Brand management for universities
Kate Elizabeth — 31st January 2019
Brand management for universities is a beautifully intricate proposition, weaving internal and external stakeholders together in a complex ballet, not for the faint-hearted.
Universities play an incredibly important role in developing future leaders, innovators and thinkers. Baumann and Winzar (2014) in their paper The role of secondary education in explaining competitiveness highlight the critical role higher education plays in country competitiveness.
As well as the global and country impact, universities directly impact the lives and quality of life of their stakeholders - most commonly their students and employees, but all the way through to the people their research impacts.
Brand management for an institution like a university involves the understanding and development of complex brand strategies with the aim of influencing internal and external factors and building long-term brand health.
Brand personality dimensions
It is necessary with an asset as valuable as a university brand, to manage it holistically, to build attachment around the five brand personality dimensions. These dimensions are similar to Aaker's brand personality framework.
Prestige is a brand personality dimension most commonly associated with universities. University rankings, the prominence of successful alumni, the success of grants and research and the visibility of philanthropy are some of the factors feeding into the perception of prestige.
Additionally, the brand positioning used by a lot of university brand managers - no matter their audience or profile - is aspirational, contributing to the emphasis on prestige.
The sincerity of the organisation continues to be an essential dimension to reflect the institution's understanding of the impact on the outcome of the engagement, i.e. knowledge and skills aimed at securing a job after graduation.
Brand managers create messages to build sincerity, but the employees, as brand custodians, are best placed to deliver upon this dimension.
As an institution with so many stakeholders, appeal for a university is a complicated proposition, with the brand appealing to school-aged students through to alumnus, mega-gift donors and business partners.
The communications plan for each of these audiences, and the personas within them, are diverse and amplify the appeal for each audience in line with their expectations.
The brand needs to convey an environment suited for students - the personality built by the brand manager and then executed and lived through the employees needs to be lively and engaging. Brand managers work with marketing, student experience and customer support teams to deliver a lively institution, with many opportunities for further engagement.
Increasingly, students and people expect their institutions to display conscientious brand management, positioning and behaviour. Brand managers, working very closely with the external communications team, will build opportunities and a communications calendar to advance the perception of the organisation.
A complex system of brands and sub-brands
A university is a complex system of brands and sub-brands, many with an incredible heritage and some perhaps coming into the stable through mergers and acquisitions.
These brands and sub-brands will exist through faculties and schools, through research institutes, sports programs and teams, partnerships and many more entities.
Developing a brand architecture to harness, protect and extend the equity in each sub-brand and brand is vital. These complex systems of brands will, to a certain extent, create some conflicts and if not managed well will create confusion in the marketplace.
Developing harmony within brand architecture
The framework of the brand architecture will depend on a strong master brand and clear delineation around the split and hierarchy of the other brands, in relation to the master brand.
There will be some instances where the master brand doesn't increase the value or understanding of the sub-brand in the eyes of the audience. In this instance, the master brand may have no presence in any strategy, marketing or communication past a minimal reference on the website, for example.
In most other instances, the brand architecture will define the type and degree of interaction between the master brand and the sub-brand. It may be, for example, that all the sub-brands use the same brand promise, values and visual identity branding guidelines and are differentiated through name only. It may be that there is a logo lock-up with the master brand or differentiation between faculties and programs in the hierarchy.
In all instances of robust brand architecture, the brand adds value over the function of the institution. The architecture contributes to the perception of depth for the whole organisation while also allowing for differentiation from competitors.
Brand impacts attachment
The alignment of promise and personality in the brand impacts attachment to the brand.
Brand management for universities means brand managers and marketers need to understand how to build attachment with the brand, particularly over a long period.
The attachment a prospective student, or indeed a student, feels for the brand will affect the type of future engagement they have with the institution. The stronger the attachment, the more likely they are to continue their journey with the university after graduation. That could mean post-graduate studies or alumni programs or philanthropy or another form of connection - each furthering the impact of the attachment and continuing to improve the understanding of the brand promise.
Manage the experience
Brand management at university requires brand managers and marketers to influence both perceived quality and reputation and the actual quality and experience.
Influencing the perception is managed through marketing and communication initiatives to convey the brand promise and value proposition. Like all marketing though, it can't be fairy floss, it needs to be grounded in reality, so there isn't a divergence between perception and reality.
