For many, the idea of a university's 'brand' is a distasteful concept, smacking more of commerce than the pursuit of learning. However, I suggest that this is an unnecessary dichotomy. Good management of a university's brand should reflect and support the excellence of its teaching and research and the ethos of the organisation itself.
For one thing, every university already has a brand. A fundamental characteristic of a strong and successful brand is that it embodies and communicates the core values of the organisation. So the question for those running universities is not: 'Should the university have a brand?'; but rather 'Does our brand support our core activities as well as possible?'
The core activities for most universities are the provision and encouragement of education and research. To deliver these, it needs two things: people and funding. A strong brand will help with both: by communicating what is distinctive about this university; and by conveying its attractiveness as a potential recipient of funds whether from public or philanthropic sources, or from business.
For most universities, there will be a core or main brand which is represented by the name of the university and its associated insignia. It will also have sub-brands: its individual schools and faculties which share the same core identity with the university and each other, but have their own important additional features.
This is especially important in relation to recruiting students, who will be comparing courses in similar disciplines at different universities, and of teaching staff who will also be weighing up similar faculties at various universities. Where the brand communicates the desired qualities, it will reinforce the university's attractiveness to the students and staff that it wishes to recruit.
It is also significant in relation to the attractiveness of the consultancy or research services offered to businesses where the expertise attributed to a particular school in a particular university will reinforce the reputation of the individual team or academic offering the services. A similar point applies in relation to other activities like licensing of innovation and the creation of spin-off companies.
One further crucial function of a brand is to provide a focus for motivating staff and students. It reinforces the common values that are shared by everyone in the organisation and helps to drive behaviour that supports those values.
All universities are currently under financial pressure from various directions. Investing resources in brand management must therefore be justified. First and foremost, the university's brand is one of its assets and there is a legal duty to protect it that is explicitly recognised by the Charity Commission. Investing in its brand also benefits the university's operations. Those benefits fall into two broad categories: efficiency of operations; and financial return.
One very obvious and demonstrable benefit that is closely tied to the reputation of the university is that a desirable brand will support a premium in the prices that it can charge for its services; whether those are the provision of education to students or the provision of research and consultancy services to third parties.
As far as efficiency of operations is concerned, there are a number of basic brand housekeeping measures that help to protect the university's brand. If these have not been reviewed in the last couple of years, it would be prudent to audit the current position. They include:
The primary function of its brand is to promote and protect the reputation of the university. This falls into acute focus when the university is collaborating with others, for example in relation to outside campuses (whether in the UK or abroad), sponsoring schools and academies or creating joint ventures to provide services to overseas students. In these cases a brand licence that sets out clearly what activities it covers and in which territories will usually be considered as a basic element of the deal.
However, there are other areas that may be less obvious and some further examples, that we have come across, where the question of brand rights was only addressed somewhat belatedly:
Given the potential for damage to the university's brand if a third party uses it in a manner that is inconsistent with the university's reputation and values, we strongly recommend that the process for considering new projects explicitly includes consideration of the role that the brand will play.