In a competitive modern higher ed marketplace, in which institutions vie for students not just domestically, but internationally, university branding has never been more important.

Prospects are faced with a terrifying amount of information and choice. Long gone are the days of academically-minded students heading to traditional universities, more practically-minded ones to polytechnics, and others simply to somewhere close to home.

The contemporary university applicant can pore over a multitude of rankings, based on dozens on indicators; look at sector-specific employment data; or browse numerous third-party resources, looking at everything from international student services to partying.

Brand = personality

Let’s assume that any credible institution will have recourse to some positive stats, be they around teaching strength, industry connections, or research output. To this we can add those harder to quantify aspects: location (though some have tried), social milieu, sporting heritage, etc.

Each institution will possess its own unique combinations of strengths and weaknesses – a personality, if you like. This will chime with certain constituencies of prospective students, providing an environment in which they can prosper. It is equally relevant to those in a university’s employ: from vice chancellor to cleaners.

Perhaps you can see where this is going: this ‘personality’ is a university’s brand. There’s some debate in the world of marketers about what the definition of a brand is exactly. We’re sure we won’t be ruffling too many feathers by defining a brand as an essential set of characteristics and values that distinguishes one set of products/services from another.

Authenticity is key

The values part is important. Those working at a university must be pulling together to achieve brand goals. If the brand is teaching quality, for example, then academics must be passionate about teaching; marketers must be provided with compelling illustrative stats; facilities conducive to impactful teaching must be available, and so on.

Following from this, a brand must be authentic. It must reflect the reality of an institution, that which is striven for and realised, and backed with adequate resources.

A non-authentic brand will be sniffed out. If applicants don’t smell a rat (teenagers have a good nose for these things), then the student and academic body will. Word will spread, and reputations will be damaged. For a good non-university example, we might look to Pepsi’s disastrous ad campaign with Kendall Jenner in 2017. Not authentic in the least…

Resonance with the university brand must also be a consideration in recruitment. The student body, after all, makes up the majority of people at any given institution. They will become part of the even-bigger alumni network.

Recruitment, therefore, plays a key role in defining and perpetuating a university brand. Think about the kind of person you would imagine meeting at Stanford, and contrast that with who you would expect to be mingling with at SOAS, for example.

Defining a university brand

Universities are complicated, multifarious places. Defining a university brand is not as straightforward a question as it might be for a discount clothing store or a prestige car manufacturer (indeed, think to the failed attempt to introduce competitive pricing into the UK university system).

Defining it is a complex task, one that cannot be taken lightly. Stakeholders at all levels must be involved to ensure that it is authentic, and not an arbitrary top-down exercise.

Challenging as it may be, any institution worth its salt should be able to define what makes its offering distinct. Any that can’t need to think about why this might be. Defining a university brand is also a way to identify weaknesses. What’s missing? Are some elements of brand identity being more successfully realised than others? Does the brand reflect the shifting realities of the 21st century?

Communicating what a university is

A university brand reflects and shapes the ethos of the institution. It also – and this is important – allows it to be communicated. This is key in terms of a university’s public profile and prestige. It is key in attracting the right staff; academic and administrative alike. And it is essential when it comes to student recruitment.

Faced with a surfeit of information and choice, brands help prospects differentiate between thousands of institutions. It is what allows them to ascertain with which they would be a good fit. In an increasingly marketised sector, it helps them choose where they are going to spend their money.

Multiple channels are open to universities in order to communicate their brand. The most effective will depend on who is being targeted. For example, it was found that 91% of accepted international applicants to UK universities never contacted the university; 52% of these ‘stealth applicants’ conducted their research exclusively using the university website.

Websites must therefore reflect the brand. Other communication channels might be having academics serve as spokespeople on hot-button topics; collaboration with the entrepreneurial community; and through what everyone thinks of when you say branding: design and logos (which are of course deeply important).

Determining how best to communicate brand identity is essential, ensuring that the right people are getting the message. As with defining the brand itself, this should not be a matter of guesswork; institutions have recourse to substantive data. They must use it.

The above elements come together to form the constituent elements of a brand strategy. What can this do for an institution? To paraphrase Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams, “Build it, and they will come.”

Don’t and, well…you can work out the rest.