Five key learnings on the value of brand for universities

By Avarina Wilson-Dyer-Gough

How can students and their parents identify which university will best help them achieve their dream career? What makes an international student come to your university? How can universities attract funding? How do universities differentiate themselves in a crowded and often confusing marketplace?

Over the past two years we’ve worked with a range of university brands, gaining valuable first-hand observations and research with internal stakeholders, students, parents and opinion formers. As the first part of our 2015 focus on the value of branding for universities, we have brought together five key observations on what it takes to bring clarity and coherence to successful university brands.

1. Successful university brands are built on a long-term strategy, not a short-term campaign.

Universities are complex organisations. Their individual department structures, overwhelming range of courses as well as diverse student cultures can present a disjointed image. If they steer away from who they really are using generic eye-catching, short-term messages, they too can present an unrealistic view of who they actually are. To overcome their often complex existence, clarity and simplicity are essential.

A ‘brand lens’ can help to cut through this complexity, shining a light on the core essence of a university and distilling it into digestible bite-size messages. By asking the simplest questions, “who are we?”, “where do we want to go?” and “what would be missing in the world if we didn’t exist?”, a university is better able to simplify and craft a brand positioning and vision that synthesises their rich and unique value. Knowing what makes them special means they can present a clear and engaging impression of its dreams for itself, or even how it will fit with the dreams of its students.

2. Sell an experience, not just a name.

Students don’t sign up to attend a university based on clichés like ‘the community feel’.  While their parents may be more focused on how many hours of lectures their child will attend, students are often more interested in the people they will meet and how the university will help them achieve their dream job after their three  years of (hard) work.

Successful universities understand their role as the springboard for many people into adulthood. They know that the student’s experience of a university helps to develop them as an individual, in their career and the future ambitions. To sell a university experience doesn’t mean personal testimonies of how a student enjoyed a course or pictures of the scenery. It means promoting the true, multi-faceted ways that their specific student-experience helps to develop them as individuals and as adults. Often the best student experiences are at the universities that focus on the different opportunities and experiences it can offer a student outside of the class tables and away from a focus on the league tables.

3. Collaborative internal branding leads to successful brand creation.

People like to have their opinions heard. If you ask someone for their feelings or experiences about an organisation, they will highlight unknown emotional and functional aspects to a brand that would otherwise go unnoticed.

Successful brands understand the value of collaborative thinking and sharing in the creation of a brand. It is viewed as their most important asset. When a university builds its vision and strategy by working in co-production with its stakeholders, not just the senior management team, individuals feel emotionally connected to the institution and its future. Internal and external stakeholders, like academics, lecturers, students and even careers advisors, will provide an outside angle on what makes the university special or what isn’t being promoted enough. In addition, it is this form of collaboration that sets the foundations for internal buy-in and support. If people feel respected and involved they will often actively engage in the creation and roll-out a compelling and sustainable brand.

4. Tell a good story…

Between 2012 and 2013, UK universities increased their combined marketing spend to a total of £36 million. This high spend can be futile when seeking to attract more students and funding if universities aren’t telling a good story.

Brand narratives help universities to shout about their valuable stories in an engaging way. When these stories are brought together into a central brand narrative, reflecting the unique essence of who they really are, the impact is automatically amplified. A strong central brand narrative enables successful university brands to be flexible in their brand messaging, choosing whether to focus on the value of their overall brand or promote the strengths of their courses and campuses.

5. ...And tell it to the right people.

Successful university brands know how to translate their brand positioning into engaging and targeted communications for the right people. They know how to talk to students about the issues that count to them compared to those that matter to parents and careers advisers. Messages are co-ordinated at the same time around the right themes and detail, creating a powerful centre of gravity that engages with stakeholders. By knowing what tone of voice and messages appeal to the different audiences, universities are better placed to strategically shout about what makes them special to the interested parties.

Our experiences highlight that universities need a clear central brand strategy. Differentiation in the marketplace occurs through a brand narrative that amplifies the strengths of an institution and guides everything it does.  This enables students and their parents to buy into a brand experience, not just a name and a logo. UK and international students will pick the university that understands and openly wants to help them achieve their ambitions. Successful brands work with their stakeholders to know why they are great and tell it in the mostengaging way.