University branding need not be so brash – subtlety works just as well in marketing

Universities aren’t immune from ‘pseudo-events’ but it’s short-term thinking for student recruitment. Graduates via michaeljung/shutterstock

Many years ago, I asked an MBA student from far beyond these shores if people in his country understood that he was studying at a post-1992 university rather than the much older and more prestigious one just down the road. “Of course they don’t,” he chortled. The confusion over the source of his qualification served him well, and his subterfuge was treated with good humour.

From this autumn, new rules that abolish the limit on the number of students universities can admit will place universities in even more intense competition for students. Attracting the lucrative 500,000-strong non-EU student market, in particular, exercises the minds of vice chancellors across the sector. They must ensure that our great public universities stand out as unique and attractive institutions, especially via the internet.

Too slick and similar

The answer for many is a brand make-over. The trouble is, the harder universities try to be distinctive, the more they seem to look the same. Genuine distinctions can become buried beneath a pile of marketing platitudes.

Most UK universities have a slick website that boasts of “world leading research” that informs “research-led teaching” from “great academics who are working at the forefront of their field”. These claims come from institutions near the very top of the rankings of research excellence, and from those near the very bottom.

What is more, they all trumpet the deep, emotionally resonant “values” that set them apart in a “turbulent” and “rapidly changing competitive environment”. They like to remind us that the environment is “global”. These institutions declare unselfconsciously that they are “super”, “creative”, “inspiring” and “bold”.

No doubt they are all these things, but you’d find it hard to tell from reading the cookie-cutter marketing flannel on some of the websites.

Of course, UK universities should be telling their remarkable stories. About 150 UK Higher Education institutions collectively employ some 194,000 academics to teach 2.5m students, generating an astonishing 2.8% of UK GDP – a cash value of more than £70 billion annually.

The 52,000 academics who submit their work to the country’s Research Excellence Framework exercise, generate some of the most influential and cost-effective research in the world. This high quality research is found right through the sector.

Branding is one way to communicate all this virtue. But why does it have to sound so flaky?

Urge to re-brand

One recent example that has excited interest was the news that King’s College London planned to re-brand itself as King’s London. Eminent neuroscientist and incumbent principal Ed Byrne claimed in an email to staff and students that staff, students, parents, alumni and applicants are confused by the word “college”.

Byrne understood the “emotional connection” with “college”, but in today’s “competitive global marketplace”, King’s needs to “shout about its many achievements”. Sceptics are unconvinced and a petition to reverse the decision had garnered nearly 12,000 signatories at the time of writing.

To be sure, university names, logos, pictures of deliriously happy students and colour-schemed websites probably can make a marginal difference to application numbers. Perhaps it makes a big difference for the less discerning applicant, and the less selective institution. But this is a plausible assumption that is hard to quantify. It’s worth asking whether our greatest institutions are really served by recycling marketing cliches, or whether this is just undignified.

Noise can help

You don’t have to be the famous American hoaxer PT Barnum to see that a bit of bally-hoo goes a long way. Platitudinous marketing prose, though, isn’t merely vacuous. Marketing rhetoric serves purposes for organisations.

American showman’s PT Barnum’s put on the ‘greatest show on earth’. Wikimedia Commons

Social historian Daniel Boorstin pointed out that life in the age of media is dominated by the pseudo-event, the “news” that is created for the sole purpose of being projected through the media. Brands have a concrete reality, but they are also pseudo-events subject to the circular logic of the social media bubble.

A university re-brand is a pseudo-event that can generate twice its own weight in publicity. I’d wager that applications at King’s spike upwards because of the all the negative publicity. If King’s changes its mind about the rebrand, it will turn out to have been a pseudo-non-event in the finest tradition of Barnum.

Keep it subtle

There seems to be an assumption that marketing talk has to be vacuous. The odd thing is when I speak to people in top advertising agencies around the world, I never hear marketing bullshit. Perhaps they save that for clients. The most accomplished marketing folk talk about their work in as prosaic and monosyllabic a style as you could imagine. Expressing things in terms “your mum could understand” is considered the quintessence of cleverness in marketing communication.

University branding could be a bit less brash, and a lot more subtle. The most astute commercial branding doesn’t try to semantically shut down undesired interpretations. It engages audiences in a cultural game. It uses understatement, irony and implicit meanings and it cultivates a confident rapport with relevant audiences. If some people don’t get it, then they never mattered in the first place.