Brands of Nonsense

Oct. 31st, 2014 05:28 am
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Posted by John Quiggin

That’s the title of a piece of mine the Chronicle of Higher Education ran a little while ago. It’s paywalled but they have graciously given me permission to republish it here.

A little while ago, the University of Warwick was in the news for all the wrong reasons. Its longstanding legal firm, SGH Martineau, put up a blog post suggesting that universities should take action against “insubordinate” academics with “outspoken opinions.” The firm stressed the importance of making an example of offenders whose academic work was “brilliant,” lest other employees become tempted to emulate them.

Unfortunately for Warwick, this suggestion was made at precisely the time the university was seeking to remove an insubordinate professor, whose alleged offenses included “sighing” and “irony during job interviews”, though it appears his real offense was criticism of the British government’s higher-education policy.

The law firm’s post was couched in terms of the possibility of damage to the university’s “brand.” Universities have always been rightly concerned about their reputations. But the conversion in recent years to the language of branding has reached a fever pitch. Of course, in Warwick’s case, both the proposal to muzzle academics and the marketing-speak used to justify it did enough damage to offset, for some time, the efforts of its entire central-administration communications team, which employs almost 30 people, not to mention similar personnel in various schools and departments.

In Australia, Monash University proudly announced this year that it was the first organization in the world to acquire a “brand” top-level domain name—that is, an Internet address ending in “.monash” rather than the previous “monash.edu.au.” This trivial change cost $180,000, plus an annual fee of $25,000, and is part of the university’s expensively maintained “brand identity policy.”

In America, the University of Pennsylvania was an early adopter of this approach. In 2002 the Pennsylvania Gazette celebrated its centenary with a history titled “Building Penn’s Brand.” What might Penn’s most eminent sociologist, Erving Goffman (author of The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life), have made of this adoption of the language of image and “brand”?

Many American universities now have branding policies, and some affirm an unqualified commitment to the associated marketing ideology. The University of Florida, for example states on its website:

“The importance of having a clear, recognizable brand can never be overstated. It defines us, separates us and communicates our relevance and value. It is especially important in an environment as vast and decentralized as the University of Florida. Thousands of messages leave the university every day, and each represents an opportunity to enhance—or fragment—our image. By maintaining consistent standards, we capitalize on the enormous volume of communications we generate and we present an image to the world of a multifaceted, but unified, institution.”

That statement summarizes all the key points of the ideology of branding. First there is the emphasis on image without any reference to an underlying reality. Second there is the assumption that the university should be viewed as a corporate institution rather than as a community. Third there is the desire to subordinate the efforts of individual scholars in research, extension, and community engagement to the enhancement of the corporate image. And finally there is the emphasis on distinctiveness and separateness. The University of Florida does not want to seem part of a global community of higher education, but rather as a competitor in a crowded marketplace.

Before considering this process further, we need some context. The authority on the history of the corporation and of brands is Alfred D. Chandler, whose books Strategy and Structure: Chapters in the History of the American Industrial Enterprise (MIT Press, 1962), The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business (Harvard University Press, 1977), and Scale and Scope: The Dynamics of Industrial Capitalism (Harvard University Press, 1990) are the definitive studies of the rise of the managerial corporation.

Chandler emphasizes the emergence of packaged and branded goods. Until the late 19th century, products like foodstuffs were sold in bulk by wholesalers, then measured out by retailers to individual customers. At every stage there were opportunities to increase profits by passing off a cheaper alternative for the good being sold. Shopkeepers’ reputations were the primary warranty. In the increasingly urban and mobile environment of the late 19th century, reputation, never a fully effective seal of quality, became even less so.

Branded products provided a solution. Now it was possible for consumers to repeatedly buy the same brand of product at various stores. The brand was a guarantee of consistent quality, not because of the trustworthiness of the corporation (of which the buyers would typically know nothing), but because its value depended on consistency and quality.

Consistency was the more important of the two. A low-quality product, provided that it was consistently adequate and appropriately priced, could benefit just as much from a brand as a higher-quality, more expensive alternative could. Indeed, the wealthy were the last to embrace branded products, instead patronizing bespoke tailors and personal providers of food and other services long after the middle and working classes were used to doing their shopping at Macy’s and A&P.

The great marketing discovery of the 20th century, pioneered by the advertising titan J. Walter Thompson, was that brands could do much more than guarantee a consistent level of objective quality. With the right advertising, a brand could come to embody connotations of all kinds, unrelated to the qualities of the product to which it was attached. Femininity or masculinity, luxury or solid good sense, excitement or security—all of these and more are part of “image.”

A third form of brand value arises when there are strong forces for customer “loyalty,” amounting, in some cases, to “lock-in.” For example, anyone who wants to use computers of designs descended from the IBM PC has little choice but to buy Microsoft operating systems like Windows.