These initiatives need to be crafted to appeal to the right stakeholders for each course, faculty and partnership. For example, the value proposition for an undergraduate student is most likely around securing a job at the end of their study. For a postgraduate student, the value proposition should lean towards the quality of supervisors and access to research grants. The organisation needs to build marketing and communication plans to communicate both these outcomes successfully.
Having painted this picture for students, the most crucial piece of the puzzle is then to ensure the organisation delivers on these brand promises. In this way, it is vital that the brand and marketing unit has representation at the most senior level to influence conversation and action around the selection and delivery of courses and the further activities of the university.
As representatives and custodians of the student within the organisation, the Chief Marketing Officer will work to ensure the actual quality and experience aligned with the perception.
Stakeholders in the mix
All organisations have multiple stakeholders, but universities have incredibly diverse stakeholders, needing to represent all these in the brand that is built by the brand managers.
Indeed, students are the most apparent stakeholder for a university, but the role employees plan in living, and translating, the brand for others is by far the most important. Following the brand strategy development, it is the employees who are predominantly responsible for shaping the experience.
For most universities, these students form the bulk of their student body and therefore income. In Australia, two-thirds of students are completing their degrees within six years; this means the positive brand experience needs to sustain over a very long period, and transition with the students.
The research performed by postgraduate students, particularly PhD candidates, and the contribution to their broader field of study significantly increase the reputation of the institution. Many postgraduates have already had their first experience with the brand through undergraduate study, but the brand sense evolves in this next stage of their lives.
Research and grants
Brand managers need to use the reputation built by the university's research institutes and grant recipients to further enhance the prestige, connection and appeal of the institution. Building the announcement of these into communication plans and securing news coverage increases the cache of reputation.
Brand managers and marketing teams working closely with alumni teams will develop meaningful alumni programs aimed at increasing attachment. Upon graduation, transitioning alumni into an alumni program will continue to enhance the reputation of the university and will make other programs, pathways and philanthropy easier.
Alumni programs can include regular communication channels, events, loyalty offers and more - each university, based on their alumni profile, will build programs suited to their students, whether that is dues-paying or not.
University philanthropy is an established practice for universities in the United States but is a relatively new and growing practice in Australia. According to Sue Cunningham, President and CEO, Council for Advancement and Support of Education, universities in Australia have seen record growth of bequests and transformational gifts. Interestingly, data out of the US has shown that while mega-gifts are on the rise, giving from alumni has decreased.
One reason for this, as Mike Scutari notes in 'Mega-gifts Are Rising and Alumni Giving Is Shrinking. Which Means What, Exactly?' is the rise of "effective altruism" among younger donors who doubt whether giving to their alma mater is the way to get the most bang for their donation buck.
CMOs and brand managers should, therefore, be working with their development counterparts to ensure the messaging and performance of gifts, bequests and fundraising demonstrate a broader community and social relevance while also educating potential donors around the restrictions of endowments and managing funds in perpetuity.
Domestic and international markets
As the global marketplace continues to expand thanks to the rising middle class in countries like India and China, universities are increasingly focusing on both domestic and international markets. International markets might mean offshore campuses, or it might mean attracting international students to your local campuses.
Brand managers need to position the university brand for both markets, finding the similarities between the two audiences while also understanding the cultural and outcome differences that apply. In-country sales and marketing teams can help with this clarity and provide feedback to adjust the messaging.
A local, domestic audience, for example, might have a strong understanding of the brand and the heritage of the institution and have encountered it hundreds of times in their lifetime before choosing to study there.
A prospective international student will weigh up the institution certainly, but even before this, they will be looking to see which country and city most appeals to them. Brand managers and marketers will need to work with external stakeholders to build dialogue and collateral to support the country, state and city when pitching to international student markets.
Domestic students usually choose their undergraduate degree while in school, so management of this cohort will include in-school and at-institution events, advertising and communication measures. The brand management plan will consist of brand engagement months and years before the course selection window opens and will include students, parents and guidance counsellors as critical stakeholders, each wanting something different from the institution.
For Australian universities, one of the student acquisition streams will be pathways from vocational training bodies like TAFE. Developing the brand message for these students commonly references the vocational training partner and is crafted around the benefits of increasing their ATAR or OP score through vocational study, transitioning straight into the second year of a degree and the benefits of two qualifications in the space of, traditionally, one degree.
