A version of this article originally appeared in Training Journal, the publication for learning and development.
We are in the middle of an exciting period of change in the post-16 learning sector, as learning and training providers rapidly move away from traditional pedagogical, public servant attitudes and towards a much more competitive, target-driven, commercial way of thinking.
With such a range of career paths and options now open to post-16 learners, from apprenticeships and employer programmes to FE colleges and sixth form colleges, it is no surprise to see providers across this spectrum starting to pay serious attention to their brands as they strive to attract the best candidates, raise funding, improve employer engagement and promote dialogue with policymakers and other stakeholders.
Brand has always been important in education: even hundreds of years ago, an institution’s academic results and reputation in its community would mean the difference between thriving or failing.
Today in the digital age, there is so much more to it than that.
To take an example, we have just launched the final piece of the rebrand of Collab Group, a membership organisation of UK colleges and college groups. Formed of 36 leading colleges, Collab partnered with us to rebrand from its former identity as 157 Group, launching its website as the culmination of its ambitious strategy to drive change across the FE sector and enable greater engagement with Government and industry.
Creating a college group brand and translating it into a piece of digital real estate is massively important and has to be done right. Colleges and centres of learning today rely as much on their digital footprint as the focal point of their brand as they do on their bricks and mortar campuses – which means the website needs to be responsive, accessible and feature-rich in order to perform its many functions.
The first thing common to all our clients in the FE sector is the vital importance of tone of voice. We have observed in recent years a marked shift in the way the sector talks to its customers - and I use the word “customers” deliberately. Some of the leaders in the sector with whom we work, such as Manchester’s LTE Group and Coleg Cambria in Wales, are extremely advanced at this.
College brands used to talk in a language that was internally recognisable, but further education jargon didn’t necessarily resonate so immediately with external audiences such as learners and candidates. This is rapidly changing: the sector now knows that with so much competition out there, we need to get people excited, engaged and emotionally invested, fast.
This is evidenced by the types of leaders who are in charge of these institutions: it is no coincidence that increasing numbers of college CEOs come from commercial backgrounds, as it is recognised that if colleges are to compete with workplace-based employer programmes to win minds, they must play on the same playing field.
These CEOs know the true meaning of brand: it is far more than signage, logo and what you say on your website; it is every touch point and interaction with every stakeholder. It needs to be consistent, meaningful and unique.
Another objective that all post-16 learning brands share is the need to create aspiration. There still exist prejudices and stigma, with historical perceptions that some career paths are more desirable than others, or that able candidates will naturally go one way and less able ones will go another. The change in language is happening across the board, with the best examples creating not only recognition and awareness, but attraction and demand.
The emotional brand
A truly effective brand will address this by being inclusive – it will mean something to all stakeholders - and most importantly it will be emotionally mature.
Every brand touchpoint, from the website and prospectus material, through the way staff talk on the phone, all the way to the T-shirts and hoodies the students wear, should make people feel something. It should be a badge of pride, something to aspire to, something to be loyal to. What better way for an FE college to hit targets for its HE provision or for employers to retain people in lifelong learning programmes, than to make them feel proud to be part of something?
Perhaps the hardest part of developing a brand is making sure you can back it up. We are not just selling an ideal or a message, we have to deliver on it in reality or it will be meaningless and unsustainable. For example, a recent research piece we have undertaken with students has shown that pastoral care is a major factor in brand attraction. So from communications all the way through to delivery, colleges need to make sure students don’t feel alone: and they need to live that brand promise.
The digital brand
Today’s learners are digital natives – they are far more digitally savvy than any generation that has gone before them, they will instinctively and intuitively seek relevant information online, and expect it instantly.
The website therefore needs to work hard. As well as being simple, accessible and responsive to any desktop or mobile device, it also needs to sell. It must promote more than just a course, but an entire career path; not only an aspiration but also a clear route to achieving it. Learners do not come to such websites looking solely for a subject, but for the entire pathway and even lifestyle that go with it.
The application process must be as easy as possible, and minimise the risk of individuals losing interest half way through. In order to make websites “sticky” (the industry term used to describe how long the average user stays on the site), we can take advantage of today’s personalisation technology, to allow every individual to have a user experience that is as unique to them as possible.
For example, the site we developed for The Manchester College actually allows users to build a course search based on their own interests and passions – so rather than just searching by subject, they are building a search that is tailored to them.
Research and strategy
One final key point is the need for insight. A brand does not just have to look and feel right, it needs to be rooted in research and understanding of the behaviours, habits and psychology of the target audiences. This could include learners, staff, Government, industry and other stakeholders.
Only by taking this scientific approach to creating a brand can we be sure that it will be truly powerful.
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