For more information about Royal Holloway, please see this promotional video. To see a promotional video for the MA Consumption, Markets & Culture see here. To see a promotional video for the Royal Holloway School of Management, click here.

For more information about the Royal Holloway MA Marketing and MA Consumption, Culture & Marketing and the application process see here.

To get an understanding of the unique values that underly the MA Marketing and MA Consumption, Culture & Marketing programme please read these blog posts: Value of Scholarly Values, Importance of Reading and Morris Holbrook and Business Interest in Education.

Friday, 31 August 2012

Where Public meets Private: the Question of Branding Universities

Universities, we are told, are now brands and strategic brand management is generally understood as the subject which trains people to manage brands. However it seems to me that there is a deeper question that needs to be asked before proceeding to the question of how to manage the university brand. It is a hermeneutical question that concerns why, at this time, does the question of branding emerge and amidst which broader issues should we understand the phenomenon? To be sure, there is a recent history of public and semi-state organisations thinking of themselves as brands and doing so as part of a wider reconfiguration of public institutions relating to corporate behaviour, privitisation and neo-liberalism. According to this line of analysis, to accept the organisation as a brand is already to have accepted the notion that we are a business, that we are service providers, that we produce experiences for our customers and that our students are those customers. Is it within this scope that we discuss our university and our work within a university, as faculty and students alike, as bounded by the logic of the brand and a logic of privitisation? Is there a connection between this discussion and the imperatives found in the government's recent Browne Report? Is re-branding something that should be resisted? Is there an argument to be made that says we should stop thinking in terms of brands and re-commit ourselves to a public conception of the university? Is such a viewpoint inherently anachronistic?

Rather than a logic of differentiation, public bodies often
 develop brands that look extremely similar to other brands.

This is all to say that there is a politics of branding or, if you prefer, a post-politics in which all forms of activity are unquestionably and unreflexively altered to match a corporate agenda. Is there an inevitability for universities to think of themselves as a brand, and does this converge with other supposed inevitabilities: that there should be individualised student tuition fees, that research should have corporate value, and so on? Meanwhile, the Vice Principle at Royal Holloway, Rosemary Deem, has been telling us through her research on the subject that there has been a global trend towards what she terms ‘leaderism’; this generally refers to the corporate strategies that universities pursue, which more often than not are fundamentally incoherent and not subject to critique. Again should we resist branding ourselves?

An excellent book that charts the history of public and semi-state organisations reconfigurating themselves as brands is The Rise of Brands by Liz Moor. Moor looks at organisations who fundamentally are not corporations, but nevertheless accept a corporate style of management as part of a neo-liberal process, a strategy of branding deployed as a technology or as a means for both management and government to facilitate this. This often entails a form of governmentality – meaning that all functions in the organisation now have to justify themselves according to a new means of disciplining, that all acts have to cohere around the principle of the organisation as a coherent brand and that this principle is already front-loaded with assumptions about working in a competitive environment, about clients and customers and so on. Hence we have city councils, hospitals, and universities re-defining themselves as brands. It is interesting to note that, rather than allowing organisations to distinguish each other from their competitors, so called ‘brands’ actually end up looking just like each other. In other words, public institutions undergoing privitisation internalise a need to demonstrate that they can achieve a certain level of 'professionalism' and 'best practice' and one technology for achieving this is to cohere the organisation around a brand identity immediately recognisable as adhering to conventional standards of sector professionalism. From a marketing perspective such a tendency towards uniform representations and homogeneous organisation offends against the subject's commitment to innovation and differentiation and therefore, arguably the process of branding that we witness departs from marketing logic, in fact is best understood as an instance of anti-marketing. And as demonstrated across various semi-state and public sectors, the logic of ‘leaderism’ often coincides with the appointment of chief-executive officer type leaders who command enormous salaries and who are concerned with maintaining these brand values, irrespective of how incoherent they may be.

More branding groupthink

Again, to my mind the critical issue is the relationship between brand logic and the sort of neo-liberal logic encapsulated in government policy and beyond. Do such forms of branding serve a neo-liberal agenda? If it does, we might ask is this something that we should oppose in defence of a more public minded ethos of the university, or should we embrace it either as a coping strategy in unfriendly times during which we should think of our own survival, or indeed should this be something that we should embrace as it arrives with all sorts of new opportunities, a golden moment for universities to assert their autonomy?

