Sorry, marketers, but I am not your brand


Dear Philip,
Please find attached an amended version of your slides for your mini lecture, “Artificial Intelligence, Atom By Atom”, as part of our virtual open day events. I’ve blended your slides with our template.
Is that OK?
Many thanks…

That is an excerpt from an email I received recently from our external relations and marketing team after submitting my contribution to the University of Nottingham’s virtual open day. My carefully crafted slides failed to “respect” Nottingham’s corporate identity guidelines. Hence, they were shoehorned into its PowerPoint template, with its relentless and utterly predictable brand positioning. The atomic background to my title page was replaced by a stock photo of the university, and the corporate logo, with its retro gradient background that sticks out like a sore thumb in just about every context, was slapped on every slide.

No, I’m afraid it’s far from OK.

Three years ago, I wrote a letter to Times Higher Education (“Mutual respect and teamwork are vital”, 6 July 2017) to highlight the importance of appreciating each other’s expertise and knowledge. “Just as it is arrogant for academics to dismiss out of hand the key contributions of their marketing colleagues, it is similarly unhelpful for university central marketing to ignore the advice and input of academics,” I wrote, ending with a plea: “Let’s talk.”

Fortunately, in this latest case, we did talk – although that conversation should not have been necessary – and I was graciously permitted to use my original slides. But I am very much an exception; the expectation is that all academic presentations for Virtually Nottingham should conform to the university’s corporate identity guidelines.

What’s especially frustrating is that this type of pathological corporatisation is detrimental to the very image and, if we must, brand that we want to portray. How many students come to a university because they admire the corporate identity guidelines and branding? Indeed, how many students and young people are directly opposed to the type of corporate branding that universities want to impose on academics?

We claim that our university embraces individuality, originality and critical thinking. And yet our marketing strategy homogenises all presentations to the point where the corporate identity smothers the differences between disciplines and faculties. Every university slavishly mimics what every other university does ad nauseam. Our promotional videos are indistinguishable, and there’s absolutely no attempt to embrace the diversity of teaching styles that should be the lifeblood of a university.

As Naomi Klein put it in her inspiring 1999 book, No Logo (which has been described as defining a generation), “Too often, the expansive nature of the branding process ends up causing the event to be usurped, creating the quintessential lose-lose situation.” Students, academics and marketing professionals – we all lose out.

In terms of effective promotion of universities, the corporate environment and ethos are entirely counterproductive. Compare and contrast the official Nottingham YouTube presence with the Sixty Symbols channel, to which my physics colleagues and I regularly contribute – a collaboration with the video journalist Brady Haran that was awarded the Institute of Physics’ Kelvin Prize in 2016 “for innovative and effective promotion of the public understanding of physics”.

Although the contributions are from a single school, Sixty Symbols far outstrips official university channels in terms of subscribers, views and reach. The same is true of Haran and colleagues’ other channels, involving the chemistry and computer science schools: PeriodicVideosComputerphile and Numberphile.

Why is this? It’s not particularly difficult to fathom. One key reason is that these academic-driven channels forgo the corporate branding and imposed uniformity that is typical of science communication. We presenters all have our own type of script, style and structure: an unvarnished approach that humanises us and helps connect us to the audience. Think of it as “guerrilla marketing”, if you will.

The virtual environment, in which we will have to deliver our open day presentations and mini-lectures this year, already imposes a considerable distance – pedagogical as much as physical – between academic and audience. Forcing all academics to rigidly comply with corporate identity guidelines only expands that distance further.

Author Bio: Philip Moriarty is Professor of Physics at the University of Nottingham.