Lecturer: Department of Strategic Communication
School of Communication: University of Johannesburg
As a product tertiary education exists within a mature market, when it comes to the recognition and practice of the central and pivotal role of branding, it tends to be more emerging. The spend is steadily increasing and according to Adex data (Nielsen:2009), universities and technikons for the full year of 2006 spent close to R70 million while for the full year of 2008 close to R104 million. Within the education and training category including crèches, pre–primary, primary and high schools, universities and graduate school of businesses have spent close to R206 million, from January 2009 to September 2009, with colleges spending the most.
Branding of public tertiary institutions takes place in a much regulated environment that is fraught with competition and challenges, (there are 23 public higher education institutions and www.southafricaweb.co.za indicates that as of January 2009, there were 79 registered and 15 provisionally registered private higher education institutions). In the Finweek supplement of February 2009, a feature on the SA tertiary terrain refers to a Mail & Guardian table of Vice-Chancellors’ salaries showing the highest paid salary of a certain institution being R3,68 million a year and on the flipside displaying the lowest university income of that very same institution – you don’t need a tertiary qualification to get the point.
As tertiary education institutions increasingly turn to branding, there are typical issues that can play a role in developing and driving brand value in this specific context.
1. Tertiary education is in danger of becoming just another consumable. Often the problem is not volume share but quality share – some tertiary institutions do not have a problem attracting learners but the question is: Are they the right quality learners? We can refer to the latest Matric results as evidence. This is reflected in the Finweek (2009:12) supplement where it is stated, “The whole institutional terrain has shifted, perhaps forever, from one centred on academic excellence to institutional access”. This could result in part of the brand promise not being delivered because of a common stated intent of many tertiary institutions to adhere to academic and research excellence.
2. The ability to build long term brand bonds is significantly curtailed. A possible explanation is that 40% of students drop out of university in their first year (Finweek, 2009:16), making retention difficult. Similarly, tertiary institutions are often dependent on post-graduate learners as an income stream due to the nature of the government subsidy system. It is for this reason that brand conversion is paramount and these types of scenarios can easily scuttle the future sustainability of the brand.
3. A fundamental perception associated with the product category is flawed. Many learners mistakenly still believe that a tertiary qualification guarantees them a job. The magnitude of such expectations is going to be difficult to satisfy. On the contrary, in order to ensure a demand for their brand, many tertiary qualifications are becoming increasingly career orientated as a means of establishing relevance and resonance. This reflects a primary attribute for choosing a tertiary institution that offers the right qualification.
4. “Brand atheism” may take away from “brand evangelism”. Some learners end up at a tertiary institution by default because they were either not accepted by their first choice institution, were financially constrained forcing them to register at more affordable institutions or the influence of geographic location making them select an institution that is closer to home. This obviously impacts negatively on creating emotional connections and affiliations to the brand.
5. Brand distinction should be ubiquitous. In this scenario this is typically not the case as the relative benefits portrayed across tertiary institutions’ brand communication tends to be generic, resulting in what Silvester (EVP Head of Planning: Y&R EMEA ) calls a “Clone Zone”. Across various institutions most brand communication relates to points of parity – if the institution’s logo was covered, the brand message communicated would be true for most tertiary institutions and often the only means of trying to differentiate it is the use of a visual portraying the institution in a physical manner (often a photo of the campus or an “iconic” building). For this reason there is a need for stronger distinct brand stories where the brand and its communication can be memorable and inspiring instead of being another me-too brand. Authentic brand ownership and leadership needs to be established. If this is to be realized then persuading by reason and motivating through emotion needs due consideration. The brand needs to be projected by a focused strategic business driver.
6. A dichotomous stakeholder audience exists. For example, in 2007 just under 63% of the higher public education constituent was African. This has created the opportunity for an interesting dynamic in terms of the display of brand heritage and brand reputation respectively in the broader tertiary education product category. So called traditional institutions often emphasize their long-established credentials while watershed changes catalysed by tertiary institutional merges have produced “first generation” consumers that allow for a redefining of the tertiary education landscape. It was interesting to note that in the 2009 Sunday Times Generation Next survey, University of Cape Town, a typical traditional institution was rated as the coolest university brand and the University of Johannesburg which is a product of merged entities was voted second coolest. This highlights that a successful brand must achieve need fulfillment. However, the need state can vary so much due to the vast number and diversity of various stakeholders that cultural environments and brand messages might need to be customized if each need state is to be acknowledged and satisfied contextually.
7. Personal experience and word of mouth establishes brand credibility. Very often a determining factor for selecting a tertiary institution is often based on what can be coined the “alma mater effect” (children go and study where their parents/siblings studied). With so many first generation consumers entering the market, word of mouth particularly becomes a key influencer as purchase decision influencers/makers might be personally unfamiliar with the brand range that needs to be selected and cannot fall back on personal experience.
8. Leveraging of the brand service experience. Sources such as www.hellopeter.com and www.studentvillage.co.za form consistent concern centres around service delivery. As a result, a holistic approach to the management of all engagement points of brand contact and ensuring that organization touch points are suitably aligned, cannot be stressed enough. The service delivery of administrative support systems determine the effectiveness and efficiency of the entire academic system, from application to registration to education. They are therefore continually contributing to the process and need to be made aware and accountable of the role that they need to fulfill as brand value builders, which correlates with current literature on the significance of internal engagement. A related issue to internal and external alignment is that there can be a disjunction between management and academic staff.
9. The pursuit of a valued future. What the tertiary terrain is often getting right through strategic partnerships is the embracement of the societal agency role that brands need to conform to given the citizenship orientation of today’s society. Their bottom-up community engagement is commendable and perhaps reflects what the nucleus of education should be – the providing of what can be dubbed “opportunity share”.
In conclusion, while a small percentage of South Africans hold tertiary qualifications the majority of brand communication, this category can be construed as being mediocre. It is evident from the above that the core principles of the business of branding can be applied to tertiary educational institutions just like any other context. That knowledge is as much about the affirmation and reiteration of that which is, in order to reveal that which can be.