Higher education has proved beyond measure over the course of the last few years that it can respond to change and revolutionise the status quo within a short space of time. The sector has delivered new ways of working and leveraged technological advancements to help students learn and grow in different ways. But as students continue to demand more from their institutions and look for greater meaning and personal growth, the strength of innovation universities have shown now needs to be directed towards remaining relevant and communicating the meaning from their brand. In this article we’ll explore how leaders and their teams can design the way forward to make their university distinctive in their strengths and put the student at the core of their strategic plan.
The most successful brands are those who have a clear long term vision. Arguably this extends beyond the 5 to 10 years we typically see, and up to 15 to 20 years to truly shape and deliver effective change. The structure of higher education can make it difficult for university leaders to adopt a long term view, with many VCs and PVCs facing pressure on arrival into their post to steady the ship. Conflicting expectations can make it hard for them to take a step back, consider the future of the university and how the brand will underpin long term growth. However, they are not and should not be acting in isolation, with collaboration across the university needed to capitalise on knowledge and truly innovate. Whilst workloads and conflicting priorities can represent a challenge to collaboration, many individuals are highly open to conversing with leaders to create a strong brand that they can be part of and feel invested in. This is particularly true of marketing departments and CMOs who live in this world and those who have direct contact with the end customers. By opening up conversations early and broadly, internal support is easier to obtain and ultimately leads to a brand vision that resonates because it has strong values at its core that are representative of the community.
Whilst a sense of internal community is crucial in building a strong brand strategy, standing out against the external community is essential. One of the barriers we often see to change is the comfort many find in being part of a herd, however this can risk an institution becoming invisible. Being different and standing out can be a lonely and intimidating place, but by understanding the essence of what makes you different and communicating this in an innovative way you can start to leave the comfort of the pack. Language is an important ally in finding your point of difference. One glance across a random selection of university websites will reveal words like ‘excellence’ and ‘world leading’ in abundance. For the end user this can lead to a sea of sameness where it becomes difficult to extract those who are truly excelling and standing out against their peers. Notions of ‘excellence’ and ‘world class’ are very academic terms that don’t necessarily resonate with the external consumer. Steve Jobs framed this perfectly when he spoke about how Japanese marketeers never use the word quality in any of their marketing, because quality should speak for itself. If your brand is using cliches, then you risk promoting your category rather than your brand. To become visible against this backdrop university brands need to differentiate themselves, and differentiate with meaning.
To differentiate and enable something unbelievable, unimaginable, and unstoppable to happen you have to take big risks, even if the odds are not in your favour. Whilst the prospect of failing is intimidating, there are no prizes for playing it safe. This is a notion recognised by many of the largest global organisations who invest significantly into innovation and product development to explore, trial and learn. Whilst companies like Amazon may develop some products that fail, their dedication to innovation is a founding reason of why they are one of the most successful brands in the world. By reframing failure as a teacher in disguise, university leaders can be encouraged to take more risks. It always starts with a single step, and once you start that journey the next steps become easier.
There are more lessons to be learnt from global brands alongside their appetite for risk. When you consider the spectrum of companies, a big difference becomes evident between those running a business and those driving a brand. The point of difference is most visible within some of the most recognisable brands like Apple, Harley Davidson and Nike. Studying their full brand experience reveals that it is all inclusive and doesn’t stop when the transaction has been made. Instead the post sales experience is elevated to ensure consistency and encourage long term advocacy. Research suggests that this approach is the exception rather than the rule with two thirds of all companies focussing on the first two transactional phases of the sales journey (before and during), with most neglecting the final phase which occurs after the sale. Whilst we recognise that the three phases of the buying cycle are more elongated within higher education than other industries, this latter phase represents an opportunity for many universities. Those who are willing to invest into the post sale experience to differentiate their institution will be rewarded with long term loyalty and an exponentially strengthened brand. The alternative of focussing on the first two transactional phases at best leans into students’ low expectations and at worst risks being insulting, ultimately undermining loyalty.
The seismic shifts in the way we communicate and interact across the virtual or hybrid world threaten greater siloes than ever before. With siloes come missed opportunities as the connection between the product (the programmes developed by the academics) and stakeholders is lost. The product and portfolio must remain at the heart of the university brand, so it is essential that academics are brought on board to feed into and collaborate on the vision alongside leaders and administrative departments. Championing academics within product development leads to greater diversity in the programme portfolio but it also helps leverage external companies they work with to come in and help shape the vision in a practical way. It is fair to say that a disconnect exists between the product and the brand for many institutions and this threatens the loss of relevance. No matter how glossy the brand and colour palette is, if it doesn’t align with the portfolio then this misalignment will become evident to the audience. As we explored in our previous article in this series, a strong brand is not found in a logo, colour palette, mission statement or vision statement but instead in the innate nature of your institution and the experience when people come into contact with it. Ultimately brand is founded in meaning, and if this is absent or not communicated clearly then you risk becoming redundant.
If you are interested in exploring how you can take more risks and build meaning through every touchpoint with your brand, then get in touch with us here at The Brand Education. We offer thought leadership and workshops and we’re always excited to hear from you.