As a first-generation immigrant living in Toronto from the mid-1970s to 2002, I had never heard of Lakehead University. In fact, I first heard of Lakehead University when I applied for the position of director of communications in November 2002. Once hired, I was excited when my proposal to launch an institutional visual identity program and awareness campaign was supported by Lakehead University President Fred Gilbert and endorsed by members of Lakehead’s Integrated Marketing Committee. Based on years of working in advertising, public relations, and corporate marketing communications, I had assumed this challenge would be an easy one.
Little did I know. New to the world of universities in Canada (my dad was a university president in the Philippines), I learned from a colleague that I must never use the b-word. Universities are not brands, and the university system is not a “business” to be “marketed.” Second, I was told university prospects go through a very different decision-making process when “shopping” for an institution of higher learning than when they’re behaving as consumers of everyday goods and services. Third, universities do not need to market themselves because students will simply come; marketing universities is tantamount to commoditizing or corporatizing an institution of higher learning, and both are an anathema to higher education. And fourth, since universities are publicly funded, it is irresponsible to spend those funds on marketing; rather, public funds should be spent on improving programs, faculty, staff, infrastructure, financial aid and so forth.
Canadian universities are undeniably now in a marketplace. Academics may flinch at those terms, but this is a reality. One only need visit the Ontario Universities’ Fair, held every year in Toronto, to feel the frenzy from both the “sellers” and the “buyers,” and to witness the innovative promotional approaches that institutions are attempting as they become more competitive about marketing their brand. The use of such terminology may cause a hue and cry, but what I mean simply is this: Although Canadian universities do not exist to make a profit, unless they have students, there is no “business.” And none of us – esteemed academics included – will have a job.
Marketing your institution is neither commercializing nor compromising the content quality or delivery of programs; on the contrary, marketing means that high school students, parents, faculty, staff, and potential donors will have the necessary information about your university to make an informed decision. The quality and delivery of an institution’s programs will always be a function of academe, and marketing an institution merely draws attention to existing institutional strengths – your point of differentiation.
Lakehead University was originally established to serve the needs of Northwestern Ontario and has always attracted about half its students from the region and about 40 percent from Southern Ontario. However, with a declining population of high school graduates in the North, it has become even more critical to market the institution outside its catchment area (part of the reason why Lakehead established a campus in Orillia, Ontario).
Though I was warned that it could take a long time to effect significant change at Lakehead, our turnaround time was remarkably quick by any standards. It took two months to launch Lakehead’s first awareness campaign, three months to revamp publications, four months to launch the new website, and a year to completely transition subsidiary sites. Throughout the process, I received many e-mails and calls of support from faculty and staff applauding the need to do all of this. I also received some e-mails complaining and even attacking me personally and the “corporate heresy” I had brought into this fine institution.
But we have made progress. Lakehead University today is now on the radar screen of many more people. While Lakehead may not have the brand equity enjoyed by a few older institutions, what it does have is the opportunity to create its own cachet in the current “university marketplace.” And contrary to some thinking, an organization’s wordmark or logo is not its brand but merely one representation of it. An organization’s brand is the sum total of what it represents in reality as well as what its audiences perceive the organization to be. The “best” brands are those where there is no disconnect between perception and reality, and the beauty of branding is that one can build toward bridging perception and reality.
Today, Lakehead has gained a reputation for its Indie spirit – a small (8,000 students) can-do university offering quality academic programs and pursuing top-notch research. Among its most cherished values are resourcefulness and the willingness to go the extra mile to help its students realize their potential. But unless Ontario changes its university funding formula to level the playing field between longstanding and newer as well as between larger and smaller institutions, then strategic marketing and brand building alongside aggressive recruitment may be the only way for smaller universities to survive and flourish.
Ms. Abaya is director of communications at Lakehead University.