The fight against the virus is impacting on the sector in many ways. On one hand the public perception of universities and colleges has massively improved – the expert is back in fashion. And many institutions are being recognised for their work with the NHS and their contributions to wider society. On the other hand there has been a massive reduction in income and major disruption to their work. From teaching to research, conferences to knowledge exchange, university life has pretty much ground to a halt.
Even before Covid-19, competition for students, research funding and patronage was increasing, with changes in government policy, the operating environment and wider society all playing a part. As we move from a global pandemic into a global recession, markets will quickly react, changes in society accelerate and competition is likely to increase even more.
A key to future success will be enhancing reputation and delivering an attractive and distinctive brand. But in universities, reputation and brand are often confused – sometimes deliberately – and these both need to be aligned and working hard for universities if they are to prosper in the future.
The Meriam-Webster dictionary describes Reputation as: overall quality or character as seen or judged by people in general. Subtly different, a Brand is defined as: a public image, reputation, or identity conceived of as something to be marketed or promoted.
So, reputation is how all people view the university. It impacts on all relationships from neighbours to national governments, global research partners to gift-givers. Brand is about how current and future customers perceive the institution. The brand positions a university offer in relation to specific competitive choices. Done right it aids positive selection. Critically, both reputation and brand, are founded on perception and that drives behaviour.
Here are a few ideas about how to bring your brand and reputation together and to make sure your university stands out for all the right reasons.
Top tips for building your reputation and brand
Be strategic – reputation and brand need to be aligned with the university mission and goals. There is no point in developing a distinctive brand and strong reputation if these don’t help the institution achieve its strategy. So a key test for any marketing or communication activity or investment must be how it supports the mission and delivers strategic objectives. How does it boost our reputation, so the right people know and support us? How does our brand make us more attractive to people who will invest their money and time in our university?
Understand your audiences – strong reputations and relevant brands are built by universities who know who they need to target and how to shape their perceptions and behaviour. So invest in quality research and analysis to understand your audiences. Know and prioritise your stakeholders to make messages relevant and impactful. Develop and share detailed personas, so that everyone really knows your target markets, their needs and how your brand offer is the best fit for them. Understand your alumni and how they can add real value to the university. Not only will this improve performance, and save money, it will also help senior teams to understand their stakeholders, customers and market trends.
Tell your story – good communication has a great story at its heart. Stand out universities build their messages and content around a clear identity and values when they tell their story. Is the university the new kid on the block, a mould breaker, a mad scientist, a global thought leader? Over time the right story, told often and well, and built around a clear identity, develops into a strong public persona and reputation that reinforces the brand offer. Your brand design and messaging also need to resonate with your story so the two combined provide a compelling and consistent narrative. Make sure your identity is clear and everyone is telling the same story. Use brand-led advertising campaigns, great PR and media relations to help amplify your story, but just as important use internal campaigns and engagement to ensure everyone, staff, students and alumni, are all telling your story too!
Deliver on what you promise – great reputations and brands are built on what universities do not say! Everyone in a university community has a role to play in ensuring students get what they pay for and stakeholders’ value what the institution does for them and their community. Marketers and communicators can help university leaders, academics and professional staff understand the importance of the customer experience and how getting stakeholder relations right can add real value to the university and what they do. Explain league tables and why they matter. Engage with the students and Student Union to help them understand how the university is investing in their experience and future. Make sure everyone knows about your successes but also that when the university falls short what it is doing to put things right.
Be authentic and honest – there can be no reality gap between the experience people have and what you are communicating. If there is a gap, people will rightly question all you say and do. And they will do that with peers in person and on social media. This is especially important for Gen-Z who really value authenticity. It is also important to harness the right emotion in your tone and content to deliver real impact. So use actual students to talk about their experience and bring it alive. Academics and support staff can add a real flavour of who you are and what the university has to offer. Got great nightlife – a beautiful city – a leafy environment – then use relevant 3rd party material and micro influencers to show it off. People respond to the genuine and if your university is in a grittier urban environment, bring out the cosmopolitan edge and difference. If you have identified your audience correctly this will attract exactly the right people. Stakeholders appreciate universities for who they are and what you can do for them or their communities. They are not impressed by institutions who pretend to be something they’re not!
Be clear and consistent – everyone needs to be clear about your identity and your story. Whether they work in Marketing, Communications, Student Recruitment, Admissions, Development and Alumni or in academic or professional roles, stand out universities make sure their people know their story. Align planning and critical functions and invest in internal communication and digital campaigns that build understanding and a sense of collective ownership and pride. Give your people great content to share with colleagues and on social media and encourage them to build and share their own stories. External facing campaigns should build on a consistent identity and always add value to the university ‘story’. Creativity and distinctiveness in design and messaging is important but remember to make sure it is genuinely and recognisably your institution or you risk diluting your brand and reputation.
Measure your success – set your objectives just like you would for any other strategic activity. Show how the time and money invested in your brand and reputation are making a difference. Targets and measures can be quantitative (like reach or prospects taking specific actions) or qualitative (a positive change in the perception of a senior politician) but make these sure these are delivering real value and clearly link them to university strategy and your audiences and target markets. This equally applies to any marketing or PR agencies who work for the university.
Many universities like to cluster together and some even reject the idea of distinctiveness. After all, there is a strong feeling of comfort and safety in a herd. Unfortunately a herd improves the survivability of the species, not the individual. In a more competitive post Covid-19 world, institutions who understand their mission, their audiences and who build a strong reputation and distinctive brand, are much more likely to prosper. Those that aren’t clear about their role and purpose or who fail to tell their story, run the risk of all herd animals, they are the most likely to become prey. So, when it comes to building brand and reputation, be bold, be distinctive, be authentic but above all, be yourself.
Take care and stay safe.
Martyn Spence MA (Marketing) FCIM Chartered Marketer