The job of a Vice Chancellor is not always an enviable one. With expectations of leadership, profile raising, financial security and delivering against the university’s mission they can be pulled in many directions. Against this backdrop the notable direction of developing and communicating brand can often be overlooked. Whilst it can be argued there is an institution-wide need for colleagues to connect to their brand, we have focussed on university leaders as the most impactful disconnection can frequently occur at this level. To bring clarity and inspiration we spoke to someone who profoundly understands brand, our founder Zeenat. With expertise straddling brand and higher education, Zeenat sets the scene on a trend that can put leaders on the backfoot before they have even begun.
“Many university vice chancellors come from positions within academia. Whilst this brings many benefits, it can mean their commercial expertise is not as well developed. When talk turns to brand, it can often be dismissed as too commercial for the world of higher education. Many leaders fail to see their university as a brand, commercial entity or even a business, despite multi million pound turnovers. The rebuttal that ‘we’d rather invest in teaching and research’ has become outdated. This is beginning to change, with some bringing in leaders from outside of the higher education industry to enhance their commerciality and prioritise brand.”
Whilst a few revolutionaries can be found, the status quo across higher education places brand as a secondary priority, or worse, no priority at all. Zeenat believes that we have much to learn from brands outside of the sector who leverage a deep understanding of their audience to align their vision.
“There has to be a shift in mindset. The world has changed and this is a great opportunity for university leaders to learn from brands outside of the sector. Apple is a good example as the number one company named as a mentor brand during workshops. At the heart of this success is the founder & CEO, who was able to align the company vision with the target market. This lies in stark contrast with a typical university leader, who may have lost touch with their target audience and instead defaults to a robotic process more aligned to the world of academia than business. Younger universities like London Interdisciplinary School, Arden University and University of Law are really getting to understand their brand and align this with audience needs. We can expect the divide to continue to open up between the old model and the young universities who have a clear cut brand and a more distinctive proposition for the audience.”
There is no getting away from the fact that there is greater choice in higher education than ever before, and new entrants may have an edge with the benefit of a clean sheet on which to build a seductive brand. However, if working out how to differentiate yourself against this backdrop is keeping you up at night, this could already be a warning sign, as Zeenat explains.
“Lots of universities are facing the challenge of differentiating themselves in a highly competitive market. The very concept of differentiation should cause concern for leaders, because only those brands who act like commodities wake up everyday with the challenge of how to differentiate. Companies with a clear sense of why they don’t have to worry about differentiation. They don’t think of themselves as being like anyone else and they don’t have to ‘convince’ anyone of their value.”
Whilst this sounds simple, we know it is a lengthy, confusing and at times conflicting process to arrive at the essence of a university. There is no suggestion that the VC should be developing this in isolation, but instead leading a team of well suited individuals who demonstrate passion to deliver the university’s vision.
“There is a lot of discussion in strategic planning about how to stay ahead in research or build a global reputation, but what is often missing is how the organisation is going to effectively lead and deliver against that objective. Success begins with building a team who are empowered. Establishing why you are doing things can be incredibly empowering to teams, as it provides insights they would not be privy too if not part of the initial discussion. Another crucial aspect to building a successful team, is to utilise the university strategy to guide on which people align with the vision and are best suited to supporting in building a brand that is worthy of their target markets.”
The task is clear, by understanding who you are and why you exist you can stop worrying about others and celebrate your own successes. We already know that VCs and their handpicked team need to drive the clarification process and distill the brand narrative, but the next question is how to best establish this brand narrative and confidence across the organisation. Zeenat has an answer for that too.
“Leading by example and showcasing core values will enable the chosen narrative to trickle down and out across the institution. It will also inspire those underneath to understand why they were recruited and satisfy their choice in joining the organisation. Leaders must believe in the work that is being done, or nobody else will. When asking their teams to deliver in line with the brand strategy, leaders need to give clear direction on why they are making a request and how this matches back to the values and mission of the institution. Core values should be the filter for every single decision, every demand, everything you say yes to and every goal you go for.”
With leadership underlined by belief, clarity and a steadfast determination to deliver, it is important that the leaders are passionate about the organisation they are joining and fully comprehend the mission at hand. This should begin at the interview stage and run well beyond retirement as Zeenat outlines.
“It’s important for universities to recruit VCs who align with their values, mission and vision. There is an opportunity for a well matched VC to sprinkle a little of their own personality and individuality into the strategy and delivery, as we see with visible CEOs in brands outside of higher education. With universities, it can be difficult to understand who the VC is, what they stand for, how their values align to the university and how they will take the university forward. They are instead at risk of becoming an untouchable person that only interacts with their direct executive team and puts a video out during graduation. The lasting legacy that many leaders outside of education experience is therefore often absent for higher education leaders. By believing in their why, leveraging their personal brand and joining the conversation there could be a very different outcome. No one joins a university because their VC is great and this needs to change.”
Whilst there are many steps to authentically connect leadership with brand values and on the surface this may be an intimidating proposition, Zeenat offers an encouraging final word.
“In summary it’s really just becoming comfortable with the concept that leaders don’t have to be brand experts but they do need to be part of the conversation. I would urge leaders to get comfortable with the idea that they add value and their voice needs to be heard by others within the university because it’s important because they drive the university towards something bigger than themselves. Brand is about distilling the essence of your values, embedding them within the university’s vision and aligning them to the university’s stakeholders.”
If you’re interested in learning more about how to engage your leadership in the wonderful world of brand, or you are a senior leader looking to take the next step, get in touch with us at The Brand Education. We’re always excited to hear from you.