Branding in Higher Education

The question of branding is an interesting topic for higher education. What actually does it mean to ‘brand’ a department? In the commercial sector, we would expect a branding exercise to enable a product, product line or service to be distinguishable from a competitor’s offering. As such, an effective brand is a key asset, though its lack of tangibility means that you won’t find it in the company accounts.

What then for universities? Unlike most commercial organisations, universities have a vast breadth to their offering. They’re all in the same business – teaching and research – and even though the income proportions differ between research-intensive as opposed to teaching-intensive, there is a lot of commonality.

Undoubtedly, there is evidence of strong branding, which tends to be a combination of excellent reputation for knowledge generation and dissemination, together with a lengthy heritage. In the higher education world, longevity cannot be bought.

But then we do have the enterprising universities, that at one time were classified as the `94 Group’. Their heritage is embryonic next to Cambridge and Oxford, but they have established strong brands that are clearly marketable.

What is apparent is that in the higher education sector, branding could appear synonymous with reputation. At this point, if you are working in an institution that has more recent history than 16th century heritage, then you might feel doomed.

This needn’t be the case. If we see ‘reputation’ when we read ‘brand’, then why not think about how the external reputation of your department can be enhanced? This can be an attractive prospect, as departments that successfully recruit onto highly regarded programmes demonstrate.

In isolation this will not transform the reputation of the institution, but success is infectious, and it can be an effective way of re-branding. The way to think about this is to let an institution’s brand emerge from the excellence that its departments can evidence, rather than imposing a top-down brand.

So, let’s assume that a) brand means (external) reputation, b) departments can change their reputation, and finally c) reputations are best built upon excellence.

How can we use the prospect of an excellent external reputation to drive improvement?

It comes back to vision. The vision that we hold about what the department will look like in a future state. The fact that more students will select our department as their first choice for a higher education experience. The increase in privately funded projects that are attracted as a result of the department’s presence in the market. The way in which other institutions will talk about our department.

This vision requires an understanding of what the specific attributes will be, that characterise that new branding, as well as an understanding of the existing character of the institution in terms of what it feels capable of supporting.

For instance, if your institution is focused upon teaching, there will be a different set of challenges to an institution where your academic staff pull in 30% of the income thorough funding councils, and the teaching is delivered by PhD students.

However, the polarisation of a department’s character does have one significant advantage; a relatively constrained effort can make your function distinct without appearing too contrarian. So, how might this look?

The key question to pose is how will external agents construct their views of the department. What are they likely to expect, and what can we give them?

The corporate answer to establishing or changing a brand is to use the marketing department. Many leaders report variable results with this approach and there are frequent complaints of marketing functions being too slow to react, or taking too much ownership of the messages to be propagated, to the extent that the intention of the original message is lost.

Fortunately the academic community has its own channels for the selling of a reputation. Academics traditionally publish their research, and travel beyond the institution to deliver talks. This dissemination circuit has its own hierarchies, that varies between the subject disciplines. Generally though, a peer-reviewed journal article and an invited keynote talk at a conference are regarded as ‘good’ reputation enhancers.

But aside from quality of output, there is also an element of quantity as well. The more external events that link back to academics from your department, the more ‘buzz’ will be generated.

Now be honest. Is your department really on the map when it comes to externality? Is this something you can get behind, using staff development processes to facilitate?

Here are some activities that help build departmental brands:

  • Academics professionally accredited by industrial bodies
  • Academics with research qualifications
  • Academics who blog and tweet
  • Academics who are members of advisory/standards boards
  • Course materials offered for free on the internet
  • Industrial associations/sponsorships for courses/students/prizes at graduation
  • Participation in regional regeneration projects
  • Creating spin-off companies
  • Hosting events for professional bodies
  • Open talks for the public
  • Greater quantities of small funding bids – spreading the name of the department further rather than concentrating on larger bids that are more difficult to obtain
  • Students given opportunities to attend academic conferences
  • Students publishing their work
  • Students excelling on industrial placements
  • Students blogging/tweeting favourably while they’re engaging in the above

A lot of these become rather obvious when we make the conscious decision to establish a brand. The inevitable issue is finding the staff time to do it. As leaders we need to find mechanisms that can realise the latent value, and commonly the key instrument relates to your institution’s academic workload planning system.

Your conversations with staff will be reinforcing your story of the future state. Use your developmental mentality to ring-fence academic hours where they will have the greatest impact.

Another channel to influence is that relating to policy. What policies can you introduce, that will directly support an enhanced reputation? What difference would it make if you only appointed academic staff with PhDs?

Reputation requires us to think big, and implement now. Don’t underestimate the effect of a multitude of small actions. Just make sure that they relate to your vision, and after a while your staff will do the rest for the department!

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