Colleges across the country are going through huge programmes of rebuilding as capital funding is poured into FE. The LSC’s prospectus for its capital building programme (2007) puts the current year’s budget at £500m, with a further £600m being made available up to 2011. Over the last year I’ve been to brand new multimillion pound college buildings in towns and cities across the north of England – the face of FE is really changing from the down-at-heel, “technical college” buildings many of us started our working lives in.

Colleges across the country are going through huge programmes of rebuilding as capital funding is poured into FE. The LSC’s prospectus for its capital building programme (2007) puts the current year’s budget at £500m, with a further £600m being made available up to 2011. Over the last year I’ve been to brand new multimillion pound college buildings in towns and cities across the north of England – the face of FE is really changing from the down-at-heel, “technical college” buildings many of us started our working lives in.

New buildings are a wonderful marketing opportunity in themselves, but they often inspire other changes too – a college rebrand being the most common. For college marketing managers, the combined changes of new build and rebrand probably represent the biggest challenges they’ll ever have to face – and a very public challenge too. I’ve been looking at the experiences of a few colleagues to try and draw out some common themes and tips on how to cope.

Where do you start?

The first thing to consider, I believe, is where you fit in the planning and management scheme. If you are going to take a key role in one of the most important events in a college’s history – a new build or major refurbishment and associated rebrand – you need to be in at the top with the management team leading on the development. You need to know everything that’s going on so that you can plan the communications strategies needed throughout, so make sure you’re involved – if you have to, make your case and lobby the right people…

Then there’s the analysis of why you are rebranding and what you want to achieve. You don’t have to rebrand just because you’ve got a new campus and new buildings: if your college has a good reputation and good brand recognition locally already, it might be more of a challenge to maintain that reputation and positive response as you move into new premises which will be unfamiliar to your customers. You might decide to keep the established brand and work out a communications strategy around the “new buildings, same college/ same quality” message.

Who’s involved?

After all, a new campus/new building still means you have to deal with stakeholders including:

Ø Your old neighbours who have probably moaned about carparking, noise, and nuisance for years, but will also object to whatever new use the site is to be put to;


Ø Your new neighbours who will probably be objecting to the relocation of the college and the expected noise, carparking and nuisance;


Ø Your students who will need to get used to new travel routes, new buildings and a different atmosphere;


Ø Future students who may worry about whether the college will be finished on time for their course to start – and their parents;


Ø The local press and media who may have their own agendas;


Ø Local councillors, MPs and others who will also have their own views and a platform in the local media;


Ø College staff who may be resistant to the changes;


Ø The wider local community, local businesses, your suppliers – and so on.


For all of them you need a communications plan that addresses their concerns, a timeline for making it all happen, regular reviews and research to make sure you’re being effective, and crisis management plans in case anything goes wrong at any point.

Going for broke

So rebranding as well could be seen as asking for trouble! Or alternatively, if you’ve got so much to change, why not go for broke and take the opportunity? It’s really a matter of why and what you hope to achieve.

What have you got to lose – or gain?

As I said earlier – would you lose more in terms of recognition and reputation than you hope you’ll achieve? When South East Essex College went through its rebuild/rebrand a few years ago, the college had to combat a widespread belief that it was closing – because it had been on the same site for so long and local people were so familiar with it. A communications campaign had to be put in place to say “same college, same staff, same quality, but on a new site – we aren’t closing!”

Equally, there could be good reasons for a rebrand – the college might be changing its focus towards business, or 14-19, and wants to have a new image that reflects the new focus. A merger might mean that a new combined brand is required for a new start under a new name. Very early on, you need to decide what you want to take with you of the old brand, and what you want to let go. Darlington College achieved this by producing two DVDs as part of their communications strategy: one in nostalgic mode, including lots of black and white photos of the college throughout its history, focusing on past achievements, and one on the future that was planned. This included computer generated images of what the new building would look like together with the message that the new resources would take the college on to achieve even grater successes for local people.

Analysing your brand

So, what does your current brand represent? – have you done any research or an audit on it to find out what people really think of the college? This is essential as a starting point. Then you can research views of the new building – using models, DVD realisations, drawings and plans. Put up displays where your students and the local community can see them and comment on them, have consultation events with all your stakeholders and assess their views. This could mean lots of meetings with governors, community groups, local schools and more, but if you plan for them and approach them positively, it’s time well spent.

Working the oracle

Choose a designer or design team that you feel really comfortable working with: you’re going to be working with them for a long time and you’ve got to have a good relationship where you can be truthful and open on both sides. If you are working with a committee on the rebrand, it’ll be tough getting everyone to agree on anything, so you’ll have to work out your own strategy for how you deal with the individuals and get them on your side – or at least a majority of them! Get your design team to work on ideas with you first, based on your research and consultations – but don’t let anyone else see them until you’ve got some that you’re happy with, and preferably an option that you think is the right one. Then you’ve got the really hard job – selling it to all those stakeholders!

If at all possible, steer away from any suggestions like “let the students choose”: after all, why are professionals (yourself and your designers) employed if the college decides to ignore your professional expertise? In all your consultations, make it clear that you are asking for opinions on the range of designs, but that the final decision will be made by the college based on criteria like usability, appropriateness and the outcomes of your research. Public votes shouldn’t be the final arbiter, so in your consultations, you need all your negotiating and persuading skills to steer people towards your preferred choice so that everyone feels they’ve had a positive part in the decision-making.

Communications planning is essential, throughout the new build to keep people warm throughout what is inevitably a messy process, and to introduce the new image. Keep up a steady stream of media contacts, offer site visits as soon as you can, counter any bad publicity quickly. Plan for your opening, with lots of opportunities for local people to come to open days just to look around as well as to enrol – don’t wait for a high profile official launch. Have press days, offer guided tours to your key stakeholders, and make sure your guides are fully briefed with all the facts, backed up by a press pack that tells the background story.

And finally…

In short – planning is all. Start in good time, plan everything and review your plans regularly. Have crisis plans for when things go wrong, and plans to celebrate when its all complete. Consult but try to keep the responsibility for final decisions – and communicate: keep everyone informed and involved so that when they walk into your new building and see your new logo, it already feels like theirs. You’ll be exhausted, but you’ll have achieved your goals!

Rachel Smith, Development Officer, The College Marketing Network

The College Marketing Network is a support organisation for staff working in marketing in FE, specialist and sixth form colleges. Find out more at

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