Lessons from a successful university rebrand project

Just over twelve months ago, we helped the University of Suffolk launch a new brand identity. The brand positioned the institution as a progressive university for a changing world. A year on from the launch, the identity has been a substantive success. We spoke with staff throughout the University and asked what factors they felt had made a positive difference to the outcome of the project.

A university for a changing world

University Campus Suffolk (UCS) was a unique collaboration between the universities of East Anglia and Essex. In August 2016, UCS met criteria for University Title and was granted permission to become a fully independent university.

Twelve months on from the launch of the new brand, the University saw a significant increase in applications ahead of the UCAS deadline, against a backdrop of falling national applications. The university has welcomed prestigious talent to its staff, established new partnerships with local businesses that continue to support the institution's mission to transform local communities and is building significant relationships in international markets. 

The brand has played an important role in communicating the transition and positioning the new university. In conversation with stakeholders, we learned of five important factors that contributed to the success of the university rebrand project.

The answers came from within

Higher education has seen several rebrand disasters in recent years as outputs fail to properly represent the perceived strengths and aspirations of institutions. Staff, students and alumni revolt as an expensive process results in an identity that they do not understand or identity with.

As a fast-growing organisation spread across several geographic sites, the University needed a clearly articulated brand identity. Senior leaders understood the importance of a distinctive and compelling brand and were keen to go beyond factors common to other higher education institutions.

We worked with the core team to engage staff and students from nearly every department in the University. We helped staff to understand the need for distinctiveness through a memorable and authentic identity and invited contribution from people at every level of the organisation.

The new brand identity was seen not as the vision of an external brand consultancy, but as the result of a collaborative attempt to position the University for the future. The process resulted in a brand that was seen to have integrity and purpose and has been embraced by staff throughout the University.

“From the very start of the project, Only came and spent time at the University, getting to know us as an organisation and spending time with the many different departments. This resulted in a level of engagement across the whole University, with teams internally feeling they had contributed to the process, helping them feel ownership of the brand as it developed.

Kim Rogers, Marketing Officer

The internal launch of change

Branding is not just a matter of advertising and marketing. A successful and identifiable brand needs employee understanding and buy-in. A brand should not just inspire effective marketing, but also bring about a change in employee behaviour and interaction with stakeholders.

During the research phase of the project we spoke with current students at University Campus Suffolk. We heard over and again the influence of student ambassadors and members of staff during the recruitment process, where prospective students were choosing not just between universities but between a whole series of alternative life paths.

Recognising the importance of people to the establishment of the University of Suffolk brand, the identity was launched first within the University itself. This included face-to-face presentations of the new brand identity to senior stakeholders that highlighted how the work will support the University's vision for the future, whilst also inviting comment and drawing out suggestions for positive change.

By launching the brand internally, we were able to unite staff behind the change and ensure the organisations was fully prepared for the public launch of the identity.

“When Only presented the new brand identity to our Executive team, we had absolute confidence in what they had produced. The Executive loved how confident, clean and bold it was and went on to galvanise other key influencers around it. Their immediate buy-in gave us the confidence to roll it out across the various internal audiences quickly and easily.

Polly Bridgman, Director of External Relations

Simple is powerful

To compete in today's rapidly changing and increasingly complex world, university brands need a clear and meaningful positioning that connects with audiences. Their visual identities must also be recognisable, without ever becoming stale.

For the University of Suffolk, we set out to create an unmistakable identity with almost unlimited potential for future interpretation. The resulting identity is deceptively simple whilst serving to underline the university’s core proposition. Strong aesthetic choices communicate a much-needed brand confidence. A modern palette and bold typographic choices lay a foundation for future adaptation. Clear and concise language presents an innovative and fresh persona.

In-line with the updated visual identity, the University have sought to simplify and eliminate confusion across print and digital applications to add value. This commitment to simplicity has seen positive outcomes for staff and students throughout the University and has contributed to the organisation’s continued success.

“Simplicity has been key to ensuring clarity and consistency whilst also maximising impact. As we have grown accustomed to using the brand, we have found this to be important for communicating our proposition to all audiences.”

Kim Rogers, Marketing Officer

Living the brand

Success of a brand rests on the ability of an organisation to live the brand. The best brands can be seen to stand for something that people connect with the organisation and identify in its messaging and behaviours. Since the launch of the new brand, the University has worked hard to communicate its vision for change and continues to act in accordance with its new identity.

In areas spanning learning and teaching, research and community impact, the University continues to behave as a 21st century university with a clear sense of identity. A new partnership with a local hospital trust represents an agile response to changing student needs and increased demands from central government. The creation of Higher and Degree Apprenticeship programmes shows a modern university responding to changing local and national agendas.

As the University continues to develop its brand reputation, senior leaders continue to connect positive action with strong brand messaging that supports the clear positioning of the University.

"Over the next five years the University of Suffolk will continue to develop its reputation and brand as an innovative and flexible, market-centred provider with high-quality teaching, underpinned by widespread scholarly activity and research in focused areas. [The University's] future lies in active, responsive, mutually beneficial partnerships across higher education, health, business and beyond."

Richard Lister OBE, Vice-Chancellor

Consistency is key

Consistency of communications is vital to ensuring recognition and memorability. For the University of Suffolk, we created a bold personality and introduced a strong and unique colour pallete. We created a prominent graphic device that placed progressive change at the heart of the identity and supported the launch with an initial campaign.

Going further, we created a set of digital brand guidelines for the University, to host templates and best practice examples. For such a large organisation with relatively limited marketing capacity, this open access to core brand assets has supported the roll out of the new brand identity. The resulting comms have been diverse and unique, whilst maintaining and building recognition of the University brand.

“The new brand has helped the University to grow awareness by presenting a coherent brand identity to the people of Suffolk and beyond. By presenting a consistent face to our audiences, we have built recognition of the new university.”

Polly Bridgman, Marketing Officer

A successful university rebrand

The success of the University rebrand was the result of a shared vision and a collaborative approach. By engaging with people from the outset of the project, we created a brand with purpose and integrity that resonates with those who matter most. By presenting a simple and purposeful message consistently, the University has enjoyed an outstanding twelve months that looks set to continue.