From education to employment

If universities think like modern brands, they can thrive in the time of remote working

Edward Fraser, Managing Director of the tree

According to @CommunicatorEd the line between education and digital is getting fuzzier, and bringing into question the traditional meaning of a university:

The idea of teachers on TikTok may sound cringeworthy to the dancing tweens who have adopted the platform. But the Beijing-based social media giant’s first foray into education is the latest sign that the line between education and digital is getting fuzzier.

In the COVID era, with everyone forced indoors, the spotlight was turned on this relationship, and how institutions more used to offering on-site, in-person learning can make the most of what the virtual world can provide.

For universities in the UK, seen as among the best providers of higher education in the world, this has meant stepping back and thinking about how they can continue to offer the experiences that attract such a rich diversity of students.

So, is COVID-19 bringing into question the traditional meaning of a university?

It’s no longer true to say that a university has to be a bricks-and-mortar entity, a continuation of the time-honoured combination of campus and classroom. Look at the success of The Open University —the largest university in the UK for undergrad education. Most of its students, many of whom study from abroad, are remote-learners. Its operations are all underpinned by a slick digital marketing and advertising programme, as sharp as any household brand.  

Like brands, universities have multiple stakeholders, core markets, multiple streams of revenue and products to sell. They have hierarchies and boards. They have commercial pressures. And they have to use digital marketing channels to engage with their people.

At this strange time, can universities who understand and invest in their brand attract new people and keep their faculty, students and partners engaged?  


Today’s brands are mission-first. They have a point. They understand that having a bigger meaning adds value to their offering.

Universities are not “selling knowledge”. A great university is a change-maker. It’s a place where a diverse group of people come together, and out of this constructive clash we get ideas that change the world.

To put the purpose, and not the product, front and centre is to be brand-led. The global Insights 2020 study led by Kantar Millward Brown found that brand-led businesses outperform the market. This will be true for universities, too.

A fantastic example of a university rebrand that was built for impact is Northumbria University. The entire brand is spearheaded by a bold black and white #TakeOnTomorrow, acting as a digitally-charged call to arms for its people. We helped launch the new brand on social media and it really hit home in the homeland.


Not all brands have a rich heritage, but those that do often invoke it. In doing so they show their robustness and their tradition of achievement, and this gives their customers confidence.

Almost all universities have a history and a legacy of discovery. And many universities have continued to exist through plagues and wars—bigger crises than the one we are in right now—and a multitude of other challenges, physical and economic.

This rich tapestry of resilience and success makes for great storytelling. We find that digital audiences engage with brands with the most compelling story.


A brand’s personality is the filter through which it promotes its products or services. It is the added dimension of charm or character that influences its customers. There is the challenger, the disruptor, the visionary. And when people see themselves in a brand, they feel immediately aligned.  

Universities have strong personalities. There are the elder statesmen and the new kids on the block. The key is containing that and sitting it at the heart of a university brand.

Southampton’s Solent University has crystallised its own identity as a modern, future-thinking institution. Its personality carries through, from its brand to its modern-day course offering and the bulbous ‘Pod’ in its atrium, which is somewhere between a functional seating area and contemporary art installation.


A brand’s best advocates are its happiest customers. They’ll be more persuasive than almost anything else since they have nothing to gain but the satisfaction of directing a friend or family member in the direction of something they believe in.

By investing in a relationship with students and alumni, which is going to involve creating a community and being in constant correspondence, not only can any university gain invaluable feedback, but it can make those students far more likely to sing their praises to other prospective students. It’s a win-win.

People are the energy of the brand. Keeping them engaged, through social, is one of the most useful things a university can do.

The digital heartbeat

Digital channels can provide a heartbeat of activity, keeping all of this alive. It’s the means by which today’s most forward-thinking brands are showing their best qualities to the world. The universities that will flourish now, and long into the future, can look to these brands and the way they use their digital channels to show their character and to stimulate discussion and engagement with their stakeholders.

And universities, by following this lead, can create rewarding and sophisticated online experiences that mirror the all the great things that make our university brands among the best in the world.

Edward Fraser, Managing Director of the tree

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