This blog was kindly contributed by Zeenat Fayaz, Director of Brand & Strategy at The Brand Education. Over her many years in the industry, Zeenat has seen how the best universities leverage strong brands for a greater market share in partnerships, recruitment and funding. Zeenat’s experience working with QS and THE gives her unique insight into the way institutions are evaluated and ranked. Today, Zeenat helps top-tier universities understand the power of branding and use this to enhance their global reputations. You can find Zeenat on LinkedIn here.
A study of how successful university brands were perceived found that whilst most UK universities could be considered distinct, few were seen to have fully-formed brands. The institutions identified as having ‘successful’ brands were those considered to have a clear vision and purpose in place for some time. However, the societal shifts accelerated by COVID-19 have been a catalyst for change within the higher education marketplace, signalling that brand reappraisal could be beneficial to all institutions to ensure their continued relevance.
Many brands have already taken steps to realign their identity to be relevant in a post-pandemic world. News columns have been filled with articles on Facebook’s rebranding as Meta, to embody the company’s strategic vision of a virtual world. Hermes have also transitioned to Evri, investing significantly into their structure to draw a line under their reputation of poor customer service. These announcements provide a nudge to all business leaders, including those within higher education, to examine branding trends and ensure they are best placed to deliver amidst evolving conditions, social norms and consumer attitudes.
Brand is a comparatively new concept for universities and can be an intimidating commercial term; but, distilled to an essence, it is simply the reputation of an institution. Marty Neiuemer encapsulated the concept best in his description: ‘a brand is not what you say it is. It is what they say it is.’ A brand can therefore be said to be a person’s gut feeling about a product, service or company. Consequently, brand management is the management of differences, not as they exist on data sheets, but as they exist in the minds of people.
Whilst higher education has evolved in recent years to counteract market saturation and the overcrowded marketplace born of globalisation, much university branding relies on an outdated model driven by short-term results, like student numbers. We propose a new approach driven by the longer-term rewards of competitive advantage and continued profitability to future proof the sector:
At the heart of this new model of long-term strategic brand management is brand equity. Put simply, brand equity is a measure of social value that derives from the audience’s perception of the brand. Impacting awareness, loyalty, association and perceived quality, strong brand equity is an asset driving deep-rooted results.
Evolving from a tactical to a strategic brand draws on every part of the institution. The new imperative for universities is therefore brand leadership, to develop the organisational structure, systems and culture to underpin the brand vision. Collaboration is at the heart of a strong brand. Having a designated brand manager to unify the approach across the organisation, helps embed brand within university culture. The brand strategy should be influenced by the university strategy and reflect the same vision and culture. The brand custodian must therefore be involved in creating the university strategy and be empowered to follow through on the vision.
With an ever more discerning audience, the brand must not promise what the strategy cannot deliver. There is nothing more wasteful and damaging to perception, and therefore reputation, than developing a brand or vision that is not founded on lived experience. An important ally in developing an authentic brand is the academic community. Qualities of instruction, competence and reputation can help attract the best academic talent, partners and funding, as well as influence those stakeholders’ feelings of attachment. Universities can only build their brand once they have identified who their stakeholders are and what matters to them. Embedding academics in strategic brand development helps ensure institutional values are authentically aligned with target customers. Whilst the ultimate goal of many professors is to inculcate lifelong learning, this worthy pursuit gains wings through their brand-building effort.
Whilst equity can be driven through individuals, this alludes to an underlying challenge in successfully implementing brand vision. As complex organisations, universities can be home to many sub-brands. With faculties, departments, business schools or even an overseas campus to align, getting it wrong can damage the parent brand equity. The challenge therefore lies in acknowledging aspects individual elements contribute to the overall identity of the brand. Implementing a more complex brand architecture framework enables universities to manage and market programmes and services more strategically.
A common barrier to investing the time and resources needed to implement a global brand strategy successfully is the notion that brand is intangible and cannot be tracked. However, there are a range of tools available to measure and track brand equity signals. Customer-based brand equity (CBBE) models can be used to attribute brand success directly back to customers’ attitudes towards that brand. Keller’s four step process provides a holistic view focused on building an emotional response by building the right types of experiences around your brand.
Aakers’s model also gives an integrated view on the internal and external understanding of the brand, but instead focuses on recognition and outlines the five components needed to separate a brand from its competition. Both theories can be used to ensure that brand is upheld at every touchpoint within the stakeholders’ journey.
Whilst many institutions are still on the journey to fully forming their brand, examples of universities breaking away from convention can be found. Aalto University sought to differentiate themselves by shaking off the shackles of history and heritage. They instead opted for an extremely visual brand identity emphasising lived experiences and the interplay between tradition and innovation. Birkbeck developed a playful approachreflecting their distinctive personality and innovative study provision to enable education on students’ terms.
With the rewards of a strong brand identity clear, I have summarised some key steps to achieving a strong brand identity:
- Encourage brand-building collaboration across the university, with a brand manager and clear brand management processes.
- Develop comprehensive brand architecture to provide strategic guidance across central and sub-brands.
- Create a strategy for key brands with a motivating identity that differentiates and resonates with students and stakeholders.
- Deliver efficient and effective brand-building programs with a system to track results.