A brand is more than the specific products or services it offers. It is an expression of certain values; a set of cultural signifiers in a two-way relationship with its users.
Brand ambassadors are a distillation of this, if the relationship is authentic (or at least felt to be). In the most high-profile examples – Cristiano Ronaldo and Nike; Kate Moss and Rimmel; George Clooney and Nespresso – brand and ambassador are inextricably intertwined in our collective consciousness.
Universities have an advantage here in terms of authenticity. The aforementioned celebrities could easily be working for competitor brands. Prominent university ambassadors, however, have a genuine connection with the institutions at which they studied, or where they work.
Two types of university ambassador
We can split high-profile university brand ambassadors into two categories.
The first is prominent alumni. Lonely Planet founder Tony Wheeler’s connection (and donations) to LBS mark it out as a place where even free spirits can be equipped with hard business skills. And being associated with Nobel Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro can’t have hurt UEA’s reputation as a creative writing centre par excellence.
The second is prominent academics. If you’re lucky, you’ll have recourse to a Mary Beard or a Wendy Hall, who has made a significant contribution to public life. Otherwise, it’s about getting professors publicly speaking about their research or providing commentary as experts.
In order to bring either category of ambassador into the brand mix, some proactivity is required. For prominent alumni: outreach efforts and well-orchestrated PR efforts. For academics: amplifying their work where necessary, providing media training, and ensuring placement for the institution.
It goes without saying that those cultivated as ambassadors must be those who live and breathe university brand values.
Every graduate is an ambassador
Of course, it’s not just about these high-profile names. Being in the business of imparting skills and cultivating minds means that every graduate is an ambassador. In the workforce, in business, in the public eye, graduates are representatives of their alma mater’s qualities and values.
It is of vital importance, then, that brand values agreed in administrators’ offices permeate through every level of an institution. It will be worthless to talk about, say, innovation or public service if these values are not instilled in students.
To do so requires a coherent and actionable strategy, covering everything from marketing to pedagogy to recruitment. Only then will institutions produce the sort of brand ambassadors which will do them proud.
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