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.
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.Do you have an idea for a story?
Email [email protected]