And now we come to what may be the most striking feature of branding in higher education. Universities are corporate bodies, but they predate commercial corporations by many centuries. Long before the advent of packaged and branded goods, universities were certifying the quality of their students through the awarding of degrees.

Many criticisms of corporate branding apply equally to university degrees, and much of the voluminous literature on “credentialism” could be translated into the language of branding. The aim of degrees is, after all, to certify quality in the sense that a student has completed a course of study and acquired the associated knowledge and reasoning skills. And, as with brands that involve monopoly power, many degrees gain value from the fact that they are required for entry to particular professions. On the other hand, and with notable exceptions like the M.B.A., there has been little consistent effort to promote “brand image” to potential employers. Like a 19th-century brand, the degree has, in large part, gained its value from graduates rather than vice versa.

The rise of corporate-style branding has gone hand in hand with the devaluation of degrees through grade inflation. Grades in the A range have become the norm at leading universities. Reports that Princeton might roll back attempts to cap the proportion of A’s at 35 percent cite administrators’ fears that the policy discourages potential applicants and students’ complaints that it hurts their chances of getting jobs, fellowships, or spots in graduate or professional schools.

The “brand value” or “brand equity” of a company can be estimated as the intangible capital, beyond the company’s actual earnings, that may arise, as Chandler suggests, in three ways:

[if !supportLists]·         [endif]The company is known to produce goods and services of a higher quality than competitors of similar cost (or similar quality at lower cost). Remember? That’s the 19th-century notion of brand.

[if !supportLists]·         [endif]The brand reflects intangible attributes, through advertising, in the minds of consumers. That’s the early 20thcentury notion.

[if !supportLists]·         [endif]A brand’s component products work best together or with those made by partner brands. That’s the late-20th-century lock-in notion.

It is appropriate, therefore, that the world’s most valuable brand is Apple, because it hits the trifecta. It is widely perceived as the highest-quality and most consistently innovative maker of computing devices. Its products carry a cachet of sophistication emphasized by the famous “I’m a Mac … and I’m a PC” ads. And (except for a brief period in the 1990s when Macintosh “clones” were marketed on a small scale) anyone who wants to use Apple operating systems has to buy an Apple device, and vice versa.

How do those concepts apply to universities and, in particular, to undergraduate education, which remains the core business of most of these institutions?

The 19th-century notion of quality is established in the minds of students, parents, and just about everybody else. In fact, it is so well established that rankings of leading universities have barely changed since the hierarchy was established, in the second half of the 19th century. A blog post by the sociologist Kieran Healy on Crooked Timber compares a ranking produced in 1911 with the most recent U.S. News rankings and finds a close correlation (except that elite private universities, as a group, have improved their status relative to state flagships).

In that sense, then, university brands are strong. But brand relativities that endure regardless of the competence of university leaders, the vagaries of scholars and departments, and the efforts of marketing departments are not really of much interest.

None of this is to say that there are no differences in quality among those captured by these very stable rankings. At any given time, the quality of departments in any university will vary widely. Some will be making great strides in teaching and research. Others will be riven by internal divisions, or wedded to outdated and discredited approaches to pedagogy and research methodology. But there is no way to discover such things from branding exercises at the university level.

Key branding efforts focus on intangibles. In this respect, university branding has been an embarrassing failure both by the industrial standards of the advertising sector and by the intellectual standards that universities are supposed to uphold. For example, virtually every Australian university has adopted (replacing the Latinate motto that used to adorn its crest) a branding slogan: “Know more. Do more.” “Where brilliant begins”. Good luck trying to match a particular slogan with its respective university. (Disclosure: I am, perhaps, bitter that my own proposed branding slogan—”UQ, a university not a brand”—did not find favor with my institution’s marketing department.)

Finally there is the question of lock-in. A university degree is a required ticket for entry to many professions, and where state-level licensing applies, the range of choices may be limited. At the top end, access to various elite jobs is confined largely to the products of Ivy League and similarly elite institutions. That is a form of lock-in that adds to “brand value,” but in a socially unproductive way.

Branding, as applied to higher education, is nonsense. Colleges are disparate communities of scholars (both teachers and students) whose collective identity is largely a fiction, handy during football season but of little relevance to the actual business of teaching and research. The suggestion that a common letterhead and slogan can “present an image to the world of a multifaceted, but unified, institution” is comforting to university managers but bears no correspondence to reality.

The idea of universities as corporate owners of brands is directly at odds with what John Henry Newman called “the Idea of a University.” To be sure, that idea is the subject of contestation and debate, but in all its forms it embodies the ideal of advancing knowledge through free discussion rather than burnishing the image of a corporation. In the end, brands and universities belong to different worlds.


John Quiggin is a fellow in economics at the University of Queensland, in Australia; a columnist for The Australian Financial Review; a blogger for Crooked Timber; and the author of Zombie Economics: How Dead Ideas Still Walk Among Us (Princeton University Press, 2010).

