Anyone searching for a word to wind up academics could give this one a try: brand.  “Brand” is the new “customer” for awfulness of metaphor when it comes to explaining the profile and values of a higher education institution. It’s the term—and the attitude to public communication—that has already white-anted our confidence in politics, so why universities are presently gulping the Kool Aid when it comes to brand profiling is beyond me.

OK, don’t write in: I know that universities operate in a competitive marketplace, that public communication with stakeholders is critical, etc. etc.  I just think that we’re not operating according to a shared, or even particularly clear, understanding of what marketing experts mean when they say “brand” with such breathtaking lack of irony. It’s a small but grown-up word that you can slip into a busy sentence without fuss, but it opens up into a vast corporate universe of discourse that promises coherent tonality of message across an entire higher education institution as a reasonable expectation in this lifetime.

I don’t think so.

The problem is the disruption of the brand in classrooms and lecture theatres, in the corridor, in our offices, and increasingly in the cloud.  We really do teach critical thinking, that’s not just what it says on the door.  And this means that we speak candidly about the challenges of institutional life in large organisations just like the ones in which we work. This is the job we were hired to do, as part of the way in which we prepare students for leadership roles in careers that haven’t been invented yet, such is the rate of churn in the global world of work.

As a result we’re often way off message, in terms of brand curation. In fact, to marketing professionals, universities can seem more like campsites or carnivals than corporations run smoothly from HQ.  Even as we try to achieve some measure of coherence around standards and quality control, we haven’t yet reduced ourselves to the kinds of all-together-now customer service promises that characterise the quick service restaurant industry: if you don’t get your degree in the time we say you should, we won’t give it to you for free or upsize it to a higher qualification.  We’re not selling content or even customer experience; we’re here to help you figure out the experience you can create for yourself, using your abilities, resources and values in partnership with ours.

This is why universities can’t easily borrow the marketing strategy that fits other large customer-centred operations. Firstly, there’s no single speaking position from which to make statements about what we all do, or what we hope to stand for when we speak; secondly, we’re not trying to engage an audience with our brand message in the usual way.  Engagement means something a little different to us, and the confusion about “audience” is the pivot point of this divergence. Engaged students aren’t audiences to the spectacle of their own educational experience, they’re the co-creators of it.

So I’m interested in today’s enthusiasm for Dan Klamm’s “6 Best Practices for Universities Embracing Social Media“.  This apparently straightforward set of guidelines is itself wrestling with intra-organisational diversity. Klamm sets out the basic problem like this:

Within a university, there are many departments and academic units, all with unique messages and distinct audiences. … From the residence life office to the parking department to the dining halls, each unit can have its own social media presence (in a way that is coordinated across campus, of course).

This diversity is actually very difficult to wrangle back into the bag. Klamm recommends social media guidelines that will “ensure consistency and appropriateness of all social media activity” but that remain miraculously open-ended enough to avoid constraining individual innovation including by the “staff member who wants to try something outside-the-box”, while at the same time nodding in the direction of the marketing department with this:

A university’s social media presence is an extension of the school’s brand. What is your brand all about? Is it playful and joking or conservative and buttoned-up? It’s important that a consistent voice is implemented across all of the school’s major social media platforms — a school with an ultra-serious Facebook page and an offbeat and sarcastic Twitter account will just look like it’s having an identity crisis.

Double back flip, with pike and twist.  And this is the heart of dilemma facing us. For university brand managers trying to harness organisational tonality across platforms originally developed for different purposes that have now slumped together as “social media”, the risk of letting academics out of the box is precisely that we’re the ones who find the identity issues in higher education interesting. We aren’t so worried about a marketing crisis, but we’re passionate about reserving our capacity to speak sensibly about how public communication works, and why our students need to understand that it matters. In fact, we’re the ones helping our students professionalise their own online presence, and in many cases we enjoy being their first audience.

Funnily enough, though, this is business as usual, rather than a whole new situation. Higher education at its best is a rich form of participatory culture, and has been all along, not just since Gen Y and their prosumer expectations. Our shared engagement with public cloud media has simply made more visible education’s transformative capacity: a conversation between individuals who were previously strangers, and who have agreed to put aside a little time to learn together, in the context of their respective lives, and in a way that helps us all more fully appreciate the experience of being human.

So, memo to the student communications team: as we’re figuring out the social media guidelines and the digital communications strategy, let’s keep this element of the brand in view, as it’s the one we really do embrace in our practice, every day.

UPDATE: A correspondent suggests that I’m dismissive of what’s good about branding in universities, and I thought I’d say that I’m not.  It’s not only important but simple courtesy that a university establishes its own distinctive sense of purpose and says clearly and simply what this is so that all concerned (prospective students, industry partners, politicians, employees) can make their informed choices about engaging with that institution on the basis of its values and goals. But the goal of harmonious brand tonality across the institution might be a limiting one in our case, and (my interest) it may be one of the hardest points on which to achieve consensus between academics and other professional staff.


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