Aaron Sloman
Originally written on 21 May 2005
Slightly updated on 26 May 2007 to fix some of the broken links.
(Apparently the university decided to remove some of the documents justifying its rebranding decisions, and also many of the old images that were referred to in the original version of this document.)
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and people quoted with permission, and is not
endorsed by either the School of Computer Science
or the University of Birmingham.

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The comments below were written during the frenzy of discussion about this university's re-branding exercise in May 2005.

Here are some thoughts arising out of the fact that the University of Birmingham has recently gone through a re-branding exercise led by its administrators responsible for marketing, who failed miserably in marketing the exercise to staff and students within the University, as a result of which there is an online 'Save the Crest' petition that has attracted so many supporters that it made the national news

The original version of this document referred to a web site at which the people responsible for the re-branding exercise attempted to explain why they had done what they had done. That web site used to be here: but no longer seems to be accessible. It made totally untrue, and highly embarrassing, claims about how this university was 'unique'. I don't know whether its removal was a response to criticism or an unintended side-effect of reorganisation of the web site: the sort of thing that far too often breaks links and bookmarks when done by people who don't understand what the internet is about and don't realise that their web site has become a highly distributed entity, whether they intended it or not.

Although some people are pleased to see the currently used crest abandoned, staff and students in my school have mostly been very critical of the changes and especially of the move to the new format for business cards -- apparently designed on the assumption that what your job is is more important than who you are and therefore should be listed first. This is typical of decision making by people who have very little understanding of the diversity of functions and interactions of a university and its members.

There have been many critical comments in the school on the whole exercise. One PhD student wrote:

> All that was planned by the decisions makers.
> When you cannot find a good logo, just come up with the worst one and
> everyone will talk about it. That's very clever marketing.
> By complaining about it, students are making this logo the new
> fashionable thing in the neighborhood. It will become fun to wear it
> to show that you don't like it.

It's interesting to see the vehemence of many of the comments in the petition and also the speed at which the list is growing even in the middle of the night. I started writing this after midnight (early Saturday morning), when the number was below 3,900 and an hour later it had reached 3,903. By midday it was 3,969. (Some of the comments in the petition are unfortunately rather snobbish -- not to be confused with being elitist, which can be a good thing).

This University is extraordinarily good at shooting itself in the foot (e.g. one of several examples was rushing ahead of itself a few years ago trying to force new academic staff to waste time on a 'Post Graduate certificate in Education', as part of the process of probation), but it is also capable of realising its mistakes and undoing them, as happened in that case, perhaps as a result of the arrival of our present Vice Chancellor.

We are not alone in wasting money and effort on futile attempts at re-branding. I remember when my previous university, as a result of wasting money on marketing consultants, was persuaded to call itself 'The University of Sussex at Brighton' instead of 'The University of Sussex' (to which it seems to have reverted).

But not only universities are badly advised by marketing 'professionals'. Some of you will remember that for a time Sun Microsystems adopted the slogan 'We're the dot in dot com', which is one of the most stupid marketing slogans ever.
(The author of that Jan 2000 link notes: 'But it's the advertising world that will have the last laugh, remembering this as a time when it got paid vast sums to create funny ads that tried to make boxy servers and business software seem sexy.)

I wonder how many people wrote to Sun as I did (as a long time admirer and user of their machines and software), pointing out that they were claiming to be insignificant.

They too had to admit stupidity and backtrack, wasting heaven knows how much money in the process. In comparison, their original slogan, 'The network is the computer'. dating back to the early 80s, and I expect dreamed up by the scientists involved, not marketing people, was absolutely brilliant -- pointing the way to the future which was to a large extent brought about by Sun's innovations, even if the slogan can inspire satire.

But the real point is that even if catchy slogans, jingles, labels, lettering, colouring and the like are relevant to selling a relatively cheap new drink or junk-food item on supermarket shelves, or some other commodity that people can afford to buy as a result of attention-grabbing and quick decision-making, such devices are inappropriate to the process of persuading extremely intelligent people to take a very expensive decision on a deep and important multi-faceted life-altering choice, that requires finding out in depth about the options, analysing the trade-offs, including consulting friends, teachers, parents, etc., and then committing several years of their lives. Unfortunately marketing experts don't seem to know about such things however good they may be at increasing sales of junk food.

Perhaps there really are lots of potential students who will be persuaded to come to this University by the re-branding. But are those the students we want to attract? I think this is one of the points being made, albeit implicitly, by many of the comments in the petition.