As universities seek to expand their student base into non-traditional areas delivering online courses to students far removed from the physical campus locations, brand managers need to manage the brand message and experience for this new cohort with the different needs. The same course will be positioned differently for this group compared to on-campus students, and the university experience will be packaged differently. For example, both the face-to-face and online courses can deliver community-building, but the messaging will need to be explicit about the differences in these.
Internal and external stakeholders
It is vital for internal and external stakeholders to have a shared brand meaning. At every step of the journey for each customer, both internal and external participants in the interaction should have a common understanding of the brand promise and how it translates in that situation.
To this end, the single most crucial element of brand management for universities is the internal co-creation of the brand.
When we look at the environment, it is a numbers game. There are lots of touchpoints with the brand from prospective student to student to graduate to alumni to postgraduate to perhaps employee or partner or donor. There are lots of staff responsible for delivering the institution's side of the experience, often with extensive interactions at each step of the journey.
University employees play an invaluable role in influencing how the external market understands and interprets the brand. Employees are both 'readers' of the brand - reading and seeing the official brand construct crafted by the brand and marketing team - and also 'authors' of the brand, writing the brand afresh with every interaction they have with external stakeholders. Brand meaning and understanding develops through interactions and experiences with formal brand communications and management, certainly, but it is most deeply experienced through interplays with employees.
Misunderstandings in reading the brand, or a poor internally-communicated brand, can influence an employee's brand promise delivery, and therefore impact a student's perception of the brand, and we all understand perception is reality.
This is why brand co-creation with employees is vital. Brand managers, when re-crafting or honing the brand promise and framework, working with internal stakeholders from across the business, will develop a substantially more robust brand solution. It will be more easily 'read' and translated, creating a more consistent experience for external stakeholders, especially students.
An extensive customer journey map is an invaluable tool for internal co-creation and by including employees from each step of the journey in their iteration brand managers will ensure they are both incorporating stakeholders from all areas of the business, and simultaneously shaping employees' understanding of, and commitment to, the brand.
If all areas of the business feel represented through this co-creation, they are more willing to be avid readers of the brand and accurate writers of the brand.
This co-creation experience also allows employees to go through 're-interpretation loops'. These re-interpretation loops will enable an employee to take on new information, align it with their existing understanding of the brand and promised experience, and update their delivery of the brand to students and customers. It occurs through modification - internalising the brand values and meaning, interpreting and then deciding how to modify. Brand management needs to include the support of this modification, and perhaps build conscious moments for re-interpretation throughout the year.
Engaged employees delivering on the brand promise is a brand manager's single most potent weapon in a competitive marketplace.
Centralised and decentralised use of the brand
Brand management within a university takes into account both the centralised and decentralised use of the brand. Central brand and marketing teams support the whole of the organisation by providing central brand awareness campaigns, acquisition and revenue-generation campaigns, social channel and communications presence for potential and existing students and, of course, brand management.
The decentralised use of the brand is vital to allow such a large and complex organisation to deliver upon its mandate, but the level of autonomy this takes tests even the hardiest of brand managers!
Strong brand guidelines, a holistic brand and marketing plan incorporating all audiences, business units and stakeholders and strong communication are three of the necessary components to ensure successful decentralised use of the brand.
In a competitive market, as most universities operate in, building positive institutional reputation and awareness is necessary. These two aims are complemented by points of differentiation strong enough to drive affinity.
Brand managers in a university context will spend considerable resources building this affinity through marketing and communications and channel placement, and the considerations of positioning in a competitive market will also include protecting both the heritage and the future of the university. The competition for the hearts and minds of students starts in schools and continues through the time of their degree into alumni and philanthropy. At each of these significant stages of the journey, there is competition for the hearts, minds and wallets of the audience.
At each step of the journey, a brand manager will map out both the branded competitors but also the competitors for awareness and commitment. A student might have loved their time at the university, but entering their field of work might mean they don't have the time or inclination for alumni programs. A potential donor, particularly a mega-gift donor, will have dozens of foundations and not-for-profits approaching them to commit to a gift.
The aim of brand management for a university will be to create strong awareness, translate this to enrolments and then develop secure attachment. This flows into advocacy and allows universities to capitalise on the role they play in their students' lives and the broader community.