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Posted by MikeSmithson

Is this another victory for the purples?

The big news this morning should come from South Yorkshire where counting takes place in the Police and Crime Commissioner by-election – the first one to be held since these new elected positions were created two years ago.

This has been set against the background of the Rotherham scandal which UKIP (see above) has been featuring strongly in its campaign. The area is largely dominated by Labour strongholds which in normal times should have been enough to guarantee the red team victory.

But these are not normal times as we saw in the Heywood and Middleton by-election at the start of October. UKIP is making serious inroads into place like this and yesterday’s election presented a huge opportunity. We’ll know later this morning whether they’ve managed to pull it off.

    If UKIP have ended up as victors it will add to the party’s momentum in the final three weeks of campaigning in Rochester where the polling and the betting suggests that it is heading for a comfortable victory.

A UKIP defeat could just take the edge off the party’s progress. South Yorkshire is much more challenging than Rochester where the sitting MP, Mark Reckless, stepped down to fight the seat after defecting to Farage’s party.

What could make today’s count and result interesting is that the election is not held under first past the post. If on the first count a candidate has not secured 50% of the votes then second preferences will be taken into account.

  • Note I’m away for most of the day and will be posting on the result and its likely impact later.
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    New YouGov GB and Scottish polls

    Oct. 30th, 2014 10:28 pm
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    Posted by Anthony Wells

    YouGov have two new polls out tonight – the regular GB poll for the Sun, plus a new Scottish poll for the Times. The regular GB poll has topline figures of CON 33%, LAB 32%, LDEM 7%, UKIP 15%, GRN 7%, putting the Conservatives ahead by a margin.

    Meanwhile the Scottish poll in the time has topline Westminster voting intentions of CON 15%, LAB 27%, LDEM 4%, SNP 43%. It isn’t as extreme as the Ipsos MORI poll we saw earlier today, but it’s still a very solid lead for the SNP in Scotland, and one that on a uniform swing would translate into the SNP getting a hefty majority of Scottish seats.

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    Posted by TSE

    Whilst the SNP lead and share of the vote isn’t as impressive as the Ipsos-Mori figures, they will still be delighted with these figures and Labour should continue to be worried.

    All of this confirms that predicting the 2015 General Election will be the most difficult for a generation.

    What we really need to see is the Lord Ashcroft polling on Lab held seats in Scotland.

    If they confirm what Ipsos-Mori and YouGov are showing then I’m not sure what Labour can do stop the tide, especially given Ed’s poor ratings in Scotland, but the fieldwork dates were unfavourable for Labour due to the aftermath of Johann Lamont’s resignation.

    But as Lord Ashcroft keeps on reminding us, opinion polls are snapshots.

    TSE

    UPDATE

    The news from the rest of the country isn’t good for Ed and Labour either this evening

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    Posted by Caron Lindsay

    Highly regarded Scottish Liberal Democrats Justice Spokesperson Alison McInnes stood in for Willie Rennie, who’s recovering well from routine surgery, at today’s First Minister’s Questions. You can watch her here from 23 minutes in.

    Alison chose to ask about mental health today, asking why there had been a rise in the number of children suffering mental ill health who had been hospitalised in non specialist wards. The First Minister actually gave a serious and welcome response, offering her a meeting with the Health Secretary.

    Alison McInnes

    Last week, the Mental Welfare Commission for Scotland raised concerns about the rise in the emergency detention of young people. It also highlighted the problems caused by the admission of children to general hospital wards. The Scottish Government has a policy to reduce the number of children sent to hospital wards that do not specialise in the care that they need, so why did the number of children needing mental health care who were admitted to non-specialist wards rise last year to more than 200?

    The First Minister

    The member raises an important point. I had a meeting yesterday that touched on that exact issue. Perhaps I can arrange a meeting with the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing, so that the member can develop the point and see what the plans and the vision are for the national health service to get back on track in reducing the number of children with mental health problems admitted to general wards.

    Alison McInnes

    There are growing calls for mental health to be given the same priority as physical health. When people are taken into emergency detention, the action is supposed to be signed off by a mental health officer. Last week, however, the Mental Welfare Commission for Scotland expressed concern that that does not always happen. That means that we cannot be sure that children are taken into emergency detention only with that safeguard in place.

    I do not know whether the First Minister will leave a note for his successor. If he does, will he ensure that mental health services for young people are on the list of things to put right?

    The First Minister

    Happily, I do not have to leave a note. My successor is sitting alongside me, and her compassion, interest in and commitment to the national health service are well known and well established.

    The member has raised a serious issue, and it should be taken and developed in that fashion. I will arrange the meeting that I have discussed so that it can be pursued in all its detail to ensure that there is an adequate reply that satisfies Alison McInnes on the future direction of that highly important matter.

     

    * Caron Lindsay is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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