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University Branding – Watch Out for the Skin Deep

Ahead of The HE Marketing Conference on 17th April, Joel Arber from the University of Central Lancashire shares insights on the future of university branding

Marketing in higher education has been transformed beyond all recognition since I joined the sector in 2010. And whilst many academics look back through rose-tinted glasses at life before the Browne Review changed the face of HE in the UK, for marketers, the changes have had a much more positive effect – driving the professionalisation of marketing departments and growing marketing representation on senior management and executive teams.

The fee increase and removal of Student Number Controls proved transformational for the sector – and although there have been winners and losers, the overall impact has been one of sustained real terms income growth for universities. However, the challenge for marketers is that we are still operating in an artificially controlled market rather than a genuinely free one. In essence, the imposition of a cap on student fees has somewhat inevitably had the opposite effect to that intended by politicians and policy makers: we operate in a quasi-market where differentiation by quality or cost of delivery does not currently exist. This leaves us with the challenge of differentiation by brand.

Branding is a notoriously difficult area for universities. This is because we are all remarkably similar in so many ways – particularly if we cluster around mission groups. Read our mission statements, values, strategy documents and the homogeneity is overwhelming. Indeed, for most of us, the main point of difference is ‘place’. But it is also difficult because there is still insufficient understanding of brand and its importance across the sector. Rebranding exercises in universities are all too often focused on logos or on defining brand values, personalities and essences – and how the brand is communicated externally. The real focus should be on internal engagement, convincing staff (both academic and professional services) that it is actually down to them to live up to the brand, deliver against its promises and help define or change perceptions of their institution.

Branding is so much more than a logo. It’s about how a prospect or customer thinks and/or feels about a company whenever they encounter it – through any and every touchpoint. Stelios Haji-Ioannou, the founder of EasyJet, defines it well: “Your brand is created out of customer contact and the experience your customers have of you”. Your brand needs to be seen as a central, unifying force, integral to the way you operate as a business.

It is essential that we ensure we live up to the expectations set by our brands: your brand is not about advertising – it is the recipients’ perceptions and experience of your university at every touchpoint. If we are disingenuous with the promises we make not matching the reality of our behaviours, we will suffer significant reputational and consequent commercial damage. If we, through our corporate cultures, rally behind our brands, they can be an extremely powerful tool for us in differentiating our offering in our increasingly competitive, cluttered and complex core areas of business, and can help us to successfully position ourselves to sell our capabilities, products and services into both existing and new markets.

The external landscape isn’t getting any easier. The myriad changes brought about through last year’s Higher Education Reform Act are still working their way through whilst the current post-18 review raises the spectre of funding changes on the horizon. Now is the time to embrace brand in its truest sense – and bring your colleagues on the journey with you.

Join our chair, Joel Arber, and many more speakers including UCAS and the Higher Education External Relations Association (HEERA) at The Higher Education Marketing Conference on Tuesday 17th April 2018 in Central London.