Meaningfully connecting

How can universities make their content stand out and not get lost in the sea of content on the internet?

By Max du Bois, Spencer du Bois

Content is king… or so the media would have us believe. After all, without content how would brands tell their story, how would universities explain what they do and how they do it? How would students be able to get under the skin of a place of learning? Yet, if content is what we rely on to guide our decisions, there appears to be a big failure in the system.

According to a recent global brand analysis conducted by media agency Havas, 60% of all content created by brands is poor, irrelevant or simply fails to deliver. If 74% of global brands were to disappear overnight, no one would miss them. In the UK that figure rises to 94%. Yet, despite this, 84% of people still expect brands to produce content.

There is lots of content out there but very little of it that is actually meaningful

In other words, there is lots of content out there but very little of it that is actually meaningful.

Given these bleak figures, just how well are university brands performing? Are they as meaningful as they possibly could be? And, is being meaningful the single most important factor?

What you are good at vs what you are good for

Universities have certainly come a long way in recognising the value of a brand; some have even taken on the herculean task of trying to develop the beginning of differentiating brands. Many can truly boast personal, collective and functional benefits. However, whilst some do an excellent job explaining what they are good at, there are still so many that fall at the first hurdle: trying to highlight what they are good for, and in a way that’s relevant to who they’re talking to.

This leaves everyone trying to win students over on generic table stakes. Just how many universities have similar high employability rates? Is everyone a world leader?

Currently universities appear to have two speeds, those with content that rarely gets refreshed and those who offer a confusing deluge of unfocused content, from research news and trends to more banally smiling graduates.

The content of content

Understanding what sort of content works for their audience and where the true opportunity resides requires going beyond blandly functional content, yet stopping short of being superficial and entertaining, like so many consumer brands.

Does this sound like a fine line to tread? It is, but not if you have defined your brand and what you stand for. Getting the balance right will reap its rewards. Falling short will mean sliding towards that dismal 60% of content that fails to lift a university brand to anything close to above average.

So, what exactly are the most meaningful ways for universities to engage and connect?

Memorably entertaining

Brands across a wide range of sectors still take the entertainment approach to being memorable. This has resulted in a rash of clever campaigns or videos, often which are individually good but lacking the connection to a deeper brand differentiation.

Missing out the more powerful links to a university’s defining purpose results in inadvertently distracting and diluting the brand message.

Treading the fine line between entertaining and inspiring is about combining the required priority content with the real life values that make the target audience feel understood, connected and motivated.

How many universities have a clear section for parents, a key influencing audience? How many divide between the obsessively detailed potential student and the stressed student, who is not sure what’s important and what should be important?

Meaningfully salient

This brings us to the need for the university to ensure it is not just meaningful, but salient. Whilst we can be busy building positive sentiment by delivering on a meaningful brand promise, the results may still disappoint if we don’t also ensure we are salient.

To be effective, salience has to mesh with meaningful

Salience is not simply top-of-mind awareness that occurs when a university name is familiar. To be effective, salience has to mesh with meaningful. This will define what the university is good for and will ensure it doesn’t languish as a clicked on but ignored option, or a shortlisted but second choice. It gets to be the one.

Of course, nailing your colours to the mast in this way has its dangers. Universities need to accept that they will not be right for everyone, but one of the basic rules of brand is ‘go for everyone, get no one’, especially in the changing landscape of potential students’ needs and higher education provision.


Being meaningful, salient and memorable requires drawing from a number of core factors that are individual to each university. It combines their location, their staff, their ethos, the reason they were founded, the reason they are popular today. It most certainly must be inspired by the people it is currently targeting, and this will require regularly tweaking and updating as this evolves.

And, it will ask one fundamental question of its target audience: how can it better contribute to their lives and their future, how can it become the most meaningful brand for their students’ current needs?


The dichotomy is obvious. As we strive to combine salience with meaningful, highlighting points of differentiation along the way, it is all too easy to fall into one of the biggest branding traps – content clutter.

And so, we round off with clarity of purpose as well as clarity of content. Coco Chanel was famous for suggesting ‘less is more’, and when it comes to quality content the apparent failure in the system could be resolved by striking a balance that reflects that mindset.