Branding in higher education: an inside view

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SMRS will be once again hosting the Higher Education stream at YMS17 and ahead of the event, Ed Layt, Education Marketing Strategist at SMRS shared some of the findings of their study into higher education branding with us.

In September, at the 28th annual EAIE Conference in Liverpool, we were delighted to unveil our latest research, examining branding in higher education: 'Branding in higher education: An inside view'. We surveyed 134 members of staff, from 114 universities across 16 countries to get a global picture of branding in higher education in 2016.

In short, the research found that branding is a challenge for higher education marketers, and yet growing in importance.

There was clear consensus that branding matters, and institution success could hinge on the development, management and communication of a meaningful brand. There were also a number of common issues that institutions were finding – storytelling and differentiation to name just two. Because of this, a significant proportion of institutions across the globe are looking to undertake brand development projects in the near future, to help redefine their propositions.

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Alongside unveiling the research at EAIE we also spoke about our six-stage brand process, that we undertake to create a meaningful and successful brand. If you would like to hear more about that, then please get in touch (ed.layt@smrs.co.uk). But for now, here are four top tips to think about if you’re looking to embark on a brand project.

1. Understand your audience

It’s where we always start, on any project. But when dealing with brand, it’s absolutely non-negotiable. Not understanding your stakeholders and what they currently think of you will make it impossible to develop a brand experience that will be meaningful and resonate with them. Engaging your audience at the start will also pay dividends when it comes to the point of sharing outputs – be that a new brand architecture, visual identity or proposition.

2. Keep things simple

We’ve all heard of (or seen first hand) complex, drawn-out and expensive brand development projects. And this is perhaps why when asking higher education professionals to define brand in our research, a simple and concise definition was hard to find. But it doesn’t have to be that way. The successful development and management of a brand requires broad internal understanding. Therefore, as marketers when we talk about ‘brand’ we have to help others understand what we are going on about! And that comes from a simple definition, we go for:

Brand in higher education is what people think and feel about that institution.

Simple? Yes.

Understandable for people at all levels/backgrounds across your institution? Yes.

Lets everyone know it’s not solely the concern of the marketing department? Yes!

3. It’s not all about the logo

I must have heard this statement 100-odd times over the course of the last month and it’s great. There is near-unanimous understanding that brand doesn’t equal logo. However, at the same time we have to be careful not to completely disregard, or under value the importance of a great visual identity (I promise this point is not just here because Dan, our Lead Art Creative Partner, is making me…).

It’s true, no brand project should start with the logo/visual, but invariably it’s where most projects end up, so make sure you invest time and resource to make sure you get it right! Don’t let the conversation around ‘it not being about the logo’ make you think the visual doesn’t matter.

4. Make life easy

If you find yourself with the responsibility of rolling out a new visual identity, one of the main challenges can be institution wide adoption – some individuals will be excited to use the new brand assets, but others might see it as a chore to update perfectly good PowerPoint presentations. To help overcome this, make their life easy. Develop templates & online toolkits, utilise technology such as branded document automation, and where necessary, be prepared to step in and take some of the burden off colleagues who might be reluctant to adopt.

The higher education market has, and is continuing to experience significant change, and this is increasing the need for you to tell people clearly and consistently, what you offer and what you stand for. It’s vital if you’re going to attract the right people and make yourself heard in a crowded marketplace.

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