This article was published in The Times Higher Education World Rankings 2011-12, published 15 March 2012

The world of academia has been working itself up into a lather about branding recently. The battle lines have been firmly drawn between those who see it as a rational response to a changing marketplace and therefore a necessity, and those who regard it as a cynical and superficial marketing ploy that wastes money. Of course, it’s not that black and white: the reality is both more complicated and more interesting. There is a case to be made for branding universities, and it’s one I want to make. It starts with self-awareness. Like people, institutions need a strong sense of their own identity if they are to connect successfully with others. It is not always easy to view oneself and one’s strengths and weaknesses objectively, as every student who writes a “personal statement” on an application form knows. On one level a university’s brand is the exact equivalent of a personal statement. It needs to be truthful and to “sell” the institution – not an easy task.

Universities, in the UK at least, are now facing the stringent realities of market forces in a way that they have not had to before. For many this feels uncomfortable, but in response it is as unwise to clutch at panaceas as it is to resist change. Some look to branding as a way to rewrite their background and conduct a “makeover” as if a participant in a reality TV show, while others worry that the dark forces of commerce will envelop academic independence. In a recent article in Perspectives: Policy and Practice in Higher Education, the journal of the Association of University Administrators, Paul Temple, reader in higher education management at the Institute of Education, argued that branding exercises were “excellent ways to waste time and money”. Indeed they can be, if not properly directed, but failure to address t he issues t hat a branding exercise should raise would be complacent.

For those in charge of any university, branding is not an option: it is a responsibility to students, staff and alumni. It is about ensuring that the university has a sustainable position in the minds of those on whom its future depends. While a university’s reputation may fluctuate, a brand, properly embedded, should not. The brand should drive everything a university does – it should influence its strategic plans, its capital investments, its range of courses, its student experience and ultimately its academic excellence. A brand is about today and tomorrow, so any communication becomes a judicious balance of credibility and aspiration. Of course, not all universities will approach branding in the same way. If you’ve been building your brand for 800 years and are constantly ranked at the top, your starting point is very different from a university that has only decades of history behind it and struggles to achieve a worthwhile place in the league tables. The higher education sector has its “squeezed middle”, just like the UK economy as a whole. It is here that branding may make a real difference. When so many institutions offer similar courses they lack basic product differentiation. This makes it harder for students (and increasingly parents) to make informed choices. Successful brands aim to separate the wheat from the chaff.

I believe that many universities need to think about and work harder to build innovative methods of provision, relevant course topics, entrepreneurial skills and a rewarding student experience, rather than talking up the same old stuff in the hope of success. For most of us, higher education is a once- or twice-in-a-lifetime purchase that arguably has a more defining effect than any other purchase we make. That means we are not expert shoppers and our purchase decision is a big commitment. Universities therefore need to establish and promote characteristics that stand out, not just nuances. At times the academic world can be too self-referencing and introspective. A fresh look from the outside can be helpful in order to highlight the differences that are hidden from view if you are too close to them. Sometimes developing a brand means taking a controversial stand. Often, successful universities are those that try not to be all things to all people: the more applicants they reject the more desirable they become; the more they concentrate on excellence in chosen disciplines rather than a multiplicity of them, the more they are respected. In a market context that will drive the sector towards consolidation over the next few years, self-awareness, making radical choices and investing in branding could make all the difference.