Higher Ed’s Moment of Reckoning

Today we begin a series of interviews with some of the most interesting and influential frontline experts in communications, crisis, and reputation management.

We start with a recent conversation I had with Zeenat Fayaz, founder and CEO of the London-based firm, The Brand Education.

The Brand Dame: A perfect storm has hit the education and nonprofit sectors. We’re all reeling from the ongoing impact of COVID-19 and the underlying demographic and economic shifts that have been created. There’s been massive disruption in higher education and some say that COVID-19 could be to the education sector what SARS was to e-commerce in Asia. Your thoughts?

Fayaz: COVID-19 hasn’t fundamentally changed the demand for education. Prior to the pandemic, we were experiencing a global surge in demand in the sector. This year, we’ve seen a change in the general skepticism aimed at distance-learning programs as everyone confronts the reality of studying from home. Global e-learning is causing a considerable shift in market dynamics. Today, it’s much more about connecting students with the shared vision of your brand than it is about being “the best”.

The Brand Dame: What are the current international pain points? Are they different from what we are seeing here in the US?  

Fayaz: If you ask universities right now, the biggest pain points you’d run into are things like adjusting to new technologies and ‘zoom fatigue’. The pandemic has eclipsed a lot of the conversation in the sector. But those really are short-term issues. Perhaps more meaningful are pain points relating to changes in the international market dynamics. For example, China has been regarded for years as one of the most important international markets. The data today is pointing to a major decline in that market and the effects will be radical.

The Brand Dame: You say that an institution’s reputation isn’t an abstract idea. You call it a system — why?

Fayaz: Many people don’t realize that the ranking systems we turn to in the higher ed space are based largely on surveys of popular opinion within academic circles. That means that they’re subject to the same biases as any other market. There’s a great deal of research out there right now on making brand reputation quantifiable. For universities this could mean monitoring reputation in key markets with social media listening tools, quantifying the reputation of specific departments, and linking reputation to key performance indicators.

The Brand Dame: You’re passionate about developing what you call “the brand power score.” What is this and why is it important to understand? 

Fayaz: Brand power is about measuring your brand’s ability to drive results. Brands are more important now than at any time in the past 100 years. They play a key role in a university’s ability to attract top students, the best academic talent, funding, philanthropic support and forging strategic partnerships. Marketers need a new way to understand the strength of their brand; no easy task. For, brands to influence consumer behavior in context, university marketers need to measure the strength of their brand where it really matters — at the moment of choice. That’s what the brand power score does. 

The Brand Dame: You’ve given a good deal of thought to the role of institutional stakeholders — people who have a vested interest in the reputation of a college or university. Say more.

Fayaz: Stakeholder engagement really is the foundation of good reputation management. It’s easy to think of a university brand as a name or logo, but the reality is that a university reputation is the sum of a thousand small communities. Every class, teaching team, department or even family participates in creating the university brand. We encourage universities to enable communities —- whether that’s staff members, students, partners, or the broader community — and become aware of their own power as a brand publisher.

The Brand Dame: What are the key factors in sustaining an engaged and vibrant reputation?

Fayaz: Staying relevant to the global conversation is perhaps the most important thing. And by relevant, we mean relevant on a day-by-day basis. If you look at some of the world’s most successful communications teams, the first thing they do in the morning is check the news together. That’s the art of meeting an audience where they’re at emotionally on any given day. If there’s a secret to a vibrant communications ecosystem, it’s in understanding what makes news newsworthy. Find the things that your audience really wants to talk about then have that conversation yourself.

The Brand Dame: What changes have academic leaders made that will serve as guideposts for the coming years?

Fayaz: Phew. I mean, you’re asking this question in 2020 — probably the most dramatic year of change in higher ed that anyone can remember. It’s definitely been a year of reckoning for anyone that didn’t yet believe that digitization would be pivotal to the future of higher education. Academia still lags behind the private sector when it comes to working in today’s modern marketing landscape. There is still massive scope for leveraging data, communications technology and brand in ways that universities are yet to explore. The leaders we’ve seen succeed are the ones taking steps to actively manage innovation in the university business model.

The Brand Dame: Are there lessons to be learned from the crises of the last year that we can carry forward into the future?

Fayaz: We’ve all learned lessons from failure this year. But I think the biggest lesson is just how resilient our industry can be. Universities have pivoted dramatically to push on with the work of making sure that research continues, communities are served, and students are taught. 2020 reminded us all that there are few things in our society more essential than education. That’s why we’ll adapt to whatever comes our way.

Zeenat Fayaz can be reached at zeenat.fayaz@thebrandeducation.com.