Comments on Comments on Re-Branding

Comments in response to the file will be added here as they arrive: latest first.

10: Note added 7 Oct 2005

I was at an EC workshop recently and mentioned the re-branding that had been going on here. It turns out that universities all over the place are doing it. Why???? It seems that the main justification is that other universities are doing it, and doing it is seen as a (futile?) attempt to do better than the others, whereas the net result can only be everyone standing still at great expense to the taxpayer. Just think how much more could be achieved if instead of making marketing companies richer all that money had been put into improving lecture room or laboratory furnishings and facilities, or improving course materials, or even replacing useless roller towels in toilets by electric hand driers in departments where people work all day every day round the year (so that roller towels are often disgusting and unhygienic because there is nobody to replace them most of the time.)

It's very sad, especially when we reflect that apart from the marginal once-only cost of each such rebranding exercise, there is all the ongoing expenditure, space, and other resource-consumption by marketing departments in universities trying to catch each others tails. I wonder what would happen if, instead, all that funding went into increasing the size of academic staff who were then encouraged to produce good documentation and web sites on their teaching and research. (This could be made a contractual part of their job.)

Another example: my university produces a regular news sheet in which one of the highlights is a column called 'Spin cycle' which lists names of people who have talked to reporters or journalists or been interviewed on the radio or TV.... Who cares, apart from the people who work in press offices? Why don't they instead produce a weekly column listing new ideas that have been produced that week by researchers (and students) in the university? That would show that we are a real university, not an appendage to a marketing team.

9: Note added 7 Oct 2005

A note on rebranding gone mad

8: Note added 6 Aug 2005

I have found that giving google the string "waste re-branding" produces 36,700 results. As an example, this site, near the top of the list, is short and pithy
It starts thus:

Rebranding 'can be waste of time'

10:48:32 AM

Companies can be wasting both time and money if they just change their name to re-brand themselves, according to a marketing expert.

A corporate name change has to go in tandem with a change of identity, or it can be an expensive waste of time, says Tom Blackett, deputy chairman of Interbrand.

Rebranding is often perceived as a cynical attempt by a company to boost its share price or shrug off the past.

Here is another link showing what happens when people who don't understand what they are doing start re-branding things:


In possibly one of the shortest-lived rebranding exercises in history, Tony Blair has given in to criticism of the DTI's renaming as the Department for Productivity, Energy and Industry (DPEI) by reinstating its original title.

As part of the prime minister's announcements for his new government, the Department of Trade and Industry was renamed the DPEI in an effort to encourage more focus on business productivity.

But the move was met with disdain from business groups which expressed concern of the removal of 'trade' from the department's title.

7: Note added 26 Jun 2005

I have just stumbled across the Brummies goes brand barmy web site, which at first I thought must be some satirical or sarcastic comment on the University's recent re-branding mania.

Not at all: it seems that the city of Birmingham got there first -- with the same sorts of vapid justificatory statements and the same evidence among the re-branders that they really understand what they are doing.

So how come I live in Birmingham and never even noticed when it all happened?

Perhaps rebranding exercises of large, complex, multi-faceted, entities fall into only two categories: those that go unnoticed because they are of no consequence and have no impact at all, and those whose main impact is to provoke anger, annoyance, irritation, etc., among people who are fairly directly affected by the consequences.

6: Note added 23 Jun 2005

Someone recently complained that the administrators were dictating how we are permitted to format business cards, including stipulating that job description MUST come above name. etc etc.

It is clear that some of these people do not understand the difference between a university and a bank or insurance company.

There are many indications in the behaviour of the administrators and senior managers over this and other issues, and the defences for the rebranding given on the bham branding web site that make it clear that the administrators concerned have no conception of the requirements for a world class collegiate university, where the notion of a uniform brand is totally irrelevant to the diversity, adventurousness, and freedom to disagree that should be present in any such university.

Instead they are steeped in trendy but inappropriate notions of 'corporate management' and at best understand the requirements for catching the eyes of shoppers scanning supermarket shelves when making trivial purchases.

If I were at an earlier stage of my career I would now be thinking about moving to a university that is managed differently -- unless this one begins to budge.

Of course Birmingham is not the only university where the brains of administrators have been addled by too much contact with people whose expertise was designed for a different kind of world.

Aston, Brighton Poly (now university) and Sussex were mentioned in previous discussions in this school, and I learnt over the weekend that Imperial College went through a similar (but apparently even more expensive) process about three years ago much to the disgust of many academics and many students (see the pattern?). I was assured by my informant that it had been a completely useless waste of money and time.

It was interesting to see that both at IC and here, one of the recurring student objections was that rebranding made the place look more like a polytechnic -- an interesting kind of snobbery common to both lots of students, but perhaps reflecting some understanding of the differences of function of different kinds of higher education institutions ignored by the re-branders.

