An Uber lesson for Australian university brands

An Uber lesson for Australian University brands

One of the defining features of the global village is the emergence of global super-brands.

Google, Facebook, Apple, Netflix: these brands are able to transcend national boundaries. Most owe their dominance to disruptive technology, and the speed at which they have achieved global growth was unimaginable up until recently. Yet now it seems commonplace.

Why does this matter for Australia’s much vaunted university brands? I’ve commented previously on the increasing focus on brand and marketing by Australian universities, and their ever-growing obsession with global rankings.

While these Australian bricks-and-mortar institutions enjoy enviable brand reputations locally, are they good enough to withstand disruption from a global education super-brand? The global taxi industry once thought it was bulletproof, protected as it was by licensing and regulation. A simple phone app changed all that virtually overnight.

We are seeing an explosion in streaming speeds, data compression, screen and multi-media integration, with huge implications for bricks and mortar education institutions. Today, the idea of online learning still seems clunky, impersonal, and yes, inferior to most of us. Any of us who have sat through insufferable video conferencing meetings would shudder at the idea of online group learning.

But breakthrough technologies are already here, just waiting to be put together in innovative ways that solve the problems inherent with online learning. Education providers across the globe are experimenting, developing and implementing new innovative communications technologies every day.

It is virtually inevitable that a massive breakthrough in online learning will appear any day now.

And when it does, suddenly Harvard, Oxford, MIT and Stanford could be offering full degrees online in Australia, with outstanding digital delivery and support. And offering them for less cost, as they don’t have bricks and mortar costs to support.

Where does that leave our ‘elite’ universities?

I bet you can guess top six universities in world ranking: they are the global super brands. According to the 2016 Time World University Rankings, Melbourne University is our highest ranked university, coming in at 33, followed by 5 more in the top 100.

That is pretty good for little Australia. But in global branding terms, where does 33 or below leave you? Can you name the world’s 33rd most famous airline? Or the 33rd most popular denim or cola brand? How about the 33rd ranked professional tennis player?

The truth is in branding if you are not number one (The Leader), number two (The Challenger) in some kind of market segmentation, you are another commodity. Melbourne Uni is happily number one in Melbourne for bricks and mortar universities. But does that make it safe from global disruption? Probably not. Just ask Quickflix about that one. Online degrees are also cheaper to deliver, so how does an internationally renowned Harvard degree for less than the local Melbourne option sound?

The truth is though it probably would not happen like this. History tells us that long time category leaders are rarely the disruptors. They are the ones who get disrupted. What is more common is a radical new entrant. A black swan with no regard for the status quo. How about an MBA from Branson or TED University? What if they had Elon Musk lecturing on entrepreneurialism, Adriana Huffington on media, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton on international relations, and Alan Greenspan on economics? You get the idea.

A young engineer, in the back rooms of Kodak, developed the original digital camera in the 1970’s. Kodak management, in the mistaken belief that they were in the paper and film business, not the picture business, shelved the project. This mistake ultimately killed their once-dominant brand.

People will always need education and qualifications. But will we always need physical access to universities to get them.

If there is a message in this for our University brands, it is the importance of articulating a clear brand vision and purpose: one that imagines relevance in a future where just being the best physical university in town won’t be enough.