The product – the forgotten dimension of University branding

I have been involved with many conversations about branding with different Universities, most of which revolve around Institutional values and mission and brand architecture/sub-brands. Where the “product” is mentioned, it tends to be at a faculty or course level in a recruitment context rather than as an integral part of the University brand offering – why are we here, what do we offer and why do we offer it?
Kotler’s model of the dimensions of the product is well known and consists of:
Core Benefit – This is the basic level that represents the heart of the product. Here, the focus is on the purpose for which the product is intended. It answers the question ‘What is the buyer really buying?
Tangible Product – The tangible product is the physical product or service offered to consumers. This represents all the characteristics of the product like quality, features, design, brand name, packaging, etc.
Expected Product – Following on from the tangible product, this is a set of attributes and conditions buyers would normally expect when purchasing the product.
Augmented Product – These are additional customer services and benefits such as warranty’s etc. and are very important for a firm operating in a competitive market.
Potential product – finally, this represents how the product could evolve in response to technological changes or changing consumer requirements.
Looking at Universities with this model in mind can help illuminate the nature of the product they offer and how it should underpin any discussions about brand and positioning.
For instance, up until the 1992 education act which transformed the former polytechnics into “New” Universities, Kotler’s model as applied to a University would have said:
The core benefit was about getting a degree as a marker of having achieved a certain level of education, but without necessarily having an expectation or link to getting a specific job (outside areas such as medicine or the Law)
The tangible product was therefore a teaching and learning process leading to a certificate of having achieved that degree, along with the grade achieved. At a time when only about 10% of the population went to University, this was enough to take graduates into good positions with large companies via the so called “milk-round”
The expected product was all about teaching and learning and the facilities to do so. There was relatively little expectation about career content or skills development.
In terms of augmented product, Universities attempted to enhance their offer through sports and learning facilities, access to distinguished academics and networks of alumni.
Finally, the potential product took into account changes to technology in terms of teaching and research, but did not anticipate fundamental changes to the academic model i.e. a three year degree and a follow-on post-graduate qualification.
In this environment “brand” related to Institutional reputation as a whole – a “degree from Oxford” or whatever – was as important as reputation for a specific area of study.
This product model has fundamentally changed over the last 15 years under the impact of fees and needs to be explored within the context of developing an institutional brand strategy.
If we look at Kotler again:
Core benefit – not only about getting a degree as a marker of having achieved a certain level of education, but now also expectations around the degree leading to a specific job or employment opportunities. This has changed the dynamic around what a degree (and therefore the University) is for – it’s about employability
Tangible product – similarly, the tangible product is still about a teaching and learning process leading to a certificate of having achieved a degree, but now also includes a requirement for employer contact, some kind of work experience, and projects
Expected product – Now includes not only Teaching and learning facilities, but work experience built into the course, and academics with experience of industry etc. and links to major employers
Augmented product – under the impact of fees, Universities are looking at ways to augment the product with facilities, new buildings, improved accommodation and also the opportunity to work with employers
Finally, in terms of the potential product, there are discussions about virtual learning, shorter degree courses, degree apprenticeships etc. but the fundamental product has not really changed and is very robust.
What does all this tell us?
It is clear that aspects of the expected and augmented product have moved into the core product. It is not just about the degree but also the need to include work experience, connections to employers and degree courses which meet their needs along with those of the student.
It also brings into question who is the customer for University degrees? There are a number of stakeholders including students who are paying for the product, organisations who are employing graduates and government who are focusing on the skills agenda.
Indeed, the “product” of today’s Universities could be said to be employable graduates, not the degree course per se.
The key issue is that the dynamic of Higher Education has changed such that Universities are now seen as engines of economic development, growth and employability. In many ways, we have gone “back to the future” where Universities are being encouraged by the market and government to adopt a model not dissimilar form the polytechnics i.e. practical degrees and supporting skills and employer engagement leading to graduates well-equipped to enter the world of work.
The post-92 Universities have a remarkable consistency with that vision and they need to recognise that heritage and strength.
Given the potential product now has to include economic, wealth and societal benefits as well as academic achievement, it is clear the delivery of Higher Education has to adapt. The three year degree and post-graduate qualification has been very resilient and resistant to change.
But the future product must take account of employer needs and involvement in content; shorter more focused degrees; virtual learning and the role of technology; a real commitment to degree apprenticeships and different modes of study including sandwich courses.
Should we be talking about 21st century polytechnics?

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