My colleague threatened to get cards printed externally and paid for privately to meet the requirements of the job to be done in the light of the likely external contacts to whom they would be given, and their needs and expectations.

My response was:

You should not have to do that. The School should support you and others who wish to do this.

We have gone it alone over other issues where central management had made deep mistakes (remember the School's vote regarding the compulsory PGCE?) and shown that we were right.

As a School we should be prepared to do that as often as needed, so long as in doing so we are willing to justify our action in a court of law, in the press, and in statements to taxpayers, students, research collaborators and potential funders.

The point is that as public servants and members of educational and research communities we have obligations that go far beyond serving our employers. (Especially when those employers become dictatorial.)

[I could have added: and who completely fail to understand risk-management, always covering their backs legally instead of trying as best they can to enable us to achieve educational and research goals.]

If necessary, an emergency school meeting could be called to authorise the expenditure if nobody is in a position to do it without that.

The notion that in a *university* central management should dictate what goes on our letters, business cards, memo paper, web sites, etc., as if we were a some kind of commercial company is totally outrageous.

5: Note added 15 Jun 2005

Someone recently wrote to me
> I agree whole-heartedly with your comment that team-building (between
> different types of staff) is a critical aspect of creating a dynamic and
> effective University.

My reply follows:

I have a list of ways (minor and major) in which the separation of important decision-making from the people who have a lifelong commitment to the teaching and research causes harm in this university.

It got worse when faculties were abolished in the 90s. Many of the faculty committees and sub-committees used to be time-wasting talking shops, so they were abolished in the interests of efficiency.

Few people involved in that decision seemed to appreciate, as some protesters pointed out, that the baby was going down the drain: the 'inefficient' meetings had a most important unintended side-effect, namely bringing people from different schools and departments, including youngish members of staff, together and often enabling them to get to know administrators who would otherwise be dark faces behind the scenes.

If you meet people in a committee, you may start talking to them in the staff canteen, etc. etc.

Nothing was done to rescue the baby, as far as I know.

Having a professional class whose decision-making has too much autonomy, and whose main professional loyalty is 'upwards', however dedicated and hard working they may be, instead of being primarily committed to trying to understand the needs (and sometimes prejudices) of the academics responsible for the university's main functions, is a long term recipe for malaise.

Like having a medical service aiming at meeting government targets instead of serving patients.

No amount of rebranding (gimmicky or not) will undo the harm caused by such an arrangement, which I suspect is a deep cause of problems in recruitment of staff or students.

Shallow marketing may generate a flurry of interest, but doesn't fix problems. Deep marketing investigates what is wrong with the product, and tries to re-shape it so that on the one hand its content becomes more attractive and on the other hand the results lead to a reputation for excellence.

The latter is much harder and requires a deep understanding of what people are doing right and doing wrong, which alas, does not come out of the justifications given for the rebranding, including the utterly ridiculous claims about how our 'key values' are unique, which could only come from people with no understanding of the university system.

It is not surprising that work done by such people managed to alienate so many staff and and students, leaving XXX with the task of undoing the damage, which never should have been caused in the first place.

I know I am thought of as a trouble-making critic of the university. In fact I have spent a huge amount of my time since coming here in 1991 trying to turn this into a world class university (not just 'the best in the midlands'), and the change in the school of computer science in that period is one piece of evidence that I know something about the process. Other things are not so visible.

(Much of what I know was learnt from my mentor, Gerry Martin, one of the founders of Eurotherm and other companies, who died last year, alas.)

From the start I found the process very difficult because of the way the university was managed, and the lack of a deep culture of mutual understanding and cooperation across the university, apart from a few outstanding individuals.

A culture can be very hard to change, unfortunately, especially when its most important features are 'invisible' to most of those concerned.

Moreover, as my web-page on the rebranding exercise points out, changing this culture will require the younger academics to put more effort into activities they don't inherently enjoy and which, in the RAE era, involves serious career risks.

So change is very difficult, like turning a huge tanker in narrow straits. It can be done, if the will is there, and the problems are understood. Repainting the tanker will not help.

Best wishes.


4: Note added 8 Jun 2005

Apologies to all concerned: there has been a lot of discussion in the school since I first wrote my notes on the re-branding exercise, but I have been too busy with other things to find out exactly what the discussants wished me to make public here as I had originally planned to do.

I'll be happy to add comments if anyone submits them to me with a specific request to do so.

One thing that has come out of the discussion is that in spite of a lot of dissatisfaction with the process and its outcome there are a few things that are generally liked, such as these two:

But it's obvious that entertaining images like that could have been produced to illustrate our documents without all the other expensive and controversial changes.