Up to now, I have been speaking about branding in negative terms. But it seems to me that there are also all sorts of positive opportunities that can be grasped from such discussions.

If we think of the brand as the values and meanings that are produced in the organisation and created with customers, that in the service sector market meanings and systems are co-produced with, rather than for, customers, then as lecturers we might ask what sort of university are we co-producing with our students? If so, can we insist on having a critical research identity when this contradicts the reality that we see produced in the class room? Namely, a dichotomy that emerges based on conflicting expectations of what purpose a university serves: a common sense grounded vocational approach to business problem-solving or a critical-analytic approach that asks why such problems arises in the first place.

A brand is a way of thinking about an overall organisation, and is therefore much greater than any logo or headed paper or set of staff webpages. If there is agreement that there should be a brand, then for me the critical questions become: what sort of organisation are we, what sort of organisation do we want to be, who gets to constitute and then address this 'we' that is being operationalised, what are the common spaces through which consensus can emerge and critical reflexivity be expressed and respected, does the requirement for a mutual identification with brand values offend against the very spirit of heterogeneity necessary for the intellectual survival of the university during hostile times, and can we represent and communicate values in a way that is distinctive, truthful, and attractive to prospective students and colleagues, and that can help us maintain a commitment towards developing intellect?

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

The London 2012 Olympics: Blustering Jingoism?

80's pop star Morrissey has earned national media coverage this week for his view that the London 2012 Olympics media coverage reminds him in it's tone of the nationalistic propaganda of 1930's Nazi Germany

England, he says, is "foul with patriotism". Morrissey, also a vitriolic anti-royalist, is well-known to be a professional curmudgeon. His talent for contrariness keeps him in the public eye, and a lot of people still buy tickets to hear him recycle his old hits. Nonetheless, he is probably expressing views that are held by many others, but can gain no traction amidst the waves of Olympic self-congratulation currently swamping UK media.

On this point, Morrissey and I diverge. Born in the same year as me, the lachrymose lyricist's lilting laments have never been far from my ear. His unique brand of misery is wrist-slashingly compelling, although frankly if he'd never met ace guitarist Johnny Marr I doubt that Morrissey's moans would have reached much of an audience beyond his bedroom.

I am biased, I admit. A sports nut all my life, I love it, and the media coverage now is an armchair sport's fan's dream. In my childhood sports media coverage was truly rubbish, with the exception of the rugby internationals and Bill McLaren's great commentaries. I had a few hours on a Saturday afternoon to listen to TV announcer Frank Bough (born in my home town, Frank knew how to party) as he read out football scores from a mechanical typewriter. Yes, this was TV before Sky Sports. Then I had to wait 24 hours for print newspapers to be delivered to our house find out what had actually happened.

Today, I'm in HD, 24/7, real time, wifi, armchair sportsfan heaven. The main tone I get from the peerless media coverage of the Olympics is not so much jingoism as bemused astonishment. We all really thought we were going to mess it up. Not only is everything going rather well on the organisational side, we're actually winning some medals too. This is the most GB has had to celebrate since England won the world cup in 1966. Why not have fun with it? To be sure, the Olympics is a platform for nationalistic ideology, and some of the competitors are pretty ruthless, even cheats. But it's a vehicle for other ideologies too, not least race and gender equality, friendship and meritocracy.

The GB team is a refreshing mix of ethnicities, colours and classes. I don't buy into claims that it is 'elitist', and I'm not sure what that means. One of GB's most eminent medal winners, Bradley Wiggins, grew up in a council flat in London after his dad left when Bradley was two years old. The GB team were not cherry-picked for stardom when they were 6. That just isn't how it works. They're dedicated club athletes who put more into the sport than they take out of it. Most are not wealthy by any means. To be sure, some sports have a disproportionate representation from elite fee-charging schools, notably rowing. But the sport itself isn't exclusive. People's choices are framed by their environment. If you went to an inner city comprehensive rowing isn't the first thing on your sports & social agenda. Without doubt, the UK's investment in its school sports infrastructure needs to be much better. But cultural and class norms are more powerful than social or economic exclusivity in making sports participation uneven in the UK.