I wonder how many days or hours of deep creative decision making went into the move from this excellent design which is very easily reproduced with sufficient accuracy in almost any means we have of producing text (even plain text email announcements)
old marque
to something that cannot easily be expressed in the vast majority of means of producing text that we have access to, namely this

new marque

NOTE (added 26 May 2007):
The old images have been withdrawn since this file was created. Roughly the old 'Word marque' looked like this (though a different font was used):
Whatever its flaws, the old version was very easy to present in various documents without the use of a previously created image file of the right size. This is the sort of requirement that is important in a university where many different sorts of documents are produced in many different ways by many different sorts of people who prefer different sorts of tools: unlike a bank or supermarket organisation that requires corporate control for the benefit of shareholders. The old word marque was even totally recognisable in plain old 'typewriter' fonts.

(Some people here will remember a similar money-wasting exercise in this university around 15 years ago, just before I came here, as a result of which it was deemed that all University documents must use the Bodoni font, completely failing to take account of the variety of means by which academics and the people they relate to produce, transmit, and read text. The internet was just taking off, at the time. The Vice Chancellor who promoted this was a physicist. The new decision proved unimplementable, and faded into the dust of history.)

It's like so much of the intrusive and irrelevant background noise and imaging gimmickry that badly trained TV producers who understand more about style than about substance now use to spoil otherwise excellent documentaries (as recently lamented by Jonathan Miller -- so it's not just me!).

What are we now supposed to be telling the world? This is a university where people cannot control a pen as they write? This is a university that mixes up substantial content with irrelevant flourishes? This is a university that (at least among its administrators) is more concerned about style than about substance?

Perhaps what we are telling the world via such gimmicks is actually true? Look at the justification given for the changes on this web site It states 'Birmingham was viewed as being complacent, too backward looking and too introspective.' So what did they do? Did they try to find areas in which we are too complacent -- e.g. Buzz frequently trumpeting that we are the best in the midlands or the bham website trumpeting that we are in the top 100 universities in the world (on which more below), or academics merely listing their areas of research or listing their publications, without putting papers online so that interested enquirers can find out more, or prospectus writers failing to write inspiring reasons for studying what we teach? Did they investigate whether the university is largely in thrall to a single software supplier instead of supporting and encouraging change and adventure in exploring and developing alternatives? Did they examine the contents of our degree courses and our means of teaching, and how we teach, and make proposals for change?

No, they decided that 'Birmingham was losing high achieving applicants to institutions perceived as being better quality universities; Nottingham, Warwick and, increasingly, Manchester' and that 'In order to maintain our competitive position against such universities we needed to communicate much more clearly the University's key values, values which differentiate Birmingham from all of its competitors. The new brand allows us to do this.'

What a parochial view of what it means to be a world class university! (Also manifested in all the UoB web pages and printed documents that fail to use the international telephone number format, e.g.

What utter rubbish it is to claim that we have 'key values' that differ from those of other excellent universities both in this country and abroad. Even worse is the assumption that we can express those key values through changes of lettering, colouring and use of a crest! If I had children of school leaving age I would now be telling them to ignore universities that waste money on that kind of marketing instead of telling us what they teach, how they teach it, why they teach it, and above all what opportunities they provide for students both to learn and to develop as people.

I am embarrassed that my university claims to have different key high level values from universities where many of my colleagues, friends and collaborators work, instead of pointing out that while we have the same values, and share many ideas, goals and even many of the things we teach we also differ in some of the things we know and can do, and some of the things we are currently investigating, and some of the things we teach and ways we teach. We are also in a different city, that may suit some people better than other cities.

Were the Vice Chancellor and his senior academic colleagues asleep while all this was being done by 'marketing experts' ? Or were the academics too modest, thinking: 'they are the professionals, so they must be right, even if we disagree'? Or have they had their brains damaged by too much involvement in management, administration and attempts to communicate with a government obsessed with shallow ideas of modernisation and competition?

I think we are seeing an example of something I've noticed several times. If academics leave important decisions entirely to people who are not themselves immersed in the realities of research and teaching and who are not mainly motivated by the goals of producing outstanding research and teaching, things can go badly wrong.

E.g. I discovered about 20 years ago that if you want to enter into a business relationship with another organisation you should never allow lawyers and contracts people to draw up the contract. Instead the people from both sides who are going to do the work and who understand the benefits and risks should work out together, in as much detail as possible, what the terms of the contract should be. THEN that can be handed to the legal officers with a request to check it out and turn it into proper legalese (though you have to make sure that they don't mangle things they don't understand, as publishers' copy editors so often do, and administrators more concerned to cover their backs than to achieve organisational goals sometimes do).

