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The problem with university branding efforts

In the heat of mid-January, when every university and college in Australia was “in market” for semester one recruitment, a CSIRO scientist invented a random university slogan generator (see image), a VERY simple word randomiser.

Activate, Realise, Be, Disrupt, Push, Become, Next, Now. Dip the ladle into the word soup, and hey presto you have a university slogan. Become your next. Activate your tomorrow.

Source: @ketanJO 19/1/19

As one of the marketers responsible for bringing ‘Become More’ and ‘Unleash your Fearless’ into being, it was hard not to feel judged.

It’s no secret that university branding efforts tend to all sound a bit samey. Back in the far away days of the nineties when university marketing primarily involved printed prospectuses, people joked about the ‘undergraduates smiling under a tree’ trope that even appeared in marketing for institutions without leafy campuses. The work is exponentially more sophisticated nowadays: cinematic television commercials, complex digital ad buys, multichannel integrated campaigns… and exponentially more expensive, with tens of millions being spent on ‘rebrands’ or ‘brand refresh’… but still we all end up saying pretty much the same thing.

Are the critics of university branding right in saying it’s a waste of money and a distraction?

The first objective of branding is distinctiveness. Branding is a function of memory: brands are staking a claim in someone’s mind, and the first hurdle is being memorable. Standing out. We are falling at the first hurdle.

What is a harried higher education marketer to do? We are aware of the problem but despite the investment, despite our best professional efforts, we are not achieving the goal.

In 2017, while trying to find a way for my institution to get more market impact out of our investment in brand, I was given the time to look more deeply into the academic research on higher education branding. I was so interested I signed up to do a PhD on the topic.

This is what hooked me: the academic research found the tactics that work for other products and services do not work in higher education.

There isn’t a huge of a body of knowledge for higher education branding. Most of the research on branding is done on fast-moving consumer goods (phones are a very popular topic). What has been done makes it very clear that higher education is different from other products and services, but that it is being sold using techniques developed for other products.

It shouldn’t need to be said that buying a phone isn’t like buying an education — and nobody involved in university marketing thinks so — so why borrow the branding techniques? It’s the dominant paradigm: it is how the big agencies make their money, it is the stuff of industry magazines, it is what get featured at industry conferences and taught in courses. We are doing industry best practice — but higher education branding and marketing needs its own models.

Where can a university trying to stand out in a competitive global market turn for solutions?

Where the research is most helpful to practitioners is in providing insight into how people form attachments to higher education brands – the psychological processes at play. University brands are co-created in interactions between members of the university: students and teachers, of course, but also students and administrators, administrators and researchers, researchers and funders. It is the quality and consistency of those interactions that shape the perceptions of the university. In other words, as Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh puts it, “Your culture is your brand”.

The bad news for marketers is culture is outside the control of the marketing department. The good news for university managers is that every university is a goldmine of data about what’s working and not working in terms of brand perception. The really great news is the opportunity this presents to throw out the rule book and pursue genuine distinctiveness.

In Admap in April, four of Accenture’s leading customer growth strategists said purpose was the key to long term brand success, saying customers are looking for “authentic relationships” with brands.

The opportunity lies in building more authentic and profitable relationships with customers. Meaningful relationships that shift the customer dialogue from ‘give ME what I want’ to ‘support the ideals WE believe in’. Long-lasting relationships grounded in a common purpose and built around a collective sense of brand belonging. Authentic relationships based on an affinity to brands that do more than just make money.”

Completing a university degree requires “a long-lasting relationship grounded in a common purpose”, so higher education brands should have an advantage on other brands. We’re not just an accessory to your life, your experience with us fundamentally transforms your experiences and opportunities in life.

Treating education like a fast-moving consumer good, obsolete next year, has shrunk university brands to the badge on the testamur, with the brand message focused on the advantages of studying for a degree. Brand strategies have 3-5 year horizons, turning over along with the management team, barely long enough for one undergraduate cohort to complete their study. People have lifelong relationships with a university, sometimes inter-generational. The brand of a university has to be big enough to encompass all of that.

Robyn Evans is a marketing communications strategist with more than 10 years’ experience in leadership roles in the education sector, at an education charity with international operations, and at two universities: King’s College London and the University of Southern Queensland.

