Can’t hold it back anymore: Should universities hang on to tradition?

Can’t hold it back anymore: Should universities hang on to tradition? 

HEI Tradition

In our most ancient universities it’s common to blame a slow pace of change on history and tradition, as if the institution were still governed by scholars from the Middle Ages.

As the head of the Business School at one modern university put it: ‘At Oxford I was able to hire one person in ten years; here I’ve hired ten people in one year.’ Yet the irony is obvious; both modern and ancient universities have a similar makeup. Whether an institution is eight years old, or eight hundred, its academics and administrators are modern people with modern values, who have often been through an identical educational experience.

Oxford & Cambridge, Glasgow & St Andrews are full of brilliant minds which developed listening to the Rolling Stones or Coldplay, just like Warwick and Nottingham. There may be ceremonies and processions, but the gowned and hooded men and women carrying them out belong to the twenty-first century.

Nonetheless tradition has a palpable effect on how people see an institution. And not always for the good. It has an effect on the culture of an institution, which influences how those within it – academics, administrators and students – behave. The trappings of tradition inhibit change. They also influence the perceptions and choices of prospective students. In the past, this was a benefit, but today history and tradition don’t always have positive associations for younger audiences.

So when should a university hang on to the past, and when should it not? What if there isn’t too much of a past? And how are HEIs changing in relation to how they use history to promote their activities?

HEI Tradition

The pull of the past


History and tradition can be powerful marketing assets, and have been used very successfully by the sector. However, our most ancient universities don’t sit at the top of the global rankings because of their dreaming spires and cloistered quadrangles. They lead the world because of their ground-breaking research across a whole raft of disciplines, and because of their excellence in teaching today’s students.

So tradition can be something of a double-edged sword when it comes to promoting these institutions. Images of historic buildings make it easy to forget that the institution which lives inside them is at the forefront of the pursuit and sharing of knowledge. And increasingly the oldest universities have to fight for the brightest applicants against perceptions of being ‘old-fashioned’, ‘elitist’ and ‘stuffy’. (Of course, they are not really any of these things; but they can look that way.)

At the other end of the spectrum some post-1992 universities have adopted heraldic logos and more traditional visual treatments to try to make themselves look like long-established institutions. In a sector where history has often been identified with quality, their lack of ancient architecture and picturesque ceremonies can be a competitive disadvantage. But adopting a traditional ‘look and feel’ is fraught with difficulties; many less credentialed organisations (for instance, English-language and foundation colleges aimed at overseas students) play off the same generic. And, frankly, it can feel phoney. The adoption of a traditional-looking brand only works when it is backed up by compelling evidence – a coat of arms capping a picture of a 1960s concrete and glass technical college doesn’t boost the reader’s confidence! Instead, it calls into question the authenticity of the brand.

Heritage branding can also make institutions more inward-looking. This is noticeable when we compare the ‘established’ metropolitan universities with their post-1992 counterparts. Modern universities are often at the heart of their cities, literally and metaphorically – engaged with the community around, rather than sequestered in the ‘groves of academe’.

Much of this, of course, is by necessity; new universities don’t have the estate with which to create their own separate world. But this geographic fact translates across to communications (it is very noticeable on websites, for instance). Tradition versus modernity also very often segues into ‘gown versus town’, which creates its own problems at a time when the university as a ‘destination brand’ – where university and city together shape the student experience – can be just as important to applicants as hallowed foundations.

Some institutions wrestle with letting go of their legacy in the interests of appearing more modern, while others ask whether they can afford not to try to appear older and more traditional. But a big problem with the legacy of the past is that it can be notoriously difficult to walk away from. There is a fear factor. There is also considerable institutional inertia (“we’ve always had it, so why are we getting rid of it now?”). And, as Mark Twain wryly observed: “the less there is to justify a traditional custom, the harder it is to get rid of it.”

The evidence to back up change is not easy to find, either. Heritage versus modernity is not a well-researched area of marketing, perhaps because it is notoriously hard to properly quantify. But without convincing data to show how tradition affects the attitudes of applicants, for good or ill, the status quo can seem like the safest option.

So coats of arms with their crests and shields and Latin mottoes still dominate the sector’s branding. And some universities have been understandably reluctant to jettison the historic and venerable, because it puts distance between them and newer institutions (across the world there are many HEIs that are less than thirty years old, but relatively few which are older than a hundred).

HEI Tradition

Becoming a burden?


The greatest challenge to the heritage brand, however, is not the need to emphasise the modern side of HEIs, nor even the difficulty of suggesting an antiquity that doesn’t exist, but our changing attitudes to the old.

We have a new generation of prospective students for whom the traditional associations are largely meaningless: for them, a coat of arms does imply elitist patronage or ancient foundation but is simply a confusing kind of brand. Whether they have grown up in the UK or elsewhere, they are much less likely to have studied mediaeval European history and have a sense of the historic styles that are being called upon. In fact, these may not mean very much to them at all. They are more likely to point to a brand like Apple as an example of a ‘look and feel’ which epitomises technical excellence and intellectual rigour. Its authority comes from the pared-down simplicity of its visual stylings and the quiet confidence of its language. But it also feels young and approachable.

Without the context, heraldry becomes a confusing form of branding which is not particularly effective at differentiating institutions. Even to the informed contemporary eye, it can still all look the same. Often it is only the dominant colour which creates noticeable difference: dark blue for Oxford, for instance, or red and yellow for Cambridge.

