“The most successful brands ensure customer experience matches brand expectations in an authentic way. In the case of QUT, the VC took soundings from his leaders, staff and students who wholeheartedly agreed that this response aligned with the university’s culture, purpose and mission. Leaders must steer their institution to live by the values of their brand, commit to delivering on the experiences, and align experiences with reputation. If successfully implemented, brand position can transform reputation and that couldn’t be more important in an unstable and changing environment.”
Driving change can require a steep learning curve for leaders in higher education. Martin shares one approach being taken in Australia, where an institution has looked outside of the typical gene pool and harnessed talent from an unexpected place.
“There is an atmosphere and culture that arises from the way that institutions are governed. As the role becomes more challenging we’re going to see greater diversity in where leaders are appointed from. History tells us that most VCs are fished from a pool of senior academics with illustrious research records from high ranking institutions, however change is underway. Last year the University of Sydney appointed Mark Scott, who was previously the managing director of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, as their new VC. Mark had led digital transformation within an organisation at a time of massive disruption but he had never taught in a university, written an academic paper, or conducted a grant. This appointment within Australia’s oldest university, really opened eyes to the fact that we won’t always appoint VCs from a pool of academics.”
Whilst new talent can breathe new life into a historic organisation, such extreme action is not the only solution. Martin outlines that there is much to be gained from working closely with leaders from outside of the sector and learning through osmosis rather than substitution.
“Learning for the role of VCs is becoming increasingly complex, so much of a VC’s time is spent on ceremonial duties and networking in the sector. When universities thrived as traditional institutions, VCs coming together to discuss common topics was all the training or learning needed. However, as the marketplace pushes leaders to become more disruptive, group thinking from like minded individuals can be a barrier rather than an advantage. They need to step aside from convention and inherited time commitments to find ways of seeking new inspiration. They need to delegate internal commitments, and give themselves the freedom to explore ideas from new sectors that are relevant to the transformation our sector is facing. Getting out there and rubbing shoulders with CEOs from other sectors is a much better way of gaining wisdom on culture, innovation, brand and beyond.”
A further alignment higher education can learn from leading commercial brands is to acknowledge the importance of language. Martin shares how broadening language to match other sectors can enable opportunities and examples of successful practises to be more easily identified.
“There are a number of words that are relevant to our times that don’t get used within higher education. We talk about students, but we baulk at talking about customers. We talk about staff engagement, but we baulk at talking about culture. We are happy talking about a university’s reputation, but brand cannot be trusted. It’s an outdated view. If we’re not treating our students like customers, then we are missing opportunities. Historical barriers to building a contemporary culture and brand are a major barrier to progress.”
CMOs have an important role in breaking down these barriers. Whilst change is not always easy to achieve, Martin outlines small steps that can be taken to empower innovation and progress within their institution.
“Higher education presents one of the most difficult leadership environments of all. The high propensity of academic independence means the instruments of leadership are increasingly about influence and persuasion rather than direction. If we compare this to another sector like tech, the CMO will likely have a CEO who understands brand, culture and business ideas. The nuances of higher education mean that approaches of engagement, influence, persuasion and alignment are of increased importance for CMOs. VCs might not like calling it brand, so call it what they like calling it. If it means calling it reputation, then call it reputation and mean brand. When seeking to persuade on the importance of reputation building, outlining how its execution might enable the success measures universities more typically celebrate can be powerful.”
As the higher education sector continues on its inexorable journey of change, we hope that this insight helps you form potential pillars for progress. If you’re interested in discussing how you can build your reputation in the sector, 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.