Branding universities in the digital age

Universities have had a tumultuous relationship with branding exercises. The diversification of channels, platforms and providers is making it increasingly difficult to maintain control of messaging and positioning, yet it’s become more important than ever to capitalise on digital tools and offer a consistent brand experience.

The Further and Higher Education Act in 1992 created an environment in which there were 35 new universities. However, the Act, though granting university status, didn’t provide any grounds for defining the identity of these fledging universities beyond the legacy of their polytechnic roots. This led to a drive to re-brand, which subsequently lost momentum throughout the following decade as government policy drove the expansion of the higher education sector, and students became easier to come by.

But with the current pressures of tuition fees, student loans, demographic change, and intense competition for the best students, the need for universities to effectively articulate the value of their offering has been sharply brought back into focus, and this is to a population with media consumption habits and digital service expectations unrecognisable from just a decade ago.

Existing messaging is no longer effective

We have all seen the familiar marketing messages which appear on teaching university websites. The focus is typically on stats, positions in league tables, or employability numbers, and the arrival of the TEF medal status has provided yet another badge which can be added to the home page.

However, it is questionable how reflective these metrics are of the actual student experience.  In some cases, they may be servicing the measurement demands of universities and governments, rather than speaking to the range of vocational and educational needs of students themselves. In the same way, they have a tendency to treat the student body as one homogenous group looking for the same thing.

This is in direct contrast, not only with reality, but with the fragmentation of the digital consumption landscape, driven by the consumption habits of millennials and generations to come. The website is rapidly losing ground as the primary point of digital content consumption, to be replaced by an evolving set of interconnected channels such as Facebook messenger, Snapchat, WhatsApp and WeChat. If you consider these channels collectively, arguably they point to a shift away from ‘digital consumption of content and services’ towards ‘digital conversation supported by content’. And what is the most important aspect of a conversation? The fact that it’s personal.

Digital tools can improve our understanding of students

The tools of marketing and research offer universities the opportunity to understand the student body with much greater granularity, and make these conversations personal. Sophisticated segmentation techniques mean potential recruits can be classified along attitudinal and motivational lines, needs and wants, and universities can create tailored messaging to target them. Yet these methods do not necessarily clarify how these messages should be delivered. Through which channels? With what tone of voice? In which design language? The conventional process of branding, which aims to tailor design, content and language in line with a key concept or concepts no longer works in the face of these fragmented modes of engagement.

How can universities leverage these tools to improve their position?

The first step in dealing with these challenges is to realise that the current approach to technology decisions in higher education is not working. Universities are frequently drawn into spending significant amounts of money on vendor-driven solutions for the student experience, but investment in these systems is not sufficient to enable them to differentiate. All they can do is maintain a relative position, as competitors undertake similar programmes.

The smarter organisations are combining their investment in student experience platforms with a forward-looking positioning exercise, with greater investment in content teams and expansion into full online learning. But universities need to avoid the temptation of trying to be all things to all students. Granular marketing and personalised delivery might tempt teams into taking an approach of offering different types of content across diverse channels with a one-size-fits-all tone and positioning. Releasing content in this way will only dilute its effectiveness.

What these digital developments offer is the opportunity to create niche positioning for a particular target audience, around a broader sense of what each university stands for – this is where the future lies. Universities need to grasp that for a brand to be coherent in the higher education space it needs to build upon a specific, digitally-supported learning proposition, with messaging supported by professional levels of content curation and production. Marketing departments may be focusing on the messaging, but that messaging needs the substance to support the claim that student needs will be met – and this is where the courses, student experience and online conversations a university has with students become vitally important.

Ultimately, a university brand is experiential not visual, and digital is the enabler which can allow universities to make drastic changes to their offering. The time has come to modernise their approach to brand positioning through integrating digital fully into the conversation. 

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