Instead, the range of courses they offer and the sheer number of young people wanting to go to university has brought students through the
But in 2020, universities need to work harder to attract and retain students and their former students play an important role as advocates and, increasingly, potential sponsors of universities’ work. The rules have changed: higher education institutions need to give as much thought to their brand like any other business.
While academics may baulk at the idea of universities as commercial brands, the bottom line is that a smaller pool of students has an increasing range of choices. In a tough market, strong branding and marketing are what will attract students and investors alike.
The private sector has long since got the idea that brand is key to success, but the exact definition is the subject of debate. In simple terms, it is a name, a term, a design or any other feature that identifies one organisation as distinct from others.
But the brands that are most successful are those who recognise it is so much more: think Google and Apple. For them, the brand is both personality and promise – a promise of what the consumer will get if they invest in what the brand is offering, based on all the attributes they believe to be true of the brand.
A strong brand combines the promise, the personality and the attributes to create an emotional connection.
It takes a great deal of hard work and effort to build, but it reaps rewards - whether your goal is selling electronic devices or running a thriving university.
Until recently, most universities had what could fairly be described as a superficial approach to brand, focussing on logos and colour palettes, straplines and one-off campaigns. But in such challenging times for higher education, the moment has come for institutions to learn from the likes of Google or Apple – and take branding seriously.
Universities today are big business – and businesses need customers. In a competitive marketplace, branding is how organisations set themselves apart. It’s how they explain who they are, what they offer and, crucially, why anyone - whether it's the student as customer or alumni as an investor - should pick them.
Where universities differ from most businesses, though, is that their offer is less tangible. There is no product or service for sale – prospective students are essentially buying an experience and there are no guarantees. A good degree from a great institution can open many doors, but it’s not a cast-iron route to success.
The intangibility of what universities offer is part of the reason that branding is important: it forms a promise to prospective students about the quality of the experience they are buying. It should pull out and highlight an institution’s niche and why it’s special, essentially making the intangible offer into something more tangible.
Strong and effective brands help create recognition and understanding, vital steps on the way to trust and emotional connection.
As with any other consumer business, emotional connection is what convinces people to invest their money. And whether it is potential undergraduates just starting out or alumni supporting an institution’s work, universities need people to invest their money.
A strong brand makes organisations recognisable and their product or service tangible. It is a vital component of a good reputation. Consumers – which students and their parents are – care about reputations. The experiential nature of higher education makes choosing a university a leap of faith with no guaranteed outcomes. Reputation is the reassurance they need that they’re making the right choice.
Another reason that a university’s reputation matters so much to today’s students is employability. They’re concerned about career prospects before they’ve even arrived at university, and they know how much stock employers put on qualifications from particular institutions.
Graduating from a university with a great reputation opens doors, and that makes them more attractive to prospective students.
A great reputation is an essential part of convincing a prospective student to invest £50,000. Brand doesn’t guarantee a reputation, any more than a university education guarantees a great job. But just as a good degree increases the chances of a lucrative career, a strong university brand makes a great reputation more likely.
There are more than 150 higher education institutions in the UK and thousands more around the world. When the competition is so high, organisations need to show what makes them different. How is their offer distinct? Why should a prospective student pick them over all the others?
A good university brand sets it apart in the minds of its target audience. It explains its Unique Selling Point in terms that resonate with that audience. Above all, it shows young people how that university is the right fit for them – in a way that all the others aren’t.
Working to create a stand-out offer is of limited value if universities can’t define and articulate what that offer or their distinctive promise to students and parents is.
In such a competitive environment, standing out from the pack is fundamentally important.
Having a brand that is recognisable is the vital first step towards brand loyalty. Prospective students coming to know a brand (or university) that resonates with them is the very first step towards them choosing it. Loyalty is what keeps them committed – essential when there are more choices and fewer students.
The increasing trend of young people changing their minds after clearing and looking to ‘trade up’ to a more prestigious university makes loyalty especially important. These days, accepting an offer is no guarantee that a young person will actually ever make it as far as their first lecture. There is even evidence of universities poaching students once they’ve begun their courses. But the more they are bought into a brand, the more loyal they will be – and less vulnerable they are to being poached.
In the longer-term, loyalty creates graduates who become brand advocates. There’s no marketing more powerful than personal recommendation or word of mouth, and more than 90 percent of people say it influences their choices.
Brand loyalty is what keeps alumni speaking up for their institutions and creates reputations. And with fundraising a growing part of university funding, warm alumni relationships matter more than ever.