An example of the totally uninformed thinking behind the rebranding is the statement on page 1 of this document

Any university can teach facts. But we want to provoke people to reason for themselves, to question and to create impact. This is what makes the University of Birmingham unique.
How on earth could senior managers have accepted that statement? Maybe this is an example of the very sort of complacency that our market researchers discovered was thought to be characteristic of the University of Birmingham. (Well, some parts of it anyway!) The statement shows complete ignorance of the university system at large and how this university relates to it. If its author studied at a university it must have been a very bad one.

Moreover, I completely disagree with the statement on page 3 that

All our messages should be confident, simple and straightforward.
That may be appropriate to selling a relatively cheap product to anyone who has money to buy, but is inappropriate when we are not trying to maximise the number of applicants, but trying to maximise the number of high quality applicants. This is understood well by some 'hi tech' companies who put subtle and complex intellectual challenges on their recruitment web pages. The latter is the approach I adopted when I wrote the original prospectus entries that enabled us to launch our AI degree, which enabled us to grow at a time when most CS departments in the UK were competing with one another to attract students from a fixed pool of not very high quality students. Unfortunately our wording was later dumbed-down by marketing experts, for a while.

One of the comments posted within the school pointed out that the rebranded material had gone down well on opening days. This could be a result of something close to the well-known `Hawthorne effect', explained and analysed in more detail here. One summary of the effect states merely participating in a test, trial or study the participants (or patients) have a better experience because of the focusing of interest toward them which is gratifying and thus rewarding in its own sake. For this reason the persons involved document better results irregardless of the change provided or the treatment experienced.

If the people preparing publicity material thought they were part of a re-branding exercise that belief might have stimulated them to put more effort into how they prepared materials for students, the wording used, etc. Whether the same effect on applicants would have been produced had the same content been presented with the old brand (e.g. logo, marque, and ubiquitous, and some think ridiculous "U B" brackets) would require impossible research.

Perhaps the university managers and the marketing consultants know all about the Hawthorne effect and have been deliberately using it???? In that case the effort could have been re-focused onto much better use of the web to present deep, challenging, contentful accounts of our teaching and research, which would have been indexed by search engines, possibly leading intellectually adventurous people all round the world using modern technology to look for information to find this university. Instead, the re-branding has focused mainly on techniques more appropriate to the age of paper. Doing it properly might have meant abandoning the straight-jacket formats related to teaching quality assurance processes which are more appropriate to training colleges than universities!

I have just noticed these comments by a researcher in the School of Mathematics & Statistics.

Comment 3: 22 May 2005

Mark Ryan writes
I dislike the crest as being old-fashioned and pseudo, claiming an ancient tradition when there is none. I think that the new logo has the merit of being an attempt at being new, crisp and clean. However, I agree with many other people who have said that it is a bit facile, and lacks consistency. I think the new brand is only marginally better than the old one.

> They are going back to an even older crest for some purposes.

That seems ridiculous to me. The idea that they should reinstate the old brand as something prestigious that the bosses can use (HoS upwards) while ordinary staff have to use what is perceived as the inferior new brand is surely madness. What better way could there be of reinforcing the dislike of the new brand, while also guaranteeing further resentment among lower-paid staff?

Comment 2: 22 May 2005

Note by original author:
Thanks to Mark Ryan for pointing out some typos in the hastily written original version of my document.

After looking at the pictures of the old crest, which has now been (partially) reinstated, I can see why the previous marketing consultants (some time in the late 1980s?) were probably wise in recommending that we drop it, because it includes Latin text "Per Ardua Ad Alta" that very few people will understand nowadays, which is therefore somewhat patronising. In any case it is not unique to UoB. It is also very close to the motto of the Royal Air Force, to which it is perhaps more appropriate,

It occurs to me that a really bright way to abandon links with irrelevant ancient heraldry might have been to devise a new graphical logo derived from either the clock tower or the front of the Aston Webb building, or both. But many modern artists are not taught the relevant skills, I believe.

At least it is not as awful and outdated as Oxford's motto "Dominus Illuminatio Mea" in a secular age. Who will bet on one or other of these:
(a) Oxford University taking steps to replace its crest and motto?
(b) Oxford University losing good students and job applicants because it fails to re-brand?

Comment 1: 21 May 2005

From: Pascal Honore
Subject: Re: New logo makes national news
Date: Sat, 21 May 2005 14:04:11 +0100
To: Aaron Sloman

Hi Aaron,


I have just checked and there were 4001 signatures. The increasing
rate (for what I have seen since we got the first email) is more
important than I thought. Unfortunately I am too old to believe that
the University will change the logo, but I am very interested in
knowing whether the multiple reactions will affect them or not. I
think it would already be a great victory if they say

"Look, we have invested lots of money there, and this logo is
not that bad after all, but we acknowledge your feelings and promise
that next time we will involve more people (including students) in
our decision making because we understood that we are the guardians
of an idea of this university rather than owning the university itself."

Aaron Sloman
Last updated: 8 Jun 2005