By Ken Punter
Ken Punter is deputy director of university marketing at the University of Warwick
Branding has become a key area of focus within the education sector. Whether you think of it as the thing people say about you after you’ve left the room, a promise delivered, the sum total of all your customer’s experiences or simply the name, term, sign or symbol that identifies the maker, brand matters.
The purpose of branding has always been differentiation. Given the education sector’s context of growth, increasing complexity and internationalisation, it’s not surprising that universities, colleges and schools are desperate to be noticed, remembered and chosen from among their peers. This is why they are grappling with branding.
In 2015 my employer, the University of Warwick, launched a new brand identity. The review, analysis and rebranding process was an experience and an education. Here are six things that I learned (or had reinforced) during the process:
- Your brand already exists. I particularly like defining branding as, “It’s what people say about you,” because it reinforces the fact that an educational institution already has a brand whether it likes it or not. The only issue is whether the organisation is going to choose to manage the brand or not.
- Words matter. “Brand” is a tricky (some say toxic) word within certain sectors. I previously worked for a large charity and our branding conversations quickly descended into difficulty and defensiveness. Branding can be viewed from some quarters as an artificial thing the private sector creates to manipulate customers. Instead, using words like “reputation,” “personality” and “shared values” to discuss branding creates a constructive space to properly consider the issue. It’s possible to conduct a brand review and not even mention the “b” word.
- Consider the iceberg effect. It’s possible to think that branding is all about your logo. It’s not. A brand review can be conducted without making any change to the visual identity. The logo often receives maximum attention, but a brand review should look at other core issues beyond the tip of the iceberg, including:
- the internal and external perceptions of your organization
- your position in the market
- your organisational goals
- audience needs and your organization’s provable ability to meet that need.
Only when you understand these things can you begin the process of creating a brand proposition. Only after that should the visual identity, guidelines and copy style guides be reviewed. If the visual identify and guidelines fail to support the brand proposition, then they should be changed (and, ultimately, launched only after comprehensive testing with audiences).
- People don’t like change. If given a personality test which identifies comfort with change, anyone who scores low won’t automatically like new logos. If you do change your visual identity, some people will object. It may be easy to think that reactionaries are wrong and you, as a hardworking marketing/communications professional, are right. Unfortunately, that isn’t necessarily so. If you skip a preliminary investigation but decide to change the logo anyway, there’s a good chance you’ll be changing it back again quite soon. If you’ve done your homework and you effectively communicate your reasoning, supporters will emerge and wider acceptance will follow.
- You can’t control (the entirety of) your brand. Education brands are similar to service sector brands: both are in the hands of those who deliver the core offer. For instance, at a hotel, the receptionists, concierge and room service staff mostly determine the customer experience. In education, this experience is largely in the hands of academic staff. It’s a step too far to suggest that marketing personnel should measure and evaluate the experience in the classroom. But the values and essence of your brand have to be owned, understood and real to everyone in the organisation or its promise won’t survive beyond the marketing collateral.
- People (really) care. This is the reason that branding within education is so difficult and yet so rewarding. Education is profound, meaningful and life-changing; students, parents, alumni and staff care deeply about your institution and its reputation. Changing how it looks or communicates can be really challenging because people are heavily invested, and if we get it wrong, it’ll be heavily criticized.
Rebranding in education is challenging but, when done well, it can act as a catalyst for positive change. It can release positive energy, contribute to an institution’s successful future for its students and alumni, and celebrate its unique place in the world. It’s a challenge, but in this increasingly crowded education space, it cannot be ignored.
Ken Punter will speak at CASE Europe’s Thinking, Doing, Branding: How to Strategically Plan and Deliver Brand Communications conference on the 9 June 2016 in London.
Looking for more branding tips? First, start with the CASE InfoCenter’s branding sample collection, packed with logo style guides, brand toolkits and more.
Here are a few recent CASE articles on branding:
- “6 Tips to Rebrand Smoothly,” BriefCASE.
- “Refresh the Brand Without the Fight,” CURRENTS.
- “Identity Crisis,” CURRENTS.