Branding seems to be everywhere you look in universities these days.

It is one of the major talking points at international higher education gatherings, including this year’s annual conference of EUPRIO, the European universities public relations and communications association, being held in Antwerp, Belgium, in SeptembeBranding seems to be everywhere you look in universities.

‘Living the brand’ is the event’s title reflecting the growing interest with reputation and branding across the sector.

The education media is just as obsessed particularly when new rankings are produced.

Reputation Rankings

Take the recent Times Higher Education, or THE, World Reputation Rankings.

Writing in the introduction, Rankings Editor Phil Baty said: “Like it or not, our world-class universities are global brands.”

He went on to say that “great universities are far too complex and multifaceted to reduce easily to a simple slogan or a striking logo’ adding that they are in the ‘long-term business of seeking truth and creating knowledge, not the short-term game of selling snake oil.’

But, as Baty also pointed out, they operate in “an extremely competitive global market where reputation – and, yes, brand, – is everything”.

Still a ‘dirty word’

In her comment piece, fellow education writer Ellie Bothwell looked outside the top tier at some of the new names making their presence felt in the reputation rankings.

She quoted Meric Gertler, president of the University of Toronto and the top ranked university in Canada.

He admitted the term ‘branding’ can still be considered a ‘dirty word’ among academics, saying: “Many of them find it a distasteful concept… because it connotes ideas of superficiality and shallowness.”

Gertler’s point is: “Whether you like it or not, universities have a brand – it’s an image that people associate with us. And we want that image to be as positive as possible.”

Of course, substance is what really matters, he concluded, adding: “There has to be real substantive evidence that you have a good product to sell.”

EUPRIO talking points

All this and more will be among the talking points at the EUPRIO conference, which runs from September 1-3 at the University of Antwerp.Uni of Antwerp logo

Universities are certainly looking for the competitive edge to attract the best students and staff.

The growth of rankings has merely added to the pressure to build reputation and polish the corporate image to impress funding bodies, employers and potential partners.

More than a logo

Sofia Moestedt-Westerberg, head of communications at Blekinge Institute in Sweden is chairing the EUPRIO conference task force, told me: “Branding is much more than simply logos: It is a whole concept of expectations, emotions, meanings and values to students, employees and the surrounding society.

“The notion of branding needs to be embraced from a number of different perspectives and throughout the whole organisation, giving a common identity and the unique characteristics of the university.”

Jan Dries, Director of Communications at the University of Antwerp

Jan Dries, Director of Communications at the University of Antwerp

Jan Dries, the main organiser of the EUPRIO Antwerp conference, said: “As organisations of people, universities cannot be positioned or branded as a product like a can of Coca Cola. Nonetheless, a lot of branding techniques are applicable to higher education.”

Living the brand

He explained the EUPRIO conference title reflects how living the brand is now so important to higher education institutions.

“Strong branding can attract customers and personnel, and keep students and staff enthusiastic about the organisation.”

“Today, more than ever, our staff and students are the transmitters of the brand – whether it is internal branding, employer banding, corporate branding or product branding,” says Jan.

“Marketing and Communications departments need to play with these four segments in an agile way, finding the right balances between channels, messages and audience. One brand, one voice is our aim,” he adds.

For the THE World Reputation Rankings, see here.

* THIS blog was adapted from my story on the EUPRIO website: Branding under the EUPRIO spotlight in Antwerp.