If there is one word we hear a lot among the academic and innovation community here in the UK and Europe, it’s impact. As Founder and Creative Partner at Firehaus, the specialist brand consultancy working with innovative, socially responsible organizations, I see firsthand the increased demand to demonstrate practical, real-world impacts.
From advances in medical science like the recent AstraZeneca/Oxford University collaboration on the Covid vaccine, where around 17 million people were vaccinated in the UK and EU within five months of approval, to the Forest of Imagination partnership with Bath Spa University’s Centre for Cultural and Creative Industries, which used creativity to transform urban spaces, research is driving innovation and often commercial enterprise, too.
Impact goes beyond the familiar measurement of demonstrating graduate progression to application. It’s about how cutting-edge research is unlocked to release its full potential and make positive contributions to global challenges.
The UKRI Research Excellence Framework (REF) is widely recognized and adopted by many universities. Here, impact is articulated as “an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia.” It’s a great place to start, if you haven’t yet.
In addition, the United Nations has identified 17 areas in their Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and these are used in the Times Higher Education Rankings to evaluate university performance.
There are opposing viewpoints on universities being hives of educational and personal development, or as engines of commercial enterprise. However, there is value to be gained from adopting commercial approaches. One such example is in viewing organizational and cultural foundations who supercharge research into practical innovation and enterprise as spinouts or corporate partnerships.
Not all research will lead to commercial propositions of course. Some will influence policy, for instance. But how much could become commercialized and what opportunities are currently being missed?
Impact Identity: the role brand building can play
Creating or reigniting university brands or creating a parallel brand specifically to support collaborative ventures can catalyze these opportunities. We call it an Impact Identity. It can harness a sense of purpose, shared mission, and energy. It can lead to greater entrepreneurialism, new sources of funding, new corporate partnerships, and new IP income. In some cases, it can improve reputation or bring about fame.
A cohesive Impact Identity (brand) will increase the likelihood of maintaining a culture of innovation. In my experience, I’ve seen it also intensify the clarity and focus of the purpose, the mission and its vision. I’ve watched it inspire emotional engagement, and invigorate internal stakeholders.
This is as much about a change of mindset as it is about a change of processes. It is why reviewing and reigniting your existing university brand is an option. By revisiting those
foundations, you can see what is still a fit for the future and use it as a vehicle to change mindsets. Here are five provocations that can help you create or reignite your Impact Identity.
Define who you are
Before we get to what your entity does, ask yourself why it exists. Your answer should not be increasing access to funding. That is a by-product of doing something more important that will create value by positively impacting the world.
What do you care about?
It is likely your organization has already adopted a set of values to foster a culture of collaboration, personal and team growth. If these are not fit for the brand you are developing, use a cross-disciplinary team to identify authentic and action-oriented values. Shared values that are actively adopted are demonstrated by the team over time and will reinforce the brand culture and ultimately attract new members to the organization and corporate partners to the table.
What is your story?
Creating an idea that captures the essence of your Purpose, Mission, and Vision is an integral part of the process. Think of it as a story. Ultimately this will drive your communications internally and externally, and create engagement.
Universities are awash with multiple initiatives, acronyms, and departments, and much of their energy is spent around organizing and rationalizing this complex setup. It’s important not to get lost in the details.
A common theme with many organizations is they spend too much time working through the minutiae—gravitating towards the detail to use it to prove efficacy. Finding the most interesting way to tell a powerful story will be more fruitful.
Driving consistent behavior across your team is critical to success. It should influence the ethics of your identity, recruitment and training.
Think about any negative experiences you’ve had with brands. Perhaps you were attracted to their message. Their advertising captured your imagination. Their website and its content said the right things. However, when you engaged with them in person (or online) you felt let down because their behavior did not match the messaging the brand projected.
Therefore, make sure that your brand messaging and employee behavior remains consistent all the way down to those who will be interfacing with potential customers, consumers, and clients.
In my experience, the tendency to delve into details and miss the bigger picture affects whether a brand is successfully launched or redefined.
The important thing is to start.. Your purpose, mission, vision and values are your touchstones, along with a set of trusted relationships in a group of stakeholders.
Armed with all that, you’ve got to get out and tell your story. See what works and what doesn’t, what feels comfortable and what jars. Express what you stand for and what you are against and see who it attracts and who it doesn’t.
You will never please everyone nor should you. After all, that’s what Impact Identity is all about—knowing your specific messaging for your specific audience. If you can achieve that, you’re on the path to success.