How to apply your University brand on your website. Matthew Johnson - Head of Marketing & New Business by Matthew Johnson, Head of Marketing & New Business

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What is a brand?

Let’s start with what a brand is. A brand is what an organisation conveys about itself and how it is perceived by the world. It is made up of several different elements – mission/purpose/vision, positioning and target audiences, offering/USP, values, personality, culture, voice and visual identity.

Positioning your brand.

For specialist universities the mission, positioning and offering is pretty clear by virtue of the fact it’s just that – specialist. If you’re a specialist university, your mission is surely to be the leading university or institution in your field. Being a specialist university is likely to be your main differentiator too. You will have direct competition from other specialist institutions but also from non-specialists who specialise in the same subject but also offer others.
For non-specialists, your various departments will essentially be competing against other institutions with similar offerings, so the mission remains the same but the positioning becomes tricky. With non-specialists it’s important to really understand the culture, the values and the tradition of the university or college. Getting beneath the skin of the institution means we can create a solution that truly represents the whole organisation and contributes to the success of all departments.

Specialist or generalist, the target audience is the same. It’ll be primarily young people, ages 14-18, with postgraduate from 21. There will also be a healthy amount of international students and some mature students. Industry partnerships will also be a target audience.

It is important that the institution has clear values and unique selling points (USPs). Sometimes your values will also be your USP. Take one of our clients as an example. Two of their brand values are; community and collaboration. The close proximity of campus life offers unlimited possibilities for creative growth due to cross-pollination and osmosis. Students naturally work on projects together. The emphasis they place on fostering a collaborative community is embedded in campus culture and also on their website. 

Establishing a visual identity.

Your visual identity consists of your logo, typography, media, colours and creative design. But don’t confuse this with your brand. Your brand is how your audience feels about the way you use your visual identity to communicate who you are and what you stand for. If they understand your style and how all of these things work together, you have a brand. Two quotes spring to mind: 

“Brand is not what you say it is. It’s what they say it is.” – Marty Neumeier, The Brand Gap

Jeff Bezos on branding.
Jeff Bezos on branding.

How do you want your different audiences to feel when they engage with your site? What impression do you want to stay with them as they go on to look at other universities?

We recently conducted some research ahead of a web redesign for a university. We spoke to a group of A-Level students who were all thinking about their university choice and showed them various designs and asked them questions about their first impression, the message they took away, etc. One quote I loved was about the University of Hull’s website. A student said this: 

“When you go on the website, the first thing you see is ‘come and say hello’ and then you scroll down and you see some nice messages and it just feels like they’re flirting with you [laughs].”

“It feels like they’re flirting with you”. Brilliant. Don’t we all want to be flirted with? If a website makes someone feel as though it’s attracted to them, playfully of course, and invites them to initiate some form of relationship, it becomes harder for the user to walk away. The homepage offers a sense of excitement and being a part of something extraordinary. It also has a distinctive voice with clear messaging and calls to action to direct the user to the right place.

All too often we’ll spend hours looking at a website before meeting the client and still won’t understand their brand clearly. So, if we’ve not picked up on an important brand value from a  website after spending hours researching, then your target audience definitely won’t. Different people will notice different things, so any important aspect needs to be communicated many times in many different ways. 

Getting under the skin of brands.

As with all projects, we begin with a series of discovery sessions with marketing. This will give us the “target branding”. Next, we conduct a series of stakeholder interviews with key department heads and some students. We’d also run some surveys with the students. This research would cover more than just brand analysis which is how we’ve become specialists in the Education sector. Our designs are built upon heaps of insight and research. We’d also try to talk to prospective students, alumni and industry too. This would give us the “perceived brand”. We then look at where you want to be, where you are now and we set KPIs to shift the perception to meet the target brand. 

Showcasing the community. 

Show don’t tell.

Community comes from people, not buildings. Over the years we’ve noticed a running theme among university websites. Buildings. Students want to see other happy students. All too often websites lacks photos of people. If your students are art students, it doesn’t mean all they want to see is cool graphic designs and abstract imagery. Show your prospective students a bit of life. Show them what their new home has to offer. A great way to do this, of course, is with video. 

The University of Sheffield did an amazing job:

Actually, don’t show, SHOUT.

People read websites like they read newspapers; they scan the headlines first. Newspapers use headlines and block quotes to draw out the meat. Your site needs to do this to communicate the brand values. You need strong messaging statements, repeating the values in different ways.

Or, get someone else to shout for you. 

You need to state the values yourselves, but to seal the deal you need the target audience doing it for you. Students are looking for a home which means somewhere they relate to. If someone like them is saying that the university is, for example, “a creative community which makes me feel I belong” then that value will have a better chance of sinking in. 

Don’t stop there. Keep checking.

We always advise to build in a mechanism of constant evaluation to ensure we/you are on target. We’d recommend annual incentivised surveys and evaluations during our regular meetings. 

So to express your university’s brand you must first understand the targeted branding. Then discover the reality and create a plan to shift the current brand to the target, constantly evaluating to ensure the brand is correct. 


Matthew Johnson - Head of Marketing & New Business by Matthew Johnson, Head of Marketing & New Business
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