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.