Branding the university

16 Dec

I’ve never been a Monday morning person. But today was worse than normal: I woke up to the news that my alma mater – Trinity College Dublin – has commissioned a ‘brand agency’ to work on the university’s ‘brand identity’. They tell me that Ireland exited the bailout yesterday. But for some people, it seems like the Celtic Tiger never left. 

Here’s what that brand agency said:

‘We are delighted to partner with Trinity on this project where the challenge is to build a strong, consistent and recognised brand which can be mobilised nationally and internationally in a competitive global higher education market.  Trinity wants to create a shared visual identity and narrative for the entire university that allows it to tell a more cohesive and powerful story, and celebrate the university’s excellence in education and research.’

Now, much of this is gibberish, but it plays to Trinity’s unease about its place in the wider world – witness the worrying attachment to global university rankings, a metric with all the subtlety and nuance of Vince Vaughn in a bouncy castle. It’s genuinely embarrassing that they feel the need to put in their Twitter bio that Trinity ‘ranks 61st in the top 100 world universities’. The old place is starting to look like an inferiority complex wrapped up in old stone and brilliantly affordable cans of cider, when in fact personal experience suggests it’s one of the few things that people across the world actually do know about Dublin. Guinness and Trinity is pretty much it – why change? 

And as for ‘a shared… narrative for the entire university’, I reckon that between the four centuries since its foundation by Elizabeth I (how’s her brand doing, by the way?) and its place – for better or for worse – near the heart of Irish life since 1592, we’ve probably got a fairly decent narrative already. Do you have a pen?

But leaving aside the marketing-speak, I find it terrifying that the university thinks this is the best use of their money. I was an undergrad at Trinity for four years and I couldn’t have been happier. I loved the place then and I still do – I was lucky enough to be taught by some of the most gifted and intellectually generous people I’ve ever met. I also (and this matters too) had quite a lot of fun.

But I could also tell you some horror stories – from my experience and from that of friends – about Trinity’s undergrad provision. There were problems then, and many remain. The idea that the ‘brand’ of the university is the thing that best deserves a wodge of cash pulled from an ever-shrinking pot is insulting – to students, to academics, and even to those people you’re hoping to tempt into TCD from abroad. A ‘student experience’ can’t just be a prospectus promise – if you don’t make excellence and student provision a reality on the ground, then people will see through you and your brand, and you’re a fool if you think they won’t. 

I’m not going to have a massive pop at the people they’ve hired, though having looked at their website I’d respectfully suggest that they correct the three glaring typos in the paragraph which ends ‘We live for the finer detail.’

My issue here is with the choice to spend university money on ‘branding’. Hell’s bells, Ireland’s experiencing a crippling recession and you genuinely think that the best use of money – rather than as a living wage for staff, or researchers’ stipends in a city that’s still madly expensive, or for improving undergraduate provision – is to pay a consultancy to come up with a new nickname you will unsuccessfully try to make the other kids call you by?

Maybe I’m naive (yeah, I am), but part of me thinks that maybe the best way – the only way – to improve your ‘brand’ would be by (stay with me here) actually being really good at what you do. Now I know this is a difficult concept. But it’s the difference between people in Shanghai saying ‘hey, neat logo! And such a shiny magazine of lies!’ and those same people saying ‘holy shit – a university with world-class academics and researchers, all paid a wage commensurate with the work they do – and the best undergraduate provision in the world!’

I’m just one alumnus, and not one with any heft to speak of, but I do know that when I get the next fundraising call from Trinity, I’ll ask how much they’ve spent on brand consulting in the past few years. If you get the same phone call, I hope you’ll do the same. Because if money given by alumni to go towards better provision for students is being funnelled so that some Fiachra in a consultancy office can draw up another mood chart, then I’m not buying. 

I know there are bigger problems here. I know that cuts and crises mean universities are being pushed harder and faster towards marketisation, towards viewing the education they provide as a product, and their students as consumers. I hate it – and so should you – but I don’t know how to fix it. Since raising this news on Twitter this morning, a few people have made the (reasonable) point that every university is doing this; that universities see themselves as having to compete in a global market; that they see professional help (albeit, in this case, professional help that can’t spell the word ‘its’) as the best way out.

To that bigger problem, I don’t have an answer. But I’m pretty sure that just hiring a brand consultancy isn’t it. Universities are under pressure to adapt and to change, and their staff and students are finding themselves competing for even the most basic services and resources. And if your response to that is to spend what little money’s going on your ‘brand’ rather than on the people under your nose, then I worry you’ll get back precisely what you deserve. 

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6 Responses to “Branding the university”

  1. rjblakemore December 16, 2013 at 12:01 pm #

    Before postgrad I worked briefly as an audiotypist, mostly transcribing market research seminars and interviews. One series of these concerned rebranding an academic institution. I can’t give the details – I had to sign a privacy agreement, and frankly I don’t remember anyway – but there were many hours, and I have no idea how much money, spent discussing the best name to use; all of the names had the same or similar collection of words, it was just rearranging them.

    THIS WILL NOT HELP.

  2. lmlillie December 16, 2013 at 2:32 pm #

    Heft. You have it.

  3. Louise Curtin December 16, 2013 at 4:52 pm #

    Just had a look at ‘that’ paragraph and the misuse (abuse) of apostrophes would be funny, were it not a chilling reminder that style over substance still prevails in many, many workplaces. Sigh . . .

    • Evan O'Connell (@evanoconnell) December 17, 2013 at 10:20 am #

      This all makes me sob deeply, especially since my alma mater went through a rebranding excercise a couple years ago only to emerge with a very slightly different logo and a name that changed from “Sciences Po” to “SciencesPo.” (the full stop was very important). Complete waste of money that uncannily coincided with a massive hike in fees.

      Also, as someone who worked in corporate PR for a couple of years, the style over substance thing is actually simply because most PR people don’t have an ounce of the latter.

  4. quiteirregular December 17, 2013 at 12:08 pm #

    Thanks for this John – much needed! I’ve recently been getting adverts on a couple of podcasts I listen to, telling me that “The University of California is the future, made bold” and that they have been “making the future bold” for a number of years now. I don’t just think that doesn’t make sense, I am genuinely unsure what they think they *want* it to mean…

    • Celeste Regal April 8, 2014 at 8:49 pm #

      I’m late on this but it is going on everywhere. Tossing Humantites & arts out the window, lowering standards with an eye towrd the bottom line. It’s been coming for a while but how sad to see the top unis fall like dominos in a reamrkable lack of tact & ingenuity. Lies, lies, all lies, yes, John. Your commentary is uniquely powerful so I expect you’ll make it through the sludge. Glad to read something with a bit of punch to it.

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