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Why colleges should move beyond brand - Ben Verinder

23 June 2022

Strategic research – why colleges should move beyond brand

“Brand” is a popular research topic in further education. This is not surprising, given the dramatic rationalisation and reorganisation of the college sector in the past decade. Groups commonly seek insight as to the perceived “value” of their campuses, colleges and overarching institutions so that their new or emerging structures take account of those opinions.

We have been involved in many such studies and we often seek to persuade the client to extend the project’s reach beyond questions of names, assets, products, services and identifying markers into a broad definition of brand - one which corresponds closely with reputation.

Brand vs reputation

We do this because reputation is often a more useful concept for FE than brand.

Reputation is an aggregation of perceptions, shared or transferred in the form of beliefs (that don’t necessarily have to be true). It is retrospective, being the product of an organisation’s behaviours, performance and communication, but it has an expectational quality; specifically, it is very often conceived as the gap between what people expect of an organisation and what they experience.

Crucially, brand is typically defined by a narrower set of stakeholders – usually current or prospective “customers” – than reputation. This matters hugely for further education institutions. Colleges are not Primark or Nike or Kwik Fit. They are anchor institutions within their communities with responsibilities, heritage and values that surpass any market. They operate within complex networks of partnerships, liabilities, regulations, funding streams, co-dependencies and competition. The capacity to recruit students is a necessary but insufficient condition of operation for a college. While it is naïve to dismiss the importance of marketing in their professional services, (even) student recruitment and retention depend upon factors that extend far beyond the marketing function.

Research to inform strategic planning

Which means that there is often significant value in extending the scope of any research you do beyond the applicant, student and their influencers to a broader set of organisations and individuals, in order to understand precisely what these want from their anchor institutions.

This is an existential question since, as Professors Anne Gregory and Paul Willis explain in their book Strategic Public Relations Leadership, “to be successful, in whatever terms the organisation classifies success, is dependent on gaining the consent and support of other people – or stakeholders – who will have to detect value in what the organisation stands for and does”.

To gain that consent requires relationship building, which in turn requires an understanding of the beliefs, priorities and values of those same stakeholders. This is why colleges use such insight to inform their strategic planning cycles and/or to develop or refine their vision, mission and values.

Making your research work harder

There are other (much more basic) reasons why it pays to extend research beyond “brand”. The cost of primary research is heavily determined by the type, range and number of respondents recruited to a study. Once they agree to participate, asking respondents a few more questions typically produces significant added value for little extra cost. Moreover, asking someone their opinion is an act of relationship-building in itself. We like to be listened to, to be asked our opinion, particularly if we think it might improve our experience of an organisation.

I don’t want to overstate the case for insight here though. If you cannot act on it, it is an exercise in frustration – for you, the research agency and the respondent. It is also a waste of the public purse and your time. Occasionally, we come across projects where it is clear from the briefing process that there isn’t the capacity to act on the findings and we take a pass.

Research problems as solutions

Having said that, the process can be as revealing as the result. Colleges, universities and multi-academy trusts sometimes overestimate their capacity for stakeholder relationship management. When we review stakeholder records in preparation for a project we regularly find fragmented, partial, poor quality contact data. This is particularly the case with employer information in colleges. While customer relationship management systems are ubiquitous in further education, their successful implementation is rare. This commonly has significant consequences for relationships. If our communication is too frequent or infrequent, if we deliver mixed messages, if we ask too much of others or too little, or if one part of the organisation clearly does not know what the other part is doing – all consequences of poor or siloed stakeholder relationship management – then we can hardly expect to be enjoying fruitful relationships with the people who matter most.

Developing curriculum in new areas

Research can be particular in its aims and objectives. It can power curriculum development, for instance, where a college or group is looking to extend its offer beyond the industries already engaged through existing employer panels or fora. It is important to understand what employers in these new growth areas want from training in terms of skills, qualifications, equipment, cost and mode of delivery. While labour market intelligence can address some key questions, others can only be answered through primary research.

Other uses for research

In the decade since our inception, college clients have commissioned insight to address a dizzying range of subjects. They include:

  • Increasing student diversity
  • Recruiting hard to fill staff vacancies
  • Finding the best place to build a campus
  • Growing apprenticeship provision to match LEP priorities
  • Identifying curriculum equipment sponsors
  • Developing a higher education campus
  • Mapping progression into work or further study
  • Identifying third sector bidding partners.

The challenges for communication

The communication proficiency of public bodies like colleges, local authorities and NHS trusts is often judged – in particular (and unsurprisingly) by journalists – on the basis of their capacity to engage in broadcast communications, such as media relations. In fact, our ability to listen as an organisation is often much more important. The excellence theory of public relations developed by James E Grunig describes how public relations makes organisations more effective and is centred around what Grunig described as “two-way symmetrical communications”. This model centres on dialogue between an organisation and its key stakeholders in order to create and sustain mutually beneficial relationships. That dialogue, of course, requires listening.

With some notable exceptions, most colleges do not employ qualified public relations practitioners. This has implications for the status (or otherwise) of public relations as a professional management discipline within further education and, in practical terms, it means that the excellence model is too rarely employed. The broadcast mode of communication dominates. This in turn has ramifications for college relationships with the people and groups who matter most to them and the status of further education locally, regionally and nationally.

The views expressed in Think Further publications do not necessarily reflect those of AoC or NCFE.