In today's competitive world of higher education the quality of a college's teaching or a university's research is the least of a dean's worries. More than ever, the biggest issue is actually what everyone else thinks of your institution....
The academic world may expound the benefits of branding to its students; professors may teach tomorrow's marketers and business leaders that brands make money. But they have shied away from practicing what they preach. Branding, it would seem, is for the commercial world-a world far removed from institutions whose purpose is the pursuit of knowledge.
While many universities and colleges avoid mentioning the b-word, they are all acutely aware of the importance of reputation. And even if they do not like to admit it, the tools of branding are being increasingly deployed by universities and colleges to help them succeed in the competitive world of higher education.
In the US, the growth in higher education branding has followed the general trend in non-profit branding, according to Hayes Roth, VP worldwide marketing at Landor Associates. "Schools have realized that this is a very competitive market. If you want more students and get more money, you need to give more point of difference.
"Recruitment directors and deans live or die by where they stand in the US News & World Report rankings," explains Roth. "Schools literally say 'We are at Number 32, how can we get to be Number 25?' One clear way to do that is to communicate better, to have a story-a brand.
"Enlightened people want to have a cohesive argument for why their school is best," Roth continues. "They need to simplify the cacophony of messages that go out. They can also reduce their costs; a single, cohesive brand story is much more cost efficient."
The gradual move by US institutions to a more commercial mindset is mirrored in other countries. Since 1992, when polytechnics in the UK were given university status, the higher education sector in the UK has become fiercely competitive. Recent changes to university funding and the imposition of tuition fees on students have made the market even more customer-oriented. "The higher education market has become really competitive," says David Wood, a director at Iris Associates in the UK. "The newer universities are all catching up on the more established ones and they are more aggressive in their marketing; they have had to be. Then there are new super-universities like Manchester. The international market is also a big driver; international students generate important revenues."
"There's a realization that they need to communicate more effectively," Wood continues, "and set out how they see their strengths. There seems to be a flurry of activity at the moment."
In the UK, Imperial College London is among the institutions to roll out a brand program. The aim was to manage all of the institution's communications and publications so they had the same look and feel and give a consistent message about what Imperial stands for.
Wood meanwhile worked with Tim Longden, director of marketing and communications at Nottingham University, on Nottingham's rebrand. "Our primary need was to provide a unified, consistent brand that gave the same message to the outside world," explains Longden.
The structure of the branding programs at these two universities and many others is similar. First there is consultation, then the design, then implementation. But this progression is far from straightforward in the academic world. "It is quite a difficult sector to work with," says Wood. "We tend to work with the marketing department, but academics rule the roost. It's a real job working with these people, and the hardest thing is keeping people on board." Wood says he spent four months in consultation with staff, students, alumni and other stakeholder groups before putting pen to paper.
Of course, research is the one area where universities excel. They love to do surveys, seek opinion, crunch the numbers. It is more in the area of decision making where branding exercises begin to falter. "You need a leader," Roth stresses. "Someone at the helm with power and will to make a decision. In academia, risk taking is not always rewarded. I have found universities can be anything but collegiate-actually I've never seen such levels of politicking in any corporation! But with branding, the world is not democratic. The CEO makes a decision on the evidence available."
Lynda Davies, former head of communications at Imperial College, says that much of the success of Imperial's brand program can be attributed to its support from the highest level. "We could've sat around in committee and looked at colors forever," she says. "But I had the 100 percent backing of Richard Sykes, our Rector." As former Chairman of GlaxoSmithKline, Sykes knew all about branding. He wanted it to work for Imperial too.
But herein lies the greatest barrier of all: academic institutions are democratic in nature. Imposition of corporate culture is anathema. Professors want academic freedom to pursue their own interests. So if a brand is to work, it has to make sense. It has to be liked, and it has to be easy to embrace-so easy that it would be completely pointless to do anything other than implement it.
Imperial set up an online resource for its staff. "There's a really devolved publishing structure here," explains Davies, "so we had to make our way the easiest way." The online "brand shop" has everything anyone might need to stay on brand, from logos to advice on content and style. There is even an image library to ensure that illustrations are also in keeping with the Imperial brand.
But the general focus on logos, publishing, even image banks, makes Wood question whether his work and the branding programs in other universities are really branding at all. "I think it is more about corporate identity," he admits. "I'm not sure any of this goes as deep as true branding."
Nevertheless it is a start. Universities are, at last, taking marketing seriously. They may not all have got the branding idea (yet), but they certainly know that they have to make a good sales pitch to stay in business. "There's certainly been a professionalization of marketing in this sector," notes Longden. "Marketing is being embraced." In Nottingham, Longden's department has grown from three to around 50 people in five years.
"Someone will work it out soon," predicts Roth. "It will probably be a school on the cusp of the top tier. It won't be a 100-year-old school bound by tradition but an upstart. Suddenly some previously little-known school will appear on the radar. It might not be the likes of Harvard, but some middle-tier schools might suddenly discover the bite of competition."
"I think branding in this area will develop fast," he adds. "There is too much money at stake. Schools are hungry animals. They want people and funding, and the market is increasingly competitive. Soon they may even start using the b-word!"