Academics, either out of modesty, or because they feel they really only want to get on with teaching and research too often leave things to non-academics, e.g. deciding policy, selecting non-academic staff, drawing up rules, selecting major infrastructure (e.g. that dreadful banner code system), and marketing. Leaving important decisions to people whose understanding and knowledge is inherently limited by their training, experience, and job-motivation and who will not have to live with the results for much of the rest of their careers is far too risky. (I am not blaming them: they often do the best they can -- given what they know.)

So I strongly recommend colleagues to take opportunities to get onto university committees and panels and to press for academic involvement in all important levels of decision making (as we did, for example, in the planning of this building, which prevented many serious mistakes).

That's an important way of learning how things work, and gaining the expertise and experience that will help you later, as Head of School, or Dean, or pro Vice chancellor, or member of a high level committee to make wise decisions. maybe even as vice chancellor of some university some day.

If you don't gain that experience you too will make serious mistakes. You'll make some anyway. But be prepared to learn from them.

Unfortunately the opportunities for academics to gain such experience and influence decision-making in universities like this have been seriously reduced in the name of 'efficiency' in the last 15 years.

Of course there are non-academic support staff and administrative staff who either through natural talent, or learning from years of service, or highly creative imaginations, manage to understand the important issues and provide wonderful service in supporting teaching and research -- and we all know examples close to home (I won't embarrass them by naming them).

But you can't assume that all, or even the majority, will be like that, especially if their selection has been left to non-academics (who, with the best will in the world, will not necessarily appreciate some of the relevant differences between candidates whose work will engage closely with academic activities) and their day to day management and professional loyalties and ambitions are not concerned with the requirements of excellent teaching and research.

If you leave things to others because you are too busy or don't believe you have the right expertise, then you can be sure you will regret it later: not because the others are wicked or stupid, but because it is just not possible for them to understand 'from outside' in the required depth, what teaching and research are really all about and what the prospects and dangers are. You have to work closely with them to inculcate that understanding and help to nourish loyalty to academic objectives and standards rather than other loyalties that will pull non-academic colleagues in other directions.

E.g. the methods of marketing research are inherently aimed at selling things, not at achieving outstanding teaching, learning and research via means that include selling things. And if you simply try to maximise selling, you can easily undermine what you are trying to sell.

In any case, the methods of market research are very unreliable as many companies and political parties have learnt. The results should never be allowed to outweigh academic judgement.

The people concerned with marketing the university probably don't understand how much of our marketing has to be aimed not just at potential UK undergraduates available to fill in questionnaires or join focus groups etc. but also at potential lecturers, research fellows, PhD students, collaborators, funders, and students, all round the world. Just because 'experts' can use jargon like 'we consulted with a wide variety of stakeholders' it does not follow that they have a deep understanding of who those 'stakeholders' are, how diverse they are, what their motivations are. For something as complex as a university, including teaching and research in topics as diverse as music, theology, astrophysics, medicine, law, politics, philosophy, .... needing to attract undergraduates, MSc students, PhD students, academic staff, research staff, technicians, clerical staff, administrative, staff, the notion that a typical piece of market research can justify a shallow re-branding exercise relating to all 'stakeholders' is very naive.

Did they do world-wide investigations across all the categories of important people (including academic staff already here)? Not on the basis evidence available now, e.g. the total cost of the exercise and the fact that this school was merely informed, not consulted. Were any of you interviewed, eg. about what made you want to come and work here, and why?

The shallowness and incompetence of the research is shown by its main conclusion:

Out of these discussions emerged the four key values of the University, which form the basis of the brand:
* Encouraging enquiry
* Shaping thoughts and opinions through debate
* Challenging convention
* Creating impact
As one of my colleagues pointed out when this conclusion was announced a few months ago: the claim that these are somehow unique to the University of Birmingham will make us the laughing stock of the academic world.

Moreover, if we really are failing to convince potential students (and other 'stakeholders') that those are our key values shouldn't we be investigating and changing the details of what we actually do (deep marketing) instead of making largely irrelevant superficial changes like altering letterheads, and re-painting signs (shallow marketing)?
(Incidentally, is the university going to address the lack of maps around the campus which visitors and others have been complaining about since I came here? The Director of Estate Management wrote to me that this would be done as part of a more general redesign of campus signing, after I wrote to him as Head of School about this -- in 1991).

The conduct of the rebranding process sheds doubt on some of the very claims being made about the values of the university. E.g. it is claimed that one of our key values is 'Shaping thoughts and opinions through debate' yet this university consistently fails to make public the views of dissenters regarding its high level decision making. E.g. when the 'benefits' of top-up fees were announced in 'Buzz' there was no indication that many serious academics disagreed. When the university was in dispute with the AUT about salaries and conditions of service, an issue of deep concern to the University, and its present and future students, you could not have learnt about the different viewpoints from the main university web and paper publications. And now that there is strong dissent about the re-branding exercise you will not discover that from the university's web site which does not even mention the petition, let alone provide a link to it so that readers can see some of the names and comments.

