University brand challenge

Oxford UniversityHaving worked on a number of brand exercises for academic institutions, it was interesting to find myself over on the consumer side once more at my stepson’s school open evening prior to university choice and selection.

The head had prepared an excellent presentation, supported by documents and analysis to guide the students in their choice of university. It was a triumph in the pragmatics of brand choice. Tables rated the various establishments on a bewildering number of dimensions from student satisfaction and grade requirements to student/staff ratios and completion rates. Enough, you would have thought, to make a perfectly impartial, informed, logical decision.

The head did point out that there might be some emotional factors in the equation such as whether the student might be happier in a big city or an out-of-town campus, but still the choice involved ticking boxes. However, throughout the presentation there was the evidence of underlying emotional attachment to some of the universities’ brands. There was the categorisation into ‘Oxbridge’ then the ‘older’ and ‘newer’ universities. There was a slight surprise at how some of the ‘newer’ establishments were creeping up the league tables over their ‘older’ fellows. Interestingly, some universities were described as ‘excellent’, where the pragmatics of the tables make one question the use of the word.

In short, for people in academia (and I might suggest in the wider world of commerce and industry) there are emotional attachments to some universities’ brands just as we see with other ‘commercial’ brands, and these often transcend pure logic which may be used, post hoc, to justify emotive choice.

Later, looking more closely at the data, it was possible to see a reflection of brand value in the universities’ use of their own form of premium-pricing, in the grades required for entry. In some cases there were correlations with other factors, but, as with any brand, emotional interactions and cause and effect need detailed analysis to understand the dynamics. How far does the premium pricing of a Porsche reflect the aspiration and emotional capital of the brand rather than the build quality and R&D investment?

If one could be cold and dispassionate, it is encouraging to see how some of the ‘new kids on the block’ (though many of these have been around for 20 years or more) are building valuable niches and impressive reputations. However I still came away with some of those impressive brand names, if not ringing in my ears, at least whispering around my psyche.

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