The impact of branding and communication on university reputation

This is the fourth and final in a series of posts about the OCLC Research Library Partnership Rep, Rank and Role meeting that took place 3-4 June 2014 in San Francisco. Our earlier posts focused on advancing university goals around reputation, assessment and recording of research (Jim’s University reputation and ranking – another way that Europe is not like US) and how libraries can be instrumental in all of this (Ricky’s University reputation and ranking — getting the researchers on board), as well the build vs. buy debate around research system solutions (Roy’s To buy or not to buy and the importance of identifiers).

Helping to advance your university’s goals around reputation assessment takes more than just getting your researchers on board—it’s important to tie it all together with branding and communications for both internal and external audiences.

University branding. Branding your university is a process of strategically communicating what you think and say about it. Your university’s brand is about its relevancy and differentiation with respect to its customers—it is its face to the world, the sum of all of the characteristics that make it unique. It’s also a promise: a fundamental set of principles that are understood by, and make an emotional connection with, anyone who comes into contact with your university. It defines how your university is perceived by its internal and external constituents.

In order to create your university’s brand you need to understand your university’s strengths, what it stands for and how it is unique. How does your university want to be perceived? What is your institution’s mission and how does your faculty’s research contribute to it? Start to figure this out by connecting your university’s high-level goals with the major elements that constitute your university’s reputation.

What´s your story on blackboardDraft a clear brand story that explains your university’s essence to your internal and external stakeholders. For example, “Our university wants to make a contribution to society—here are three ways in which we’re uniquely situated to do so.” To make a difference, you need a great narrative that is authentic, understandable and believable.

Branding’s influence on reputation. Branding and reputation are tightly interconnected. Reputation is what others think, feel and say about your university—how your efforts regarding branding and what you have done or delivered are seen by your various constituencies. Reputation is about your university’s legitimacy, credibility and respect among all of its constituencies—it’s an evaluation of its brand from its constituents’ perspective. Your university will build its reputation by doing all the things it said it was going to do while building its brand.

In order to achieve excellence, your university needs both a solid reputation, a strong brand and consistent communication. As Peter Schiffer said in his “Managing Reputation, Managing Risk” presentation, reputation will only come with excellence and its communication. Reputation first comes from excellence, but then you have to communicate it. This can be difficult because it’s not in the academic culture. Researchers are often eager to communicate about their own research but may be more reluctant about or less focused on promoting their university.

In order to overcome this, it’s important that the university make its faculty, staff and students its brand ambassadors. This can be done by explaining to them what is going on, why it is important, what it means to them and how they can help. Equip them with the knowledge and understanding to enable them to collaborate with and inspire others. Make it clear that it is everybody’s job to communicate. It has to be part of the culture.

The library’s role. The library can help to support the university’s branding efforts by reinforcing the importance of communication and incorporating it into the culture. You can do this by:

  • creating internal communications groups and encouraging staff to participate;
  • consistently repeating the brand story and messages in a variety of venues including digital communications such as campus-wide calendars, email lists and social media;
  • asking for and encouraging feedback; and
  • building collaborative efforts and allowing external stakeholders (citizens, corporations, legislators, etc.) to join your community, consult your expertise, and support your efforts.

It’s important to keep in mind that communication will continue to be important as your university begins to achieve the rankings it wants. Communicating your university’s progress in the rankings can lead to even better rankings, so it is in the university’s interest to make an effort to do this.

In her “What league are you in? Rankings, ratings, and the quest to be the best” presentation, Virginia Steel explained how UCLA is hugely focused on the three R’s: rankings, ratings, and reputation. So much so that the UCLA website has an entire section devoted to rankings that includes a 7-page pdf about how UCLA stacks up. She also spoke about how the UCLA library helped to set up an infrastructure to maximize faculty research, improve teaching and help the campus to measure how well it is doing.

In conclusion, branding and communication can have a significant impact on your university’s reputation. It’s important that your university’s faculty and staff understand your university’s story, what it means to them, and how they can help to tell it. Your library can strengthen these efforts via its own communications activities.

Influencing rank, reputation is a long-term effort that is instrumental in attracting and retaining the best faculty, staff, students and funding. For more information about these and other presentations from the Rep, Rank and Role meeting, view the video playlist or download the slides from the program agenda.

Melissa Renspie was a Senior Communications Officer in OCLC Research. Melissa left OCLC in 2016.

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