Animal House points the way for university branding…

Whenever we discuss creating a University brand, I end up thinking about seminal ‘gross out’ campus comedy movie, Animal House.

I’m not contemplating launching an image of Edge Hill as the home of out-of-control Kennedy-era hedonism, with demented frat parties etc. (New slogan: ‘Toga! Toga! Toga!’) It’s some of the movie’s subtler moments that I’m reminded of.

Here’s my train of thought. Universities are about research, learning, teaching. So why try and say anything else? I’ve often seen academic colleagues visibly frustrated at the efforts of marketing types to find differentiating factors, USPs, brand values… ‘we’re about knowledge, end of story.’

This is when the Animal House flashbacks kick in. The film opens with a pan across an American campus, accompanied by stately music – creaating a ‘this is important’ mood. The camera focuses on a typical founder’s statue, a bewigged worthy, I think holding a book. On the plinth is the university motto: KNOWLEDGE IS GOOD. This still cracks me up – the redundancy, the idea that someone thought this worth saying, mediocrity being writ large. My worry then is that a kind of ‘pure’ university branding wouldn’t be doing much more than than this. Each university needs to be more than a place where knowledge comes from (offered in a particular location) But if we want to say more than ‘knowledge is good (get some here)’ what kind of extra ingredientsts can be added into the mix? Excessive focus on vocationality, access, elite research, business links, student experience, or campus can all somehow undersell the richness of a unversity identity.

I guess university brands are like cocktails, the right ingredients need to be mixed with great care…

Belushi's shirt - what more is there to say?

I am Curious (Heliotrope)

New Edge Hill merchandise has arrived! Many times I’ve been buttonholed in corridors by people asking for ties, scarves, sweatshirts and the like. From now on I’ll be able to direct people to a website – result!

Much of the new stuff uses the original college colours, heliotrope, green and yellow. Of these, heliotrope is the least familiar, a kind of violet or purple (also a type of sunseeking plant.) It is sometimes remarked that these are ‘suffragette colours’. It’s a nice idea – that the leaders of a women’s college would (subversively?) reflect women’s suffrage in their symbolism. However (raining on parade alert) ……………………………………..

  • there were various women’s suffrage colour schemes, including purple, green and white and purple, gold and white but not as far as I can see purple, green and gold/yellow. (Historians please jump in and prove me wrong.)
  • Miss Hale, Principal 1890-1920, is on record as disapproving ‘of feminism in general and the suffragettes in particular’ (Edge Hill University College: A History 1885-1997, Fiona Montgomery) and is therefore unlikely to have knowingly authorised colours with this intended meaning.

Having said that, there was apparently a lively interest in first-wave feminist issues among staff and students so some reflection of suffragette symbolism (in which case Edge Hill adopted the green for hope and purple for dignity, ignored the white for purity, instead using gold which could conceivably have been borrowed from American suffrage) just might have been deployed under Miss Hale’s radar.

Of course, we can choose retrospectively to read the College colours in this or any other way, without necessarily appealing to historical fact or irrecoverable intentions. The suffragette reading clearly strikes a chord now, as a piece of heritage we desire to invent – is that enough?

Pop fact: the Dean of Learning and Teaching bought the first of the new scarves. Should he chain himself to any railings (we have plenty) some point or other may be proved.

So how DO you promote a university?

Let’s say you want to help a university become better known, and in particular more popular with students. What should you focus on? Universities aren’t homogeneous entities: they sometimes seem like a flag of convenience for a loose alliance of individuals with differing agendas. So what exactly is the ‘university’ you’re seeking to promote? Whatever it says on the letterhead, I’d suggest that a university has the following elements contributing to its external image:

the university itself as a corporate body

faculties and/or schools and/or departments

the subjects it teaches/researches, which may or may not map on to the faculties etc.


research institutes and centres

individual academics (with their own reputations, even brands) and their academic/creative output

ditto alumni

students, perhaps a Students Union

projects and initiatives of varying durations (eg Centres of Excellence in Learning and Teaching)

campuses and buildings (including sometimes iconic architecture)

facilities for the public, eg theatres, galleries, sports facilities

cultural/sporting groups, eg choirs, teams

Universities are also linked to or associated with

towns, cities, regions

national initiatives such as Aimhigher and Education UK

professional bodies, areas of employment.

That’s a lot of stuff, fun to draw as a molecule diagram but a bit scary too. Which of these elements should one bring to the fore? I think it depends on a number of things:

audience and timing, eg potential students may typically want to know about courses while deciding where to apply, and focus on campus end environment while deciding which offer to accept

the medium, eg newspapers are more likely to run articles about/by/quoting individual academics (with interesting/novel/controversial things to say) than about your nice new building or great course.

But in a sense ‘it’s all good’ and all needs to be communicated somehow. It’s important therefore to put together good content about each of the elements, telling each kind of story well, showing those things that can be shown, then:

structuring your overall communications so that any of the audiences can pull down whatever is most meaningful to them at the time

planning some proactive comms so that key audiences get the relevant bits put before their eyes in an appealing way, at the right time.