Most great tales are rooted in an existential crisis of some kind, a point at which someone, somewhere, realised he could no longer continue the way he had.
As I'll share this week with Adobe Symposium attendees in Sydbet, for the past 25 years, I’ve worked in higher education, or the “knowledge” space. In that time, I’ve witnessed the gradual decline in the primacy of the degree. Role models for success no longer hold university degrees and have actively dropped out of university to succeed–think Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Microsoft’s Bill Gates, and Atlassian’s Scott Farquhar and Mike Cannon-Brookes.
The role of our product was losing relevance.
To better understand why, we at Western Sydney University listened to what was making our consumers uncomfortable. From that we observed an emerging market sentiment: A classical commercial career path was no longer connecting to our consumers, who were becoming increasingly more engaged with wider global themes and their place in them.
People didn’t want a predictable life. Events such as the global financial crisis a decade ago saw the collapse of old structures and people no longer aspiring to be part of that society. They wanted to change it. A give-back attitude that “I can impact the world,” not always in a grand way, but, in fact, often in smaller ways, was emerging.
What’s more, a career no longer facilitated a lifestyle. It was life itself. The expectations around what we should do with that life was a fundamentally different concept to what we, the universities, were peddling.
Philosophical Underpinnings Of Rebranding
This gap between what the consumer defined as relevant and what universities were delivering signaled an opportunity to differentiate. It also provided the three philosophical underpinnings for Western Sydney University’s rebranding.
1. Defining the “citizen scholar”: The first philosophical underpinning was defining the attributes of a future workforce that could successfully combat complex, global challenges.
We arrived upon the notion of the citizen scholar–a university graduate who could transcend the confines of her chosen academic discipline and challenge the established orthodoxies in society, which often inhibit, rather than advance, the human condition.
So what are the crucial attributes that define a citizen scholar?
A citizen scholar needs an ethical framework that underpins her personal and economic ambitions. This framework acknowledges the symbiosis between the individual’s reliance on society for economic gain and society’s reliance on the individual for sustainability, social resilience, and political integrity.
Another crucial attribute is cross-cultural understanding. This is becoming increasingly important as our society divides along lines of race, gender, economics, and religion, and the right to education carries a responsibility to confront these divides and to bridge gaps.
Finally, a citizen scholar shows creative thinking that contests the old notions of hierarchy and leadership. Creative thinking offers a novel way to navigate and critique complex systems by interpreting how people engage with their environments. This provides insights on how to grow environments where people are not subject to change; they lead it.
2. Challenging conceptions of universities: The second philosophical underpinning of the rebranding was to challenge the current conceptions of universities and how they underplay the role of citizen scholars.
I argued not for a rebrand that sought to create a new narrative but instead for a “retro-brand.” By this I mean reclaiming our past and reconnecting with the founding values of the category.
We determined that, if we were to transform, we would have to do it from our centre, not just through messaging or traditional marketing, but through reimagining our own role and how we delivered against that, to deliver proof at scale.
And I asked that if contemporary universities were unable to grapple with the notion of the citizen scholar, then who or what in society can do that?
3. Redefining Western Sydney as a region: This leads into the final philosophical underpinning of the rebranding–redefining Western Sydney as a region.
If ever there was a region that imparts upon its populace an ethical framework, a cross-cultural understanding, and creative thinking skills, it is Western Sydney.
Western Sydney is a microcosm of global contemporary challenges and how to best them. The region is already overcoming societal fractures along the lines of ethnicity, religion, and ideology; it is already planning for looming health care and housing needs; and it is preparing a workforce of the future to meet the challenges of a complex, global economy.
From these challenges have come our greatest attribute: adaptability.
Criticism, Risks, And Staying The Course
Most people don’t know this, but our rebranding was met with great criticism both externally and internally. The investment was panned on local, national, and international stages. In the face of that criticism, I nearly didn’t stay the course.
But for me, the rebranding wasn’t a messaging play. It was affirming the mission of the university: the notion of the citizen scholar. This made the brand synonymous with the product, the student experience, and the student’s highest aspirations. This synchronicity is arguably the holy grail of all great brands.
This higher purpose soon resonated with the market. Within a week, conversations about the rebranding shifted from a fear of change to our social channels lighting up with words like “inspirational,” “respect,” and “pride.”
Our series of brand films, featuring real-life students, also proved successful. One of them, featuring Deng Adut, a student from South Sudan, launched 4 p.m. on a Friday and by 2:30 p.m. the following Monday had received over 200,000 views. The brand films have since amassed over 5 million views on YouTube and other social media channels. They also received international acclaim that included the Silver Lion award at the Cannes Lions Festival, Gold Pencil at the British D&AD, and the Gold & Best of Show at the Asia Spikes Awards.
As a country, we are entering a period of seismic change, departing from an era reliant on mining and manufacturing to one where ideas are our greatest asset.
As a university, we need to be responsive to the context in which our consumers will find themselves. Automation, globalization, and technology are driving a new economy and we need to prepare our students to successfully negotiate these challenges. And by negotiate, I mean anticipate, change, and lead.
Our rebranding wasn’t only an exposition of marketing insight, an advertising function, or a communications piece. It was about elevating the primacy of equipping tertiary graduates with the necessary attributes to tackle the grand challenges of humanity, such as climate change, food security, technology displacement, and growing inequality. It was no longer just about getting a job.
A lot of people think universities transform students, but I believe the opposite is true. We are transformed by our students, our people, and the stories they bring with them. This is true of any good modern-thinking business. Transformation starts with people.
“Retaining Relevance in the Higher Education Sector” will be discussed at this year’s Adobe Symposium, May 23 to 24 in Sydney. (Click here to view the agenda and register.)