universities, this means asking: what "products" (lectures, academics, research papers, facilities) can we provide that are relevant to our audience? What experience do such products generate? And who exactly are our audiences?

Right fit for relevant audiences
Universities have several groups to -consider: first, the existing body of academics and students, who - through their day-to-day experience of the university - should ideally accumulate enough enthusiasm to identify with and support their university "brand". In a world of growing online social media, any such peer-to-peer recommendation has increasing impact.

Second, if alumni feel like they can benefit from retaining contact with the university community (for example, through networking events or industry-specific lectures), they are more likely to become ambassadors.

Third are the potential students. Here, universities need to embrace new communication channels that are not only familiar to this group but also allow for richer interaction beyond
the prospectus: interactive virtual campus tours (such as Yale University's YouVisit) or the chance to "shadow" a current student through social media being just two examples. The emphasis in each case is on providing the university's "brand experience" rather than simply communicating its brand message. The latter can seem reductive or hyperbolic; the former is often richer and more likely to generate word-of-mouth support.

To implement any of these principles, short-term demands, competing internal interests or other ingrained attitudes probably will have to be overcome. It is easy, of course, to spout theory when far away from the practicalities. But as John Stuart, former chief executive of Quaker Oats, put it decades ago: "If this business were split up, I would give you the land and bricks and mortar, and I would keep the brands."

With the evolution of higher education, there is good reason to heed his philosophy.

Ian Pearman is CEO of Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, the UK's largest advertising agency

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