Meanwhile, I'm enoying it all in spite of Morrissey. Go TeamGB.

There's more from me on this here....      

Monday, 6 August 2012

Un-branded – the London 2012 Olympic Park experience

The main London 2012 Stratford site, a vast reclaimed tract of east London, greets the visitor with bright, energetic colours that includes vibrant recycled rubberised flooring, nearly fluorescent signage and the gaudy juxtaposition clashing colours, all strikingly fresh.  The river bank planting accentuates bright and strong use of colour, with prairie planting of yellows and blues, of bright peach red hot pokers set against striking purple blue agapanthus globes.  The bright red of the roller coaster like feature building, the imposing relief Olympic circles on the aquatics centre, its roofline inspired by the underbelly of a whale.  

Acres of bill board space was either foregone or instead covered with one of the vibrant rainbow range of colours (with bright pink a signature colour, used prominently in signage) and the 2012 Headline font, described as distinct and quickly recognisable. (Observer, 2012) This feeling of unclutteredness contributed to a strong sense of place, neither city nor country, supported by happy, smiling and fun giving uniformed volunteers. 

Even the BBC broadcasting centre in the park, which provided in-the-thick-of-it backdrops for smiling medallist interviews and sliver fox anchor feel-good interviews, was surprisingly anonymous.  Constructed, Lego like, using blue shipping containers with glazed voids and a roof terrace, highlighting strong re-cycling credentials.  Missing also were the blitz branded interview back boards, made popular by football post match interviews, perhaps forcing the unusual re-introduction of the hand held lolly pop microphone prominently sporting the BBC brand alongside the Olympic rings, all in yellow and the use of the plain yet colourful Olympic venue as the backdrop. 

It was all a bit like wandering around Moscow, just after the communist experiment had been shown to fail, subtle signage, here and there, just enough to help guide you around at the points of ambiguity, but else, nothing.  A blank canvass, nearly. 

Generic labels adorned the various merchandising stands ‘speciality coffee’ where surely Costa, Nero or the ubiquitous green mermaid would be expected ?  There were Innocent branded wheeled carts (Coca Cola owned), but the roving young people wearing back packs emblazoned with the word ‘BEER’ took to holding up a specimen bottle, often Heineken, seemingly required to overcome the lack of information that is usually and usefully conveyed by a logo, symbol or brand name.  A feeling not unlike BBC Childrens TV, sticky tape not Selotape or Scotch, glue stick not Pritstick, double sided sticky tape not Blutack.  Brand identities expunged either taped or painted over. 

Clear and evident: a conscious rejection of one of the generally useful roles brands play.  For me, it created a rather unnatural world, a TV studio or film set that deliberately removes cultural advertising references to transform the audience to a different place. 

The impact of the heavily controlled and minutely planned execution of this leading global event, which saw 10bn viewers for its opening ceremony and a third of the UK population tuned in to see Usain Bolt win the 100m dash, may well go on to help define an Olympic experience supported, but not dominated, by advertising sponsorship.  

Justin O'Brien, MBA Director and Teaching Fellow at Royal Holloway, University of London.

Looking for something marketing-related to read on holiday?

If you are thinking about reading something marketing related during your Summer holiday but want to avoid dense theory or anything too managerial then I recommend Stephen Brown's trilogy of novels in which he parodies Dan Brown. So the series begins with the Da Vinci Code re-written as The Marketing Code, Angels & Demons becomes Agents & Dealers and finally The Lost Symbol becomes The Lost Logo. Last year Stephen Brown addressed the Royal Holloway Marketing Camp with a spectacular and glorious pyrotechnic talk entitled "Sex with Philip Kotler". Here is a review that I wrote for the second installment, Agents & Dealers.

