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13 March 2011

Branding in Higher Education

Tag(s): Education, Marketing

Last week I participated in my sixth annual residential strategy review of the University of Bedfordshire where I am a Governor. In that time the University has nearly trebled its student numbers with a corresponding increase in revenue, has established its new name following a text book merger between the former University of Luton and the Bedford campus of De Montford university, and has embarked on an exciting redevelopment programme to position the University for the needs of future students. It attracts students from all over the world and offers one of the most diverse student populations in locations close to London without the costs of London.

However, the sector faces enormous challenges. The Comprehensive Spending Review has seen a reduction in University grants of 60%, one of the most severe cuts of any government department. Universities are being asked to set fees for academic year 2012-13 by April this year when not all the rules and guidelines affecting this decision have yet been issued and indeed the Government plans to issue a new white paper on Higher Education in May!

In such a situation the main thought must be the effect on the students themselves. Noone knows how students will react to being asked to go into debts of £40,000 or more. While it is true that they will not pay the higher fees up front, nor indeed pay back their student loan until they have started to earn more than £21,000 pa, there is still a huge question as to the potential deterrence of able students especially those from poorer backgrounds entering into such debts.

In such a situation one clear message for us as Governors, legally charged with the financial performance of the University and crucially with its academic character, is that it has never been more important to be clear about our brand proposition and how to implement it consistently across all our sites and with all our students, past, present and future. I was asked to lead a session at the residential to help all governors and senior members of the management team understand this.

I started by recognising that there may be scepticism among the academy over the concept of branding in higher education. Some may perceive it to be unprincipled, fundamentally dishonest, persuading consumers to buy stuff they simply don’t need. Others may feel that it is inimical to the world of higher education, seeing it as the creature of the commercial world and unduly associated with the profit motive. Still more may see it as secondary, distracting teachers and researchers from their main task. (Mighall, 2009). I set out to deal with these points and a few more.

To the charge that it is unethical I believe the opposite is true.  You will find branding wherever there is choice for goods or services whether in the private, public or voluntary sectors.  Branding helps people to make their choice by providing information about what is on offer. Good brand managers seek to build trust in their brands through quality control, making clear promises and setting out to deliver on them. That is not to say that bad practice does not exist as in any walk of human life, but it is not endemic and not usually successful in the long run.

Branding is sometimes seen as superficial, dealing with the style not the substance of an institution. That can be true if we think of branding as just a process - something we do to the University - then we will assuredly fall into this trap. A brand consists of the concepts, feelings and aspirations harnessed to a particular institution. It exists in the minds of our stakeholders. We need a process, but one of active management of how an institution is perceived in relation to its competition.

Some would prefer to think of a university’s reputation rather than its brand but consider how a potential undergraduate goes about the problem of deciding where to apply. She will use several rational criteria, first considering the subject that she most enjoys or is good at or feels is most likely to help her get a good job. Next she’ll think about the location, close to or by contrast far away from home. The type of institution is a factor as well, is it in a major city or a newer campus in a more provincial setting?  She’ll no doubt factor in the league table rankings and listen to recommendations from her teachers at school and other perhaps less informed but still important influences such as family and friends. Much of this last category of influences these days is likely to be “heard” on Facebook or Twitter or other social networking sites.

But our candidate will use emotional criteria as well as rational. How does she feel about belonging to a particular institution, to committing herself for the next 3 or 4 years there, and, significantly, how does she feel about having the brand of this institution on her CV throughout her career, and at least in the first part of that as possibly the biggest differentiator in the jobs market?

To those who see branding as belonging to the world of soap powder, chocolate bars and sports shoes, well, I’ve sold all of those and can confirm that they are different. I am cautious about drawing too many analogies between the business world and the world of HE. But ask this. How will our student market herself? Will not the University’s brand become part of her personal brand? So much of her time and money has been invested in this experience, and this is set to rise hugely. When fees were set at £3k pa it could be compared to a typical annual family holiday. At c.£6K -£9K it is looking more like a family car but this is annual so it is moving into the realms of the most expensive purchase an individual would ever make other than a house.

In this situation I think one particular idiom from business is appropriate and that is the concept of repeat purchase. At Procter & Gamble we used to say that selling snow to the Eskimoes was poor business because there would be no repeat purchase. While an individual student makes one big decision to apply to a particular University, accept its offer and enter into an agreement with the Student Loans Company she will need to renew that agreement every year and sadly, so many fail to do so. Indeed the repeat purchase cycle can be broken down into much more frequent decisions such as attending each lecture in a programme, completing each assignment and so on. It is like renewing vows in a marriage or a religion.

So far from being foreign to the world of HE many of the lessons of branding were no doubt first developed there. Long before the first trade marks were registered in 19th century England institutions like churches, nations, regiments, guilds, colleges and universities had developed their regalia, their gowns and other symbols. Such marks of identification were practically useful but also inspired trust among both members and the wider community.

Branding is far from a waste of money. The more coherent your brand proposition the more efficiently you will deploy your resources. It is akin to the David Principle. Michelangelo was asked how he could make such a wonderful statue as that of David. He said “It’s easy. You just chip away the bits that don’t look like David.”  (Stewart, 1990). That is how good brand management works. Decide what is essential in the delivery of your brand. Invest strongly in that. Stop everything else.

Universities were not founded as businesses but they are now, not just because of public policy, but because we live in a world where we do have almost infinite choice. To succeed we need to understand what is distinctive about our institution and deliver it consistently and professionally at every point of contact.

Works Cited

Mighall, R. (2009, July 23). What sets you apart? Times Higher Education, pp. 32-37.

Stewart, V. (1990). The David Solution.

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