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Internal branding for competitive advantage

By Sean McCoy

In the first instalment of our series on branding, Sean McCoy, CEO of the HKLM Group, discusses the rebranding of the University of Johannesburg (UJ).

As the South African economy prepares to kick into a cycle of recovery, the issues of talent, skills and, ultimately, education remain sharply in focus. The role of our education system has never been more important and, as schools strive to produce the best possible talent, a healthy level of rivalry for a common cause becomes inevitable.

Internal branding as a tool for differentiation and for building competitive advantage in organisations is fundamentally about building the brand from the inside out, ensuring that the organisation can deliver on its promise to market in a consistent manner, and in a way that enables it to derive true gains over its competitors.

Internal branding must be the core of business strategy

The education environment is arguably shielded from true commercial competition given that it acts in the national interest, to an extent, but the need for excellence, service delivery and internal brand engagement remains paramount. In addition to an understanding that it should be borne of a need to build differentiation and sustainable competitive advantage, internal branding in the commercial sector should reflect:

  • A high level of leadership commitment, involvement and resource allocation
  • A desire to put brand at the centre of the business strategy and to ensure alignment between the external brand promise and the internal understanding and behavioural delivery
  • A commitment to the structures, processes and systems that support these desires

The education environment should be no different, other than the shift in emphasis from pure competitive advantage to excellence in talent delivery, and achieving measurable gains in the development of future leaders and human capital in our country.

University of Johannesburg a massive rebranding exercise

This theory comes to life through a case study of the evolution of UJ – competing on one level with other academic institutions, both in Gauteng and on a national scale, whilst also meeting the national mandate as a tertiary institution accountable to the Department of Higher Education.

In 2005, the Rand Afrikaans University (RAU) and Technikon Witwatersrand (TWR) (later joined by Vista University) combined to form a new institution. UJ would require the establishment of a compellingly different marketing proposition. The six-year branding journey – ending in 2011 – was characterised by a range of brand dimensions, reflecting a long-standing partnership between UJ and leading strategic branding group, HKLM.

UJ was entering the market as a ‘new’ institution, and certainly as a new brand. Albeit that there was an embedded legacy in the individual entities coming together in the merger, a conscious decision was taken to create a brand that was fresh, could serve as a catalyst to unite these entities and compete in a contested market space against formidable and established competitors.

‘You. Unlimited’ a powerful message

HKLM and UJ refined elements of the strategic framework to incorporate aspects unique to the former individual institutions. The aim was to combine these elements to offer a differentiated education proposition in the local market, with increasing pan-African appeal. The slogan ‘You. Unlimited’ became the essence of the brand and, with the support of the component parts of the UJ Brand Platform, the external market expression of ‘Rethink Education. Reinvent Yourself’ was born; reflective of the promise of a new approach to education and an ability to unlock the potential within the individual – both internally in the organisation and also to external target markets.

The union of institutions and the new identity was symbolised by the image of hoopoe birds, suggesting liberty, freedom and a celebration of the human spirit. The image of a book pointed to both a learning environment and a clean slate upon which the individual could write his or her own future. The torch of learning rounded off the idea of diversity and the comprehensive educational offering available at UJ.

A range of activation elements supplied strategic consistency

As the brand was brought to life across the various campuses that fall under the UJ umbrella, and in the marketplace, the range of activation elements were as diverse as print collateral, promotional items, electronic templates, vehicle livery, uniforms and signage. As this monolithic brand was activated with strategic consistency, consideration was also necessary for the treatment of properties that are quite unique to the tertiary education environment – such as sport brands, student affairs and radio station, to name a few.

A strategic and tactical approach to communicate the new vision about UJ to a vast array of audiences was adopted. Overall, UJ brand building communication was initiated to drive awareness of the new institution, supported by targeted campaigns aimed at specific market segments, such as undergraduates and alumni. While the execution was tailored to suit specific audiences, the common thread was embedded in the brand platform and positioning of the institution – unlocking your potential in an environment that takes a new approach to education.

Rebranding also requires intervention at deeper levels

Following the significant investment in external brand building – and notwithstanding the efforts of internal communication and message cascading – it became evident that a deeper internal intervention would further galvanise people and enhance educational service delivery, and ultimately the new and compelling brand promise of UJ.

HKLM was commissioned to carry out a fully fledged brand engagement project, working closely with UJ’s marketing, communication, human resources and broader cultural integration teams. The initiative is intended to eliminate institutional boundaries emanating from complex merger dynamics – previous institutional alignment, differing campus facilities and resources, academic versus support personnel, and so on – under the common theme and direction of the UJ brand.

The process required an analysis of the situation in order to understand existing behavioural gaps and to design appropriate interventions. The notion of appointing some 250 ‘brand champions’ within the organisation was well received, and the findings and feedback extremely positive. On conclusion of the initial workshops during 2010, a comprehensive embedding phase was carried out, ensuring ongoing cascading of brand values and behaviours across the organisation. This was supported by further internal brand communication, which was backed up by campus radio and the UJ intranet to optimise reach and efficacy.

Brand engagement is an ongoing process

Brand engagement is an ongoing process and the embedding phase also included integration of the brand with human resource policies and procedures, which ensures that the brand gets inculcated into talent acquisition, development and retention strategies within the institution and supports the initiatives undertaken by the culture integration team.

The momentum of this initiative is recognised in the continuation of the project during 2011, and is currently underway again at the time of writing. UJ has come a long way in a short period of time, building a new brand off a platform of the heritage and legacy of the institutions preceding it. The complex challenges of such a merger notwithstanding, this university has made major strides forward as an institution and as a brand that has enormous appeal, as evidenced by its current enrolment figures and many awards. Established as a city university based in the economic gateway to Africa, it will be a fascinating brand to watch as it matures in positioning and expression, and ultimately aspires to being the leading university in the country, serving a broader continent.

The HKLM Group comprises a range of specialist companies combining to offer integrated brand services focusing on emerging markets. This article is based on a presentation delivered by McCoy at the 2010 Independent Schools Marketers’ Association (ISMA) national conference.


Category: Winter 2011

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