Stephen Brown is leading a revolution in marketing writing. Following from the so-called crisis of representation which saw marketing knowledge presented in the form of poetry, films, dance and music, Brown suggests that the remaining logical step is to present ideas about marketing and consumer behaviour in a truly novel form; the novel itself. Not only will this novelisation of knowledge lead marketing scholars away from an erstwhile destiny of producing unreadable journal articles, but it is also submitted as a welcome alternative to boring textbooks that fail to capture our students' imagination and also, as it is noted that business people tend to buy both business books and murder best sellers when at airport bookshops, an attempt to reduce the volume of hand luggage in business class by synthesising fast-paced thrillers with marketing scholarship. If marketing is a world alive with adventure and not a dull white-coated science, the challenge that Brown sets for himself in Agents & Dealers is to replace the bullet-points with bullets. What follows is part two of his soon-to-be-completed trilogy, all written as parodies of the works of one of the great marketing successes of our age, Dan Brown. Just as the Marketing Code was a parody of the Da Vinci Code, this time round its prequel Angels & Demons is re-worked as Agents & Dealers.

Those familiar with Agents & Dealers' sequel the Marketing Code which raised issues of marketing theory in the form of bizarre Dan Brown rituals and conspiracies, will be pleased to read the return of the larger-than-life uber-Scot Professor Pitcairn Brodie and his anti- man-of-action hero PhD student, Simon Magill not to mention the Jewish-Protestant freedom-fighting cynical profiteer that is King Billy. However, added to Brown's burgeoning cast are the unlikely femme fatale, Abby Maguire, whose life as a retail undergrad on work-placement is hurled towards the dangerous underworld along with her accomplice, the lead singer of the Goth band Love Pump cum high-camp marketing lecturer from the University of Hustler, Dr. Dave "the Rave" Kelley. Together these characters, sparkling with sexual tension, are forced to match their wit against double-agents and double-dealers amidst the distinctly Irish Priory of Ryan and WB Yeats lead conspiracy. We find the protagonists wrestling with the Citroen transformer robot in the streets of Nuremberg, scamming through Edinburgh, caught in a shoot-out in a Belfast monastery, horse-whispering in the Irish midlands of Mullingar and just about finding salvation through sex-toys in an adult shop in Carrickfergus.

For keen Stephen Brown readers, this is the book where the master of marketing slogans achieves what must surely be his apotheosis as he finally and inevitably unleashes his idiosyncratic imagination on naming sex products and promotions ("buy-one-nipple-clamp-get-one-free" and an "auto-erotic extravaganza in no-partner November"). To be sure, this is the book which takes a turn towards the ribald. Beyond references to Rudolph-the-Red-Nosed-Rabbit we also find a rape scene, paedophilia and castration. No doubt about it, this is a textbook with edge.

There is also a great depth to the research for this novel. Hitler's (dubious) Irish connections are mined to create a Nazi conspiracy that threads together Otto Skorzeny with Eamon De Valera and WB Yeats. The attention to detail and commitment to authenticity are nothing short of extraordinary and Stephen Brown actually pens a trio of fake yet carefully-crafted Yeatsian three stanza ballads which, it transpires, are actually a code connected to the streets of Edinburgh. Now that is impressive and that same level of ingenuity (for how else can it be described?) flows through the imaginatively wonderful conspiracy plot throughout these pages. And just like he did in the Marketing Code, Brown succeeds in matching Dan Brown's own propensity for page-turners.

Agents & Dealers smuggles nuggets of marketing theory throughout the pages. Brown's well-versed argument that marketing is not a science but a wonderland of enchantment in which marketers are alchemists and even crazed fanatics is, once again, laid to bare. But as a master code craftsman, the references to marketing are so embedded in the attention consuming narrative that they can be easy to miss. For example, Brown reveals whilst recently writing for the Irish Marketing Review that the discussion between two characters as they decide where they shoplift, is actually a meditation on the problematic process of market classification. This may well result in a sense of less of a takeaway for marketing theory than is found in the Marketing Code but this is surely forgivable given the quality of conspiracy that is conjured.

At a time when critical perspectives seeks to deliver the imaginative and creative away from conventional marketing, Brown is intent on seducing us all back by reminding us that conventional marketing is anything but conventional but is a rich and fertile field for the creative to farm. Agents & Dealers, as part two of Stephen Brown trilogy, would take our imaginative and creative curiosity for understanding marketing to untold places. It is a journey worth taking.