For those who have been in the industry for a while, you too may have noticed the significant shift of marketing efforts towards the more qualitative measure of performance. There is safety in knowing how many people have viewed your ad, engaged or taken action. However, the subsequent neglect of brand building may leave many exposed in a landscape where privacy law impacts the quality of interaction that can be achieved. In this series we hope to inspire confidence to invest in your brand and reap the rich rewards this will bring. In the second step on this journey, our founder Zeenat draws on her experience to help you establish the meaning in your brand by understanding when conversations should be happening, who should be involved and key questions to ask of yourselves.
Whilst brand can be an abstract concept, Zeenat shares the simple essence at its heart.
“Marty Neiuemer encapsulates the concept best in his description; a brand is not what you say it is. A brand is a person’s gut feeling about a product, service or company. It’s a feeling because we’re all emotional and intuitive beings, despite our best efforts to be rational. In the end, brand is defined by individuals not companies and when enough individuals arrive at the same gut feeling, a university can be said to have a brand.”
While the degree of control a university can exert on the collective consensus is limited, there are opportunities to influence the conversation as Zeenat explains.
“The notion of differentiation has been present for some time, however, the industry continues to suffer from the sea of sameness. Universities need to find their meaning by establishing what makes them unique, the different story they have to tell and their reason for existence. To compare a brand with its competitors, you need to know what makes them different. This is where brand management comes in, it is the management of difference not as it exists on data sheets but as it exists in the minds of people. Universities do a great job in conducting competitor analysis and sourcing data from intelligence companies, but the data can often be outdated by the time it arrives. The best way universities can gain this knowledge is by conducting their own qualitative research, with the people that matter to their brand.”
The cultural changes born of the last few turbulent years mean that now is a good time to have conversations with stakeholders and revisit your brand narrative.
“Prior to COVID many universities used their offline presence to physically showcase points of difference. The acceleration in the digital space catalysed by the pandemic drove much of this online, where it is more difficult to differentiate messaging. This is exacerbated by the general trend of society moving away from an economy of mass production to mass customisation. Purchasing choices have multiplied and we don’t have time to filter, so we base our choices on symbolic attributes rather than features or benefits. This is not a new concept, it can be linked back to symbols in ancient Egypt which underpinned happiness, love, protection, weakness and hope. Modern day symbols include what a product looks like and the tribe people will join if they buy it. Within higher education symbols translate to respectability, employability and prestige, which all influence the degree of trust you feel towards a university.”
Communicating points of difference that bring your brand to life and influence the collective consensus cannot be done in isolation. To ensure your brand is a success, buy in from the top is crucial.
“There was a time when business and brand strategy were approached on two different levels. Business strategy was developed at the top of the company whilst brand strategy, if it existed at all, was developed at the marketing level. However, within most organisations the two are now intertwining strands of the same DNA. Business represents how the institution operates and brand represents how stakeholders see you. In today’s customer-centric marketplace, companies that don’t view their stakeholders as integral to their existence are at risk of becoming irrelevant. Getting it right requires significant investment of time and resource, but it takes more time and money getting it wrong and redoing it a few years later.”
The best way to bring business and brand strategy together is to develop them in unison and fuel this with a conversation that engages views from across the institution.
“Many strategic plans provide a roadmap for the facilities which will be built, academics that will be recruited, research that will be conducted and the shape the student population will take over next five years. However, the brand strategy which creates a sense of belonging for stakeholders within these visions is often missing. Brand can be an intangible notion, so to help overcome this it’s important to have dedicated people working within the university to manage brand at the highest institutional level and implement strategies at the business functional level. Having a brand manager to manage the university’s presence, create frameworks and provide training is as integral as having a social media manager. Operating across the university, a brand manager or team can draw on the voice of key stakeholders to get to the heart of what sets the brand apart.”
To avoid trying to fit a square peg into a round hole when implementing university strategy within brand and marketing, it has to be a collaborative process with all the right people in the room when key decisions are made.
“Successful brands are built from the bottom up and with collaboration at their heart. However, we often see this playout differently in universities where a strategic plan is decided at the top and then passed down to marketing to implement. By giving CMOs a seat at the top table, they are able to influence decisions as they are being made, providing input on how brand, marketing capabilities and resource will be impacted. Where expertise does not lie in-house, external expertise can be drawn on for impartiality, upskilling and training.”
Despite the consideration that goes into developing your brand, there will be those who seek to challenge your narrative. Reputation management forms an important consideration to ensure long term loyalty and confidence in your brand.
“A failed launch, bad press or damaged credibility leave you vulnerable to decreased brand value overnight. Thanks to globalisation, bad news not only travels faster, it travels further and becomes a global problem. Many universities focus on PR to maintain institutional reputation, however with repercussions so far reaching it is vital brand protection is embedded within every part of the university and strategy. The pandemic underlined the importance of this. Whilst no one could predict the event, mismanagement of student housing, access and communications reflected in stakeholders’ understanding of that institution’s true brand values. Having a dedicated person or team working across brand will enable short term reactivity to develop into a long term vision, with protection in place should the worst happen. The success of any brand depends on the constant regeneration of memory on what the brand stands for.”
If you are ready to embrace the meaning behind your brand, here are some of the steps we recommend taking:
- Engage your leadership team and help them feel more comfortable with the concept of university branding by highlighting the benefits this will bring, especially when tackled in unison with the university strategy
- Establish your current position by reviewing what people are saying about you across social platforms, review sites and forums as well as running qualitative research with your key stakeholders
- Look to bring people together in conversation and drive collaboration cross department to distill the essence of positive brand drivers and areas you may need to authentically challenge
- Consider having a dedicated brand manager or team, if you do not already, to take ownership and drive this collaboration
If you’re interested in learning more about how to find meaning in your brand, get in touch with us at The Brand Education. We’re always excited to hear from you.