Higher education branding

Higher education branding, substance or candyfloss?

“People are not, mostly, idiots: they will see what is higher education branding candyfloss and what is reality, created over time by good management and a well-nurtured academic culture.”

We came across this point of view in an edition of the Times Higher Education Supplement. We were intrigued, as we work as creative consultants and much of our work focuses on higher education branding. Reading the article, a review of a paper in an academic journal, made us question our role.

Are we purveyors of candyfloss? Or are we men and women of substance?
The more we thought about the issues, the more we realised that our conscience is clear. As we explain in this article, our contribution is not pink and fluffy… it’s real.

No smoke and mirrors, just a true reflection

We see no contradiction between higher education branding and reality. Like Dr Temple, we believe that a ‘reasonable-sounding’ role for branding and visual identity is to find out what the institution does well and present it in an appealing way.

Authenticity is key. Even the most professional high education branding makeover can’t create a rosy reputation or wipe out years of well-known average performance.

We craft higher education branding programmes that are rooted in basic truths. During each project, we spend time getting under the skin of the client organisation, discovering the reality of its proposition and understanding its true strengths.

Any higher eduction branding exercise based on wishful thinking or wild invention is destined to fail. Our approach is to build a ‘brand promise’ based on the reality of an institution’s culture, heritage, reputation and offer.

A cost, yes, but not costly

‘An excellent way to waste time and money’, wrote Dr Temple in his paper* berating the efforts of branding consultants in higher education. Sorry Doctor, but we beg to differ. A dedicated budget for higher education branding is a sound investment. (Especially if it’s entrusted to us.)

With higher tuition fees, students naturally expect higher standards of information and high quality marketing materials. Your potential customers (for that’s who they are) expect professional communications that present the benefits and attributes of your institution in an engaging way. Education branding has, in fact, never been so important.

In the current competitive climate, any higher education establishment that settles for a lacklustre prospectus and website will suffer the consequences. A ‘fuzzy’, uncoordinated higher education brand identity is no substitute for strategically sound branding that clearly communicates your strengths and personality.

A faculty for understanding

We’re like-minded souls. We understand the culture and chemistry within higher education institutions and we’re well versed in techniques to support the in-house marketing professionals. Whatever issues you face, the chances are we’ve come across them before and found a solution. In fact, we’ve become expert at managing even the most complex higher education branding programmes. We relish the challenge.

We know, for instance, that the academic fraternity are sometimes suspicious of ‘creative-types’ and their marketing jargon. We know that design evolution is often more attainable than revolution and that major changes need to be based on an evidence-based strategy, not a whim.

At the same time, we’re never afraid to assert our creative independence. Our ideas are fresh and we always aim to bring new thinking to the branding and marketing of higher education institutions. We want you to be surprised by our recommendations, and the outcome of your higher education branding programme.

A badge doesn’t make a brand

Writing in the paper* that spurred us to produce this thought piece, Dr Temple dismisses the ‘superficial manipulations of branding work’. So do we. At Fabrik, our higher education branding programmes go deeper than a change of logo, a new typeface and a fresh palette of colours.

For a start, the visual elements come last. Before we put pen to paper (or mouse to Mac) we hold in-depth briefing sessions, stakeholder interviews and staff workshops. We gain a detailed understanding of each touch-point between the institution and its audience. Education branding programmes needs to be rooted in a basic truth.

Working closely with our clients, we then develop a visual identity and verbal language that reflects the reality of the brand. This may or may not feature a new logo or new typography. Quite often, subtle changes of design and writing style are all that’s required.

Like it or not, you’re a brand

You may see your establishment as a highly regarded higher education institution – which of course it is – but to potential students it’s a brand, expressed through your higher education brand identity. This is the commercial reality of today’s education marketplace. Students are extremely brand-savvy and their decision-making is determined by their perception of competing education brands.

Position your education brand identity carefully, with positive values, and you’ll attract higher calibre students and staff. You’ll send out a clear, contemporary message that you’re in tune with the needs of our various stakeholders.

At Fabrik, we have a clear understanding of the potential – and limitations – of higher education branding. To us, it’s all about identifying the unique characteristics of your institution and bringing them to the fore. In this way, we truly reflect the reality of your competitive offer.

No short cuts…

Dr Temple* questions whether branding consultants can find short cuts to improve an institution’s reputation.

He’s right… in our experience there are no short cuts. A successful higher education brand identity programme is the result of in-depth research, lengthy discussions and careful evaluation of the institution’s proposition.

We use all the strategic and creative tools at our disposal to arrive at a positive place. These include naming, digital design, original photography, illustration and the development of visual identity guidelines. A social networking strategy can also reinforce the establishment’s brand values.

In some ways, we share Dr Temple’s scepticism of branding in the higher education sector. Perhaps the benefits have been hyped and trumpeted too much. We know from our own experience, however, that a carefully planned and coordinated higher education branding programme, based on the reality of an institution’s offer, can bring rewarding results.

*Dr Paul Temple, reader in higher education management at the Institute of Education, writing in Perspectives: Policy and Practice in Higher Education.

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