Who are you? Branding in Higher education

Well, who are you? (who are you? who, who, who, who?)

I really wanna know (who are you? who, who, who, who?)

Tell me, who are you? (who are you? who, who, who, who?)

‘Cause I really wanna know (who are you? who, who, who, who?)

  • Pete Townsend

University marketing has been in the news again recently following the ASA reviewing University advertising and telling some Universities to change their messages to avoid misleading claims.

The majority of challenges have been about University’s messaging on their positions in rankings, awards and comparison tables.

The ASA has now issued guidelines to Universities to provide more robust data and be sure they can back up any claims with solid evidence.

Of course, this brings them into line with the commercial sector and is another example of how Universities are being seen as commercial operations as much as teaching and research institutions.

This brings me to the second interesting development which was the recent report into University branding published recently by SMRS (branding in higher education: an inside view – November 2107)

This report highlighted the importance of branding to senior management given the competitive market and changing external environment.  Apparently, 94% think branding in HE will become more important in the next 3 years and 60% of institutions identified internal understanding of brand as a key challenge.

For me, the most interesting challenge was that Differentiation remains  the top aspect of branding that respondents feel is ‘very important’ to the ongoing success of universities today (60% in 2017 and 57% in 2016) and that internal understanding of the brand is one of the main brand challenges.

What are we to make of all this?

Firstly, Universities are businesses and must look at their marketing and advertising in the same way as any commercial business. It would not be acceptable for a commercial business to claim they were in the “top 10” or “top 1%” or to claim some kind of uniqueness without being able to support it with evidence.

Secondly, it shows Universities are still struggling to articulate a clear proposition which differentiates them in a crowded market. The emphasis University management puts on differentiation in the SMRS report shows this longing for clear blue water.

Finally, the importance of an internal understanding of the brand so that staff and students recognise the importance of delivery to the brand and the customer experience.

Where does this leave us?

It is incredibly hard for Universities to differentiate themselves – they all do research, they all teach, they all work with business etc.

It is also hard for them to say they offer a significantly different or better “product” as commercial companies do – stronger, more powerful, more features, unique technology type claims are very difficult and they can’t really compete on price without an open market.

This is why they are led to making claims about their position in league tables or indices like TEF.

I would argue that it is more important than ever for Universities need to think about the values, the personality and the vision of their brands – why they are there and what they are trying to achieve. This is as important to the staff as it is to prospective clients. These intangibles then need to be backed up with stories illustrating who they are, but these stories need to be evidenced and believable or they will damage the brand.

I have a simple formula which is:

Credibility + visibility = profitability.

Universities need to take a long hard look at who they are, what they do and why they do it and then tell people internally and externally in an engaging and believable way.

There is no easy answer, and sometimes it might have to be the case as with AVIS – we’re number two but we try harder.