The same applies to the visual and verbal styles that accompany the traditional university brand: conservative, seriffed types and bookish text treatments, beautiful but intimidating photographs of historic buildings and stentorian prose composed with academic rigour.

In the past these kinds of treatments have suited the way the Academy saw itself, but increasingly they now alienate its audiences. And the Academy itself has changed. Today it is more likely to want to emphasise different things about itself: to convey its mission to have a positive impact on the world, to showcase the state-of-the-art research it carries out, and to draw attention to its modern teaching facilities.

These aspirations follow through into the executions which deliver the brand, particularly into campaigns, the website and the prospectuses. More relevant and energetic messages demand snappier writing, a stronger emotional pitch, and more vibrant visual language.

Across the world, led by the United States, many distinguished universities are finally moving away from heraldic brands and embracing a clean, simple modernity. This trend has followed through into UK Higher Education. And, in regard to how they approach the question of traditionalism or modernity, it has caused British university brands to form into three distinct tiers:

1. Global universities


At the top level there are the global universities, which are positioning themselves amongst an international peer group rather than against domestic competitors. These include Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial, UCL, LSE, Edinburgh and King’s. And their approach to branding (which applies to most of their peers as well) falls into two starkly different types.

HEI Tradition

On the one hand are those universities which use formal heraldic approaches (Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh).

And on the other are those which use starkly simple typographic treatments (Imperial, UCL, LSE and King’s). Amongst their international competitors Princeton, Harvard and Chicago are examples of the heraldic approach and Caltech, Stanford, MIT, Berkeley, Yale, ETH Zürich and Columbia of a simple typographic marque.

Over the last few years, the trend within this group has shifted markedly towards modernity, and away from the trappings of tradition.

2. Research universities


At the next level are the rest of the UK’s researching universities, including the remaining members of the Russell Group and other ‘Red Brick’ and ‘Plate-glass’ universities. This group also includes those universities, like Birmingham, Nottingham, Warwick and Southampton, which have clear aspirations to become global institutions. These universities, too, have been shedding heraldry, but their approach is different. And they fall into three broad groups.

HEI Tradition

First are those institutions which continue to use heraldic devices. However, they have mostly tended to simplify and pare them down (like Lancaster, St Andrews, Durham and Loughborough) or to augment them with dramatic typographic treatments (as Birmingham and York have done).

A second group have adopted the combination of a name-style and a distinctive visual symbol, along much the same lines as public listed companies (these include Surrey, Bath, Leeds, Nottingham and Bristol). This approach echoes the upbeat commercial branding of the 1990s and early 2000s, but now seems ‘neither fish nor fowl’ in Higher Education.

The third group have gone with a purely typo-graphic approach (amongst them Exeter, UEA, Southampton, Sussex, Kent and Manchester). Once again purely typographic marques are a growing trend.

3. Teaching universities


The third level comprises the ‘new universities’. These have often been perceived as having a different approach to branding, yet most follow the broad categories of the other two levels. They just do it differently, making themselves look – as a group – quite distinct from their older counterparts. (Typically new university brands try to feel accessible and un-intimidating to applicants who may have no history of Higher Education in their families).

HEI Tradition

Some post-1992 universities follow the simplified heraldic approach (Anglia Ruskin and Middlesex are good examples of this). More, however, take the corporate symbol-plus-name-style approach (Birmingham City, Brighton, Coventry, De Montfort etc.) But a growing group have adopted a purely typographic approach (Bournemouth, UEL, Hertfordshire, Huddersfield, Kingston etc.)

Back to the future


Surveying university brands, the UK Higher Education sector as a whole is steadily moving towards a more contemporary approach to branding.

Global universities are the pioneers and trend-setters here, but their influence is extending right through to the smallest, newest and most localised institutions. At every level, a growing number of universities are letting go of heraldry and history, together with the more conservative approach to visual language and typography which went with it. In its place, they are embracing clean lines, modern typography, vibrant colours, dynamic photography and a more relevant and engaging tone of voice.

The issue is, in fact, not really about a choice between modernity and tradition at all. It’s about recognising that the values that a ‘traditional’ looking brand used to convey are no longer clear to younger audiences. From the 1980s onwards, the ‘classic English with a twist’ approach to branding drew on elements which suggested pedigree and provenance. But that was because the audience understood the references. New audiences don’t. And they are more likely to see the qualities which the traditional brand sought to project in quite different visual treatments.

Instinctively the higher education sector seems to be recognising this. The avant-garde, within each of the principal groups of institutions, are recognising that there is not necessarily a conflict between pedigree and contemporaneity – there are approaches that can suggest both to the audiences they want to reach.

What Fabrik can offer


We appreciate that we’ve covered some challenging issues in this piece, but our intention is not to worry you unnecessarily. Rather, we’d like to draw your attention to what we think is happening with university brands, so you can be ahead of the curve.

To back up the piece, we’re offering thoughts about how the ideas discussed might apply to your brand. Get in touch, and we’ll give you our views on where your brand stands alongside the Higher Education trailblazers. For free, and without any obligation or annoying sales pitch.

About the author...

James Souttar

Strategist. Mr Listener. Student of Persian Calligraphy. Over the last couple of decades James has helped many different kinds of organisations to understand themselves better and express this understanding as a brand. Recently most of his work has been in Education. Intuitive. Connection-making. Surprising. James is at his best responding to tricky questions. A year in Shoreditch made him allergic to Hipster coffee.

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