Come in Spinner: How much of universities’ branding spending is wasted?

Universities in Australia and the UK have been spending more and more on marketing themselves, and seeking to create unique brands which will allegedly help them succeed, often with very doubtful results.

A British academic, Dr Paul Temple, has claimed that much of the branding work is ‘candyfloss’. Writing in Perspectives: Policy and Practice in Higher Education ( Vol 15 Issue 4 October 2011), a journal for university administrators, he said: “people are not, mostly idiots: they will see what is branding candyfloss and what is the reality, created over time by good management and a well-nurtured academic culture. Branding work…can have no significant impact on these matters.” In another paper, Branding Higher Education: Illusion or reality (Vol 10, Issue 1, 2006) he said: “the brands of …universities, that is, people’s perceptions of the kind of places they are, come out of…academic and organisational successes and failures. Building a brand, if you want to call it that, means working to ensure there are more successes than failures – and it can only be done by the academic and administrative staff working together, with good leadership. Nobody else can do it. That is the reality: branding as a route to success is the illusion”.

Temple was essentially attacking branding consultants and Private Eye gleefully leapt on his views to illustrate a story about the University of Salford spending 132,000 pounds on a branding consultant, to achieve a geographically-misleading one word change to the university name, while cutting spending in other areas by 7,000,000 pounds.

Now Temple obviously has a point, although as a former non-executive director of a branding consultancy, I know good branding consultants do help organisations(including universities) understand what they are, what their strengths are and how best to position themselves. Moreover, I can’t help feeling he’s jumping up and down about the wrong problem. The marketing and branding issues are, instead, a symptom of broader problems in tertiary education, albeit those problems are sometimes made worse by inept marketing. And make no mistake, there is some inept tertiary sector marketing out there. Academics are frequently accused of having an obsession with the abstruse which could be cured by exposure to the ‘real world’. Yet intruding this real world into academia sometimes veers between the tragic and the hilarious. For instance, one university marketing director I am aware of (not RMIT of course) speaks in an impenetrable jargon which makes your average French intellectual sound as clear as George Orwell. The quality of his advice was exemplified by a conversation I was having with one of his university’s administrators about the competitive threat – to a particular Australian study area facing severe cutbacks – from a Chinese institution spending hundreds of millions of dollars and attracting an amazing slate of internationally-recognised teachers, researchers and supporters. The administrator told me it was not a real concern because his marketing people had assured him the university’s brand was strong enough to withstand the competition. In fact his university did have a very strong brand, not because of its marketing and branding policies, but because of its long-term achievements and it was the relative strength of those achievements versus the emerging achievements of a better-funded competitor which was the real point.

Much university and branding is also, unsurprisingly, similar and if you took the institutions’ names out of the advertising copy you might be hard-pressed to say which university it was promoting. For many tertiary institutions the branding also has a try hard element to it – a bit like the Bracks Government’s infuriating habit of constantly referring to things in Melbourne and Victoria as ‘world class’, a strategy which is significantly not pursued by cities such as Paris, New York and London. As Temple says: “…the reasons why Oxford is the kind of university it is are many and complex, but…its ability to hire smarter branding consultants is not among them…” More importantly the branding and marketing is often a symptom of the search for a magic bullet which will help universities forced to cope with funding cutbacks, the proliferation of managerialism and stultifying bureaucracy. Essentially these all stem from a combination of government policies which see universities as primarily utilitarian entities; regulation which dramatically increases university overheads; and, the influx of non-academic managers who thrive on the opportunities this presents to convert their institutions into a 21st century version of the Dickensian Circumlocution Office – all while justifying themselves in the language Don Watson has highlighted in Weasel Words and Bendable Learnings.

In the Financial Times (25-26 February 2012) Chris Patten, Oxford Chancellor and former Tory MP, discusses many of these issues in reviewing Stefan Collini’s new book What are Universities For?( Penguin 2011). Patten summarises Collini: “Policy has been based on crude and largely false assumptions about the relationship between higher education and the growth of gross domestic product. The humanities have been treated too often like nugatory fripperies, while science is favoured for its more apparent economic value. …All this has been explained in a series of government documents which read like instructions for the canteen’s automatic beaker disposal unit.”  Patten sympathises with Collini’s views but makes it clear that justifying the cost to taxpayers of spending on one sector rather than another is ‘one of the consequences of living in a democracy’ and cautions against ‘patronising disdain’ for this reality.

This dilemma is not one that can ultimately be resolved by marketing and branding – indeed much of the tertiary sector’s marketing may only be making the problems worse by hiding the problems caused by successive governments and portraying the sector as more vibrant, diverse and successful than it is. The money would probably be better spent campaigning to get the bigger problems fixed. Unfortunately, given the highly regulated nature of the sector the Government would probably just reduce their funding by a similar amount.