Evans has worked in research and administration at universities, as well as in marketing roles. She and her teams have won a number of professional awards, including a CASE Circle of Excellence Silver Award in 2015. Robyn has an MBA from QUT, and commenced PhD studies in higher education branding in 2018.

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8 comments

  1. Relationships are built with people not institutions; education is a relationship between a teacher and pupil.

    Students do not want “authentic relationships” with brands as much as they want a relationship with their teacher/s. Teaching has become the casualised, temporary position in universities shouting what to the world? So many institutions pay so much money to so many support activities that do not make a change. UWS became WSU and achieved what? Why?

    I did not study adult Education at Sydney because it was Sydney but because of the course and staff involved. Similarly I studied at Lancaster (UK) because of Peter Checkland not because of Lancaster University as a brand. Study at Hawkesbury came from the reputation of the staff and programs in Agriculture not the brand of the overall institution.

    I coughed up cash for the course I wanted based of the people teaching it and their past success in that area. I did not choose an institution and then find a course. Logos, motto, web pages are thinner than silk; the engine behind it is the study program and the academics teaching – period.

    It seems a whole lot of consultants and support staff are making motzahs out of smoke and mirrors. Once education became “a product” the rest was inevitable.

    • Hi Paul, thanks for those thoughtful comments. I agree in large part: students don’t need to have the logo perfectly produced, or a nifty slogan, they need teaching staff and support staff who can support them to learn and achieve their goals. Advertising has its role, especially while the Government insists in competition between public institutions, but you are right to say treating education like a product is a poor strategy.

  2. If the marketing has failed, what has been the result of that for Universities? Can this failure be correlated with a decline in student numbers across the sector? According to Higher Ed data – 1.5% increase on the previous year for domestic students and 10.2% for overseas students. So, despite the article’s claim that marketing does not really work, or any more, (and I’m not surprised), enrolments are healthy. What this marketing perhaps does do is service the sector as a whole, in terms of attempting to inspire University as a preference over other career path options.

    I can see why international students might need more information (not slogans) on an institution’s reputation or areas of real strength; less so for domestic students who have better access to options to glean information – from word of mouth to contacting real people at institutions. But where is the intercultural translation on what a student in, say, India is inspired by when it comes to making a choice?

    • Hi Patrick,

      My argument is not that marketing has failed, but that branding efforts have…but I wonder of you think a 1.5% increase in domestic enrolments nationwide is a fair return-on-investment for the hundreds of millions spent on marketing universities within Australia? University marketing budgets, excluding staffing costs and overheads, ranged from $1.5 million to almost $15 million in 2013 (SMH, October 22, 2015). I think we should be able to do much better than that!

  3. The problem is not that university advertising is ‘samey’. The problem is that they are ridiculous. These buzzwords and slogans literally mean nothing. They are ungrammatical word salads that provide no possible means to interpret them. The result is to entrench the passivity of the ‘consumer’ on students who have no idea what they are ‘consuming’. Honestly, if the best we can say is that we need more ‘authentic relationships with brands’, we’re all screwed. People have no relationships with brands, authentic or otherwise. A brand is a convenient fiction. A relationship is what you have with another being.

  4. I am not quite sure if there was a conclusion on the best way forward in this article. It seems I hear several different interests expressed by prospective students – One group want the best university in their chosen field to increase their career/employment options, the second group want a university that will give them easy pass marks because they feel unprepared for university or because they want to work 40 hours per week while studying “full time” for their degree. There is a third group who have no idea what they are getting themselves in to and seem to make few enquiries regarding their upcoming uni years and/or just decide on geography and price. For those who are discerning, they seem to focus on what past graduates say about the quality of their lecturers and tutors and what the job finding network has to say about the course. I am not sure much of this can be affected by a marketing program.

    • Hi Craig, I would argue the brand should not focus on selling degrees. Sure, you need some advertising for that purpose, but the institution is so much more than a degree mill (hopefully!). Brand is about the meaning people attach to the symbols, and if that’s just ‘we make money selling you a qualification’ it’s a race to the bottom. Thanks so much for commenting.

  5. Most new ones are laughable. They often replace good ones like ‘ seek wisdom’ How about a generic
    ‘No bull’.

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