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Education Branding - Why it doesn't work without the teachers

August 5, 2020

What images does the word “university” conjure up for you? Is it robed scholars with armloads of leather-bound books busying their way across a stone-walled courtyard? Perhaps it is an animated and passionate professor filling the lecture theatre with the acoustics of insight and irreverence? Or maybe it is just the social experience; from clubs and societies to new friends and new ideas.

While the images will certainly shift with generational and cultural contexts, very few people will visualize the administrative side of the institution as a first response. Specifically, in this case, the Marketing and Admissions team, the community managers, graphic designers, and communications strategists. These professionals are very much part of the way we actually perceive the reputation and experience of the institution itself, and they are as much part of “the university” as the academics themselves. This, however, is a rather recent development, all things considered, and this has brought some disagreement as to how exactly institutional reputation is actually managed, or whether it needs to be managed at all, for that matter.

What makes up the reputation of an institution?

The medieval university had quite a definitive answer to this, in that the fame and quality of its scholars and alumni (and indeed the fame of the host city itself) were quite sufficient to form a reputation. But then, there were very few of them and the subjects were limited to only a handful of options in any case. Not exactly fertile ground for marketers, one would say.

Though this situation changed considerably since then, the evolution of the Marketing Department is very recent. In only twenty years, the reach and remit of this team has grown from brochure and website designers to senior board-reporting staff, who effectively manage the reputation and external perception of the institution. This change has not gone unnoticed by academics, and the journals and periodicals of Higher Education are full of tales of the corporatization of academia, and outcry over the commoditization of students, through the language of the business world. As a simple experiment, try calling students “customers” or “clients” in the presence of almost any academic and observe the palpable tension in the room.

But yet the word universitas itself means corporation; a community of scholars, thinkers and writers forging ahead in their subjects for the common reputational good of their collective. Even inside that halfway house between these two worlds, the Business School, there are two component parts, and one cannot exist without the other. No business, no school. No school, no business. One should not impose itself on the other, but in symbiosis lies strength and sustainability.

The reputation of an institution is no longer simply down to how hard it is to get in, or the year it was founded, nor the prevalence of its research or the breakthrough discoveries of its flagship faculty. Bob Sevier found back in 2009 that admissions selectivity and academic quality were only two of six ways to build reputation in an institution. Another study of the same year found fifteen components to reputation, from stakeholder theory and CSR to trust and advocacy. In an age of digital communication where institutions act as social agents and work closely with industry and government, reputation is no longer something that comes from academia alone.

Research and teaching, as provinces of the academic, are a personal business. As Philip Muriarty of the University of Nottingham put it, academics have an “unvarnished” style which “humanizes” them and, in the same article, gave a passionate defense of the individuality of the academic against the onslaught of corporate branding guidelines, uniform PowerPoints and brand ambassadors. “I Am Not Your Brand” cried Professor Muriarty, and there are many academics who expressed solidarity with this sentiment.

Your brand, or our brand?

The pronoun tells all. Muriarty is an eloquent writer, where no word is accidental, and every choice is weighted. The brand is “your” design. It is a product of the world of business, forcing us to conform and stripping us of what makes us unique. That there is no buy-in from the academic team could not be clearer. This is not “our” brand, but one which has been constructed by those who understand market forces, emotional levers and data-rich psychographics. Those who will carry it forward into the classroom have not been part of the conversation, and it shows in this case.

Such an exercise back in 2012 involving academics in brand building and logo design was expressed (anonymously!) as akin to “herding cats”. But what would we expect? Much the same might be said if we tried to involve social media experts in designing selection criteria for a systematic research paper. Stepping into the other side is challenging, unless of course you can see that they are simply two sides of the same coin. Change does not come easy, but that does not mean it should be dismissed.

The truth is, that branding is about the distillation of so many experiences, voices, values and aspirations, into simple and recognisable form. The world of academia, however, is about expanding concepts, growing and enriching them until they branch off into other offshoots of increasing complexity. Academic traditions value the outliers like William of Ockham as engines to progress through their unique lines of enquiry against the grain. The Marketing department seek uniformity of image type, font and colour scheme. There are valid arguments for all of these perspectives, and yet without this conversation taking place, it is no wonder there are misunderstandings. Ockham was incorrect in this case: the simplest solution is not always the right one.

The education branding equation is not simple, but we need to work it out together.

Bringing academics into the conversation about education branding is not performative or superficial. It is the key to a robust brand image and reputation that can endure in uncertain times. Finding the common values that unite the university, and ensuring the teaching staff can feel that sense of ownership over the brand might not be easy, but even attempting to do it will help to open a conversation that needs to happen.

Teaching staff often travel, give public talks, make YouTube videos, and are often fiercely independent in their right to do so. Checking with the marketing department before all of this must feel like micro-management to someone who holds the idea of the brand apart from their own sense of ownership, but it might be different if they themselves co-authored that brand story.

Branding can act as a shorthand measure of the whole range of criteria that inform student decision making” finds a research paper from 2016, and given that the very nature of our campus experience is currently under threat from the pandemic and its unpredictable shockwaves, there is even more reason to ensure that our institutions are holistically clear upfront on who they are, what they stand for, and the experience they will deliver. There is no try before you buy in Higher Education.

While a modern and relevant curriculum, slick marketing, abundant testimonials, and a catchy logo might help to get students through the virtual or physical door, there is much that cannot be controlled thereafter. The student experience can deepen or recede brand loyalty at every touchpoint on the journey, and while universities invite students to form focus and feedback groups, or to become ambassadors, there is rarely an extension of this invitation to the teaching body.

There is no school without business; no business without school, and unless both are part of the brand and invested in its values, the cracks might appear at a time where a solid foundation for the future will determine who is still standing when the dust begins to settle. Marketing and Academia are part of this same story and, if that story is written together, the tale may well endure in what is yet to come.

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