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Universities need to market themselves as never before. As fees rise sharply and business-friendly
courses boom, students and their families are ever more canny in researching value for money. And with
more than 300 UK institutions competing for half a million students, the stakes are high.

In this rapidly changing marketplace, university branding is about much more than logos. But what does
this mean for students and the role of branding in higher education in general? These questions formed
the basis of a recent Guardian roundtable, held in association with brand communications consultancy
Purpose. The debate was conducted under the Chatham House rule, which allows remarks to be
reported without attribution to encourage a frank debate.

The roundtable participants were unanimous on key values for universities, among them: academic
integrity; future employability; and, perhaps above all, the value of the student experience. But
university "customers" nowadays are not only students but their parents as well. One delegate spoke for
everyone: "In a difficult economic situation, parents at open days are asking more and more astute
questions while applicants sit with their heads down."

The roundtable agreed that successful branding to this dual audience relies on a few crucial strands:
positive student testimony; the synergy between marketing and branding; and getting academics on
side by linking success in the marketplace to academic freedom. "Even though involving academics is
like herding cats, it can be done," said one participant. Without consensus in the university, branding or
re-branding can be ineffective.

But academics don't like to think of students as customers, the roundtable heard. They may resist
thinking of themselves as part of a commercial brand. Academics, it was said, in general do not like to
perceive their institutions as "like a KitKat". As one participant explained, the learning process is
interactive in the way that buying a commercial product is not. "The great learning experience only
happens if the student plays their part."

Consulting academics

Academic freedom, however, often relates to success in the marketplace, one delegate pointed out, but
getting this message across to academics can be hard. Several contributors to the roundtable had stories
about university departments or clubs having point-blank refused to accept changed logos or crests.
Sports clubs and university enterprises might cling to a branding identity associated with a legacy of
success, despite the higher management of the university wishing to change it.

There is a place for these sub-brands the sports clubs with old insignia, the colleges with their own tie
but each university does need a central vision to define itself internally and to others, participants
were told.

One solution offered to the debate by a participant had been to spread all divergent sub-brand identities
out on a table and ask university staff if they made sense. "That way, they made the decision to come
onside with the new brand," they explained.

But for every tale of staff recoiling from branding exercises, there were many more examples of
successful branding devised by committed staff and students. For even though some contributors sighed
at the "fiercely independent" academics with whom they work, they conceded that there is huge
branding potential in their commitment. "They are passionate off the scale," enthused one participant.

Brand identities, such as a perception of a university being a regional hub with a fantastic student life,
resonate with existing students while attracting new ones, too, the roundtable heard. University
identities are built first of all within communities, some delegates believed. Yet the greater task might
be differentiating universities in the outside world. "A university is not Coca-Cola," a participant said.
Unless you are a market leader Oxford and Cambridge do minimum branding, the roundtable were
amused to learn branding messages tend to be centred around broad slogans, such as "upgrade your
future". What makes such general visions work are case studies, vivid and concrete student testimony
gathered from existing students and displayed to students past and present at open days, recruitment
fairs and awards ceremonies.

Awards ceremonies reinforce loyalty from alumni and they can be the best brand ambassadors, the
roundtable was told. One delegate said: "It's a lifelong relationship, which gives you value and adds
value. If you meet someone who has been to Oxford or Cambridge, they tell you by the third sentence.
We need to get our alumni telling the world at least by the fifth sentence."

For universities to recruit successfully, one participant suggested that marketing and branding needed to
be woven through university life. "You can radically alter people's perception of the university by
marketing," said another contributor. Many universities had multiplied applications through saturation
marketing and encouraging students to create advertising campaigns, the roundtable heard. In one case,
a student marketing video for a college in Australia, which was posted on YouTube, went viral and has
been watched by millions.

Participants stressed that successful branding is not confined to the logo; its importance lies in being
able to position the university in the market. An effective recruitment policy, it was said, is not
necessarily about targeting the most academically bright student in a "dash for prestige". Many

delegates believed the government was subtly advocating such behaviour through reforms that now
allow universities to take on more students who achieve grades AAB or higher at A-level, rather than be
restricted by statutory limits.

In any case students were not attracted only by academic excellence, the roundtable heard. The student
experience is more complex than that and often relates to the actual teaching of their subject, job
prospects and specific information about their own degree. Conversely, one participant remarked, one
unpleasant remark to a 17-year old at an open day can turn them against a university for life.

If students take against anything "you've got a big obstacle", said one attendee. "Never lose sight of the
student," declared another contributor. In fact, the whole student experience ought to be an expression
of brand values, several participants concurred. "Eighty per cent of brand equity lies in meeting the
promise that you make to your customers."

The dramatic upsurge in the use of social media by university communication departments, "from press
release to tweet in five years", as one delegate said, has left universities vulnerable to instant criticism
when such promises are not met. They have reacted in different ways. The roundtable was told of one
institution which has two employees charged with instantly rebutting adverse comments on Twitter.
Other institutions monitor Twitter and Facebook but do not react. "We let our students manage it
themselves," said one contributor, "otherwise there is Twitter everywhere. The more you [try to]
control, the less you'll control."

Central vision

Universities are big and complicated places, operating in diverse markets, summed up one participant. It
was suggested that, overseas, heritage rings more bells than modernity. At home, innovation is a winner
in the classroom but can turn off nervous parents at open days; commercially, creativity drives
successful research. Thus, trying too hard to force the varied activities of a university into too narrow a
brand can damage the brand itself, another contributor suggested.

The roundtable heard that a central vision needs to tell a story accompanying the student through a
journey, from prospectus to graduation. "A really good brand takes the risk out of buying," claimed one
participant. "Brand leaders deal in confidence, which gives customers confidence." Another contributor
picked up on this point, stating that a good brand stands for something, communicates it effectively and
builds trust, so that even if it changes as the marketplace changes, its reputation is solid.

Yet while all the participants agreed that reputation was the foundation of a well-respected brand, many
were uneasy at how far they should pin their reputation to narrow measures such as league tables. "A
plethora of such tables can produce a plethora of results," pointed out one delegate, "which can vary
radically from year to year and subject to subject."

The balance in confidence between what you do and what you need to do should not be shaken by
externals such as league tables, several participants agreed: "Far too many people make far too much
fuss about league tables," one said. At the same time, universities do need to respond to what the
market wants, or as one contributor put it: "Make sure the values you project are the ones sought in the

Key points

The roundtable heard that universities looking to brand themselves successfully should:

Focus on their core values, such as: academic integrity that links teaching, research and scholarship;
business-friendly courses with employability appeal; and the positive student experience on offer.

Target communications at parents as well as students.

Involve academics as much as possible; their enthusiasm can often bring big dividends.

Highlight student testimony in university marketing materials.

Make the most of social media's influence and reach.