Perhaps one of our problems is that in this university 'Shaping thoughts and opinions through debate' often means taking decisions then announcing them and the reasons for them? I have seen attempts at consultation, but the submissions go to the centre to people who may or may not read them, and who then takes decisions. There are no attempts to expose the different considerations and to allow interested people to comment and criticise one another's submissions, so that out of a process of mutual criticism and mutual education really good decisions can emerge, as I believe this Birmingham project has demonstrated in connection with local government decisions, though unfortunately the reports are not online.

So perhaps the fault in our image found by our market researchers is not a fault in the image after all, but a fault in the reality, which needs more than re-branding to address it.

I don't know who decided several weeks ago to have the university web site pronounce to all and sundry that the university of Birmingham is 'One of the World's top 100 universities', but nobody with a deep understanding of what we are about could have made such a disastrous mistake.

Just imagine how any of you would have felt when you were considering coming here if you had been told that we are only in the first hundred! Is that what you thought when you applied, or accepted our offer???

That may be true as some sort of average (using mainly meaningless measures), but think of the harm done by such an announcement to the departments and research groups that are recognised world leaders. It doesn't even say top 100 out of how many, though if you follow the link you could be led to believe we are in the top 100 out of only 500, which makes things even worse.

I am sure that whoever put that on the web site was well-meaning. But whoever it was also does not understand what sort of university we are, and are trying to be.

Another example is deciding to use low contrast between text and background in Buzz (orange on white or vice versa) to fit some branding criterion instead of aiming to make text readable without straining or looking for a magnifying glass and bright light. I gave up trying and binned it.

So remember: if academics try to focus entirely on teaching and research and delegate too much to 'professionals' who are not academics and do not have a sufficiently deep understanding of what universities are doing and what the problems are, then things will go badly wrong, and the academics will ultimately be the ones to blame, not their hard-working, well-meaning, but ill-informed colleagues.

But even academics are guilty of silly behaviour when they come near the top of a league table. Instead of pointing out how meaningless the rankings are they start boasting about their own position, thereby implicitly endorsing stupid ranking procedures and harming the academic system and all who are involved in it. Of course, governments are to blame for making money follow league-table ranking instead of aiming for and funding excellence in all educational institutions (and other public service organisations). How to manage that process is a topic for another day.

What we should be teaching prospective students to do is examine what is on offer, evaluate it according to multiple criteria that are relevant to them (in the light of their abilities, interests, prior education and ambitions) and then decide. But that presupposes that the universities themselves concentrate on honestly describing what sorts of courses they offer, how they are taught, what facilities they have, what kinds of careers their degrees are good for, etc. That's deep marketing, which all universities should be doing, instead of competing with one another in shallow marketing exercises, which nobody can win in the long run because, as should have been evident when the fashion for shallow marketing of universities started around 1990, everyone will do it, hiring similarly trained shallow marketing experts, and thereby harming the system for everyone.

Shallow re-branding will either mislead applicants (possibly causing trouble for us later when we find we have too high a proportion of students who are incapable of coping with academically demanding degrees) or, more likely, have no effect.

Well not quite: one effect the appearance of the new school note paper had on me was to make me determined never to use it. I don't want what I write to be juxtaposed with the gimmick of a couple of totally spurious large and intrusive letters, whatever they are. Fortunately, with the technology available to us, it is easy and far more efficient to design and use our own formats generated by software without the hassle of handling pre-printed paper. I wonder if the marketing people understand which century we are in?

Apologies for rambling.

Dear academic colleagues, please remember the main message: if you leave things to 'them' you'll regret it -- producing all the problems of an 'us vs them' culture. Use opportunities to get involved in all sorts of decision making that affect the university and do not assume that so-called 'experts' can be trusted to get things right.

Build a culture in which the close interaction at all levels between academics and non-academics leads to deep mutual understanding, shared goals and teamwork based on that. E.g. if much of your teaching and research involves use of complex machines in laboratories introduce even your clerical staff to what is going on there, so that they understand what kind of department they are joining and what its concerns are. Likewise encourage them to share their concerns and aspirations with the academics.

Only then can you avoid the kinds of mistakes we are now seeing.


If you send me comments or criticisms relating to this document please let me know if you would like me to add them here anonymously or attributed.

Aaron Sloman
Last updated: 22 May 2005
Fixed typos reported by Mark Ryan.