Right at this moment I’m failing to feel sympathetic towards colleagues who’ve made university marketing communications their career.

Please understand, if you’re in marketing, that none of this is personal. As an academic, I know what it’s like to have my professional practice be the topic of everyone else’s reformist idealism. And I do appreciate that my own employment depends on the work you do year round to ensure that there are students for me to teach.  In fact, I’m one of the regulars who shows up for recruitment activities because I honestly believe it’s important that we get our heads out of the sand and take seriously the thoughtful work you do.

But I’m currently suffering from some post-Valentine snarkiness about your enthusiasm for brand personality. I’ve been reading through a wide selection of style guides that have been drawn up to tell university professionals who we are and how we should maintain our distinctive (insert list of upbeat adjectives here) tone of voice in all communications with everyone. I’ve seen too many exclamation marks. And too many broken bits of writing. That are not really sentences.  And the sentimental quotes!  That are not attributed.  Please.  Just put it through Turnitin.

Reading all this, and resisting the urge to get out a red pen, I’m a bit puzzled that it hasn’t occurred to someone to measure the percentage of overall communication with customers, particularly student customers, that is under our control.  I’m sorry, but this really is the elephant in your kitchen: academics are also student communications professionals.  This is what teaching is.  We write copy. We speak. We set up websites by the bucket load. We give feedback. We answer the phone.  We send a billion emails. We handle formal correspondence.

This is why we already understand the importance of tone of voice exceptionally well: our communications are evaluated by the punters far more closely and critically than yours, and this matters in much more direct and personal ways than you can imagine—our careers depend on their satisfaction. And if that isn’t enough, we’re also the topic of quite a bit of their feedback on Facebook.

So I do get that universities need some brand recognition. Logos and taglines make sense to me, although I think everyone should be cautioned by the US study that analysed 1000 college taglines and found significant overuse of the same small number of generic terms. That’s the problem, and thankfully it’s your problem: meaningful, authentic brand differentiation in a sector regulated nationally by standards and globally by ranking instruments is really hard to achieve, especially when the core business of any university is to improve its position in schemes designed to measure the same things everywhere.

This is where brand personality seems to bounce in. It’s crossed over to educational marketing from retail and services marketing and it works well in sectors where the basic product is also somewhat undifferentiated, so at one level it seems like a good tool for the job we’re trying to do.  It’s the superficial differences that matter between one lemonade and another, one bank account and another, one phone plan and another—precisely because people buying these things aren’t fully focused on the task.  They know that real product differentiation is fairly limited; what’s at stake are slender distinctions and price point.

Brand personality actively discourages overthinking; it just wants to seduce distracted buyers in a crowded marketplace. It does this by the straightforward process of classifying stuff according to behavioural traits, in a way that’s strangely reminiscent of astrology. I’ve discovered, for example, a study that proves that fizzy drinks are exciting and mineral waters are sincere. They do have the numbers and the graphs. I’m not here to disrespect the science of any of this, as it happens. I just want to ask what it will take for us to apply it to higher education in a way that is authentic, thoughtful and appropriate to what we actually do.

Until then, a memo to marketing on behalf of Australia’s female university workers, from the professoriate to the cleaners. If you think a higher education institution’s specific brand personality really can be helped along by listing the five famous “people we like”, and not only are they all male, but two of the five are in positions that either never have or could never be held by a woman, then we have an internal communication problem that’s in the realm of the most epic fail.

But maybe you could consider thinking outside the box on this one. Here’s a suggestion for someone we could really like: Magda Szubanski.  Brave, funny, famous, popular with young people and their parents, and really prepared to stand up for something.

5 Responses

  • Then there is Her Excellency Quentin Bryce, Governor General of Australia, graduate and Arts and Law with her long public career in equal opportunity, human rights and women’s education. She demonstrates that it is the content, not just the tone of the communication that is important. She would join Magda on my list.

  • Jason

    Thanks for the post. Somewhat tangentially, this:

    Curtin University is in PR hell this morning after thousands of angry Malaysian students hammered the institution’s Facebook page to slam an honorary doctorate awarded to Rosmah Mansor, the controversial wife of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak.

    Last week Curtin vice-chancellor Jeanette Hacket presented the unpopular spouse with the gong, ostensibly for her commitment to early childhood education. But Mansor, likened to Imelda Marcos, is a hated figure among the 2500-strong Malaysian student body at its Sarawak campus that tips millions each year into Curtin’s Australian coffers.

    There’s marketing and there’s marketing. The university, clearly trying to put itself in the good books with political elites in a less-than-democratic key market manages to politicise its Sarawak students and to damage its credibility among its key “stakeholders”.

    You wouldn’t have been the PR staff at Curtin for quids the other day. But these are the knots that branding ties our institutions up in.

  • So, so relevant right now. Brand guidelines seem to be hailed as the important policy to follow. Working on developing badges, and the top question is about how they will conform to the brand, not how they will help students or be used to recognise skills or anything relating to their function at all. Just make sure they are the right shade of orange.

    (And we got some feedback saying Lippy the fish is not “an approved UOW image” and should be changed. Sigh.)

  • I’m going to sound like a broken record here, but I think the solution is to think outside of the box, while also embracing this shift in paradigms.

  1. Notes on Jason Read’s ‘Starting from Year Zero: Occupy Wall Street and the Transformations of the Socio-Political’ : home cooked theory  February 18, 2012

    […] funding of universities here involves particularities that matter, even while our campuses reflect in practice some of the same tendencies shaping the experience of university life elsewhere (thanks again for […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.