You’ve Been Branded

The president of Coca-Cola once said that you could destroy all the company’s factories, obliterate its entire transportation system and literally confiscate all its worldly possessions, but Coca-Cola would be back up and running in no time – because the brand would survive. Bare-faced arrogance like this can only come from a man responsible for the creation of a brand worth $70billion. But what the hell is it? It is “thing” that lives in the mind of its consumers, that Coke is cool and if I drink Coke then I too am cool. When you hear on a Coke advert the soft pop of a can, the rush of elated glugging and the final, climactic “ahhhh!”, it is not this familiar refreshment ritual that is worth billions. The bucks come from what this process tells you to do. Buy Coke. And it works. The SU shop on University Park sells approximately 29,101 bottles of Coke a year (and that’s not counting cans!) and Coca-Cola is the top selling drink in every single country in the world (apart from Scotland, where it’s Irn Bru).

Unlike Coca-Cola, whose aim is to flog as many highly-sweetened vegetable-extract flavoured drinks as possible, the University at Nottingham has far nobler aims, namely to provide top quality education to an elite selection of students and attract investment in order to conduct world-class research. Why on earth does it need to be a brand in order to do this? And does the existence of a university “brand” really have an impact on the choices of potential students or investors?

Students would be hard-pressed to describe the brand of the University Of Nottingham. Many would describe the little castle logo, and if pushed to have a think about it, you might come up with ideas that it symbolizes a sense of tradition and local heritage, solid foundations; the drawing is in a abstract style, suggesting a modernity and creativity. Or something along those lines. But as with the world’s most recognizable brands like Coke, Nike and Starbucks, no one really thinks about what the tick or the mermaid says about the company. So what is the actual logic behind the logo?

Maria Vardy of Iris Associates was part of the brand consultancy team that developed “Brand Nottingham”. She believes that universities should embrace commercialization if they want to keep up with the competition. She stated, “We cannot sit back on reputation alone. A brand is a platform to communicate Nottingham’s reputation.” Vardy also added, “The brand affects the way everyone at the university relates to potential customers. It is important for universities to treat students like very discerning customers.”

Nottingham University’s marketing department have published strict internal guidelines to protect the brand, the development and design of which cost just under £60,000. The guidelines range from the style of photographs in the prospectus, to demanding strict adherence to the “top right rule”. This is where the logo must always sit at the top right-hand corner of documents, and dire warnings about “weakening the brand” are given to those who might think about deviating from the rules. The guidelines also set out the “brand values”. These so-called selling points of our university aim to set us apart from others in terms of attracting investment and undergraduates. The brand values declare that Nottingham “enables high quality learning”, it is “creative and innovative”, it demands “quality and excellence in everything we do”, and places importance on “respect and diversity.” Lovely. But hardly ground-breaking. In fact a quick browse at the brand values of other similar universities reveals Durham also offering “world class innovation and academic excellence” and Leeds proclaiming its “reputation for excellence” and its penchant for “diversity”. Vardy herself admits it is nigh on impossible to create a unique selling for the University Of Nottingham brand. “We try to find points of contrast with other universities but yes, they do have very similar underlying values.”

It is not just the university that stoically protects its own brand and the values that underlie it. Newly elected Democracy and Communications Officer for the Student Union Exec, Gavin Todd-James is involved in a major boost in brand-awareness for the Student Union, and said that the process was not about purchasing a product, more “being aware of who we are and what services we provide.” Huge banners with the Union logo adorn the walls of Freshers’ Fayre, with the slogan “Your Union. Your Exec/Freshers’Fayre/Whatever”. For Todd-James, as well as Vardy, a brand means more than a logo: “It’s conveying what you want people to think of your service, and in our case it’s that we’re run by students, for students.” He also sees the use of a separate brand to that of the University as a major benefit of branding the Student Union “Many people struggle to distinguish the SU from the University, we would never use the university brand because we are massively separate from the university.”

Even after the defences of both the University and the Student Union, it is still hard to believe so much importance can be placed on branding, something that has only really come to the fore in the last decade. Even Oxford and Cambridge have a brand and a brand management team, when one would expect they are more than able to flourish on reputation alone. However, Todd-James disagrees that reputation alone is enough to attract today’s discerning applicants: “I do think a brand reaches beyond [the university’s] reputation. For example, the prospectus focuses specifically on how people perceive Nottingham – the emphasis is on a safe, secure campus, because we know that Nottingham is seen as a city that is unsafe.”

Apart from offering freshers a safety blanket from big bad Nottingham in the cosy language of its prospectus, the core values that underpins Nottingham’s brand ultimately offer nothing different to the other six or seven redbrick universities such as Edinburgh, Bristol or Warwick, who, let’s face it, are offering pretty much the same thing. Good reputation, nice surroundings, decent degree at the end. Because this is what it essentially comes down to. I want my university to be world class. When I pick my university, I want to know that it’s up there in the league table with the big boys. I want a solid course and a good degree that will impress future employers. If the University of Nottingham really wants to boost its chances with applicants, climbing a bit further up those league tables to where it was five years ago might not be a bad start. However much the stats and tables in the Times University Guide are bewailed by universities, claiming they cannot capture the spirit of a place, they at least have some basis in cold, hard fact.

By Jessica Elgot


Leave a Reply