Brand vs Reputation Within The Higher Education Sector

Over the past few decades, league tables have become part and parcel of the education sector in the United Kingdom. Whether academics like it or not, this includes higher education institutions, which are increasingly driven by their performance in various university rankings. This focus on reputation, however, can marginalise the equally vital imperative to work on the university’s overall brand.

Distinguishing Between Brand And Reputation

The concept of ‘branding’ is now so endemic within society that it has come to mean many different things to those who use the term. When understood from a professional viewpoint, however, it has a very specific meaning. A successful brand is one that communicates a set of overriding values from the institution to the consumer or customer. One of those values may well be ‘continued excellence’, but they may equally include ‘links with the business community’, or ‘superb social scene’. A brand is a complicated and interconnected nexus of messages, and cannot be reduced simply to academic performance.

In contrast, reputation can be viewed in the context of a higher education institution as reflecting continued performance on the academic stage. Regardless of their branding – which are equally successful in their various ways – Oxford’s academic reputation is clearly greater than University of East Anglia’s, for example. In other words, a university’s brand is not necessarily the same as its reputation, and is certainly not synonymous with its academic reputation. A careful branding strategy will not rest simply on reputation, but will be sculpted to the institution’s own strengths and weaknesses.

Performance Is Important…

Of course, it cannot be denied that academic reputation, symbolised by an institution’s position in league tables and similar rankings, is important. Many universities will have dedicated at least part of their branding efforts into communicating a message about their areas of academic strength, and a poor showing over an extended period of time will certainly undermine that message. HEFCE themselves, however, acknowledge that league table position tends to confirm institutional reputation, rather than forging it from scratch (cf Locke, Verbik et al, 2008).

Performance in league tables and other such rankings will, therefore, be significantly more important for those institutions which have invested much of their brand effort into their academic strengths. This is not always about strong reputation across the board, however, as many institutions will have identified an academic USP into which they will pour most of their reputation enhancing efforts. An institution which promotes itself as a significant leader in the area of legal studies, for example, may not be as concerned by a low rating in the sciences as it would be by a poor ranking in law.

…But It Isn’t Everything

Many academic studies have confirmed the finding that successful branding performs a role which affects the popular view of an institution over and above league table positions (cf Chapleo, 2011, for an example). This should hardly be surprising, as no prospective student or academic chooses an institution solely using the criteria of academic performance. If this were so, Cambridge would boast all of the best academics and students in the UK, to the detriment of every other institution. Whilst it cannot be denied that Cambridge’s reputation has had a significant impact on its recruitment and retention, the branding efforts of other universities have succeeded in attracting some talent away from the institution which, on the face of it, should surely be the obvious first choice for anyone making an academically orientated decision.

A strong brand communicates far more than a simple league table position can when it comes to a university’s strengths and USP, and a strong branding strategy can compensate for significant weaknesses in academic rankings. Indeed, Locke et al (2008) have found that league table position is predominantly used to ‘confirm a decision already made’ when it comes to students deliberating over whether to attend a specific university.

Effective Branding Improves Performance

That ‘decision already made’ is informed and guided largely by the success or failure of an institution’s branding strategy. Whilst academic reputation may be one plank of that strategy, the most successful universities weave in a host of different values to form a strong and coherent brand which attracts both students and academics, as well as research funding and benefactors. As covered in previous articles, this can create a ‘virtuous circle’, in which a strong brand feeds into academic reputation. Performance can be improved by a strong branding effort, whilst strong performance cannot make up for a weak brand.

This is clearly evident if one imagines a high achieving student, choosing between universities. Whilst clearly academic reputation will be a factor, it will not be the only influence on the ultimate decision. Certainly, if the reputation of the two institutions is finely balanced, the student will be making the decision based on the branding of the two universities, and what that says about the kind of institution to which they wish to belong. The university which ‘wins’ this branding competition will secure an excellent student, whilst the university which loses will miss out on the best talent. This will have repercussions for decades to come, particularly if such a decision is repeated over multiple years by multiple students. Before long, the reputation of the ‘losing’ university will be dipping, and the reputation of the ‘winning’ university will be rising – and all because of an emphasis, or lack of it, on branding.

Further Reading

Chapleo, C. (2011). Exploring rationales for branding a university: Should we be seeking to measure branding in UK universities&quest. Journal of Brand Management, 18(6), 411-422.

Locke, W. (2011). The Institutionalization of Rankings: Managing Status Anxiety in an Increasingly Marketized Environment. University Rankings, 201-228.

Locke, W., Verbik, L., Richardson, J. T., & King, R. (2008). Counting what is measured or measuring what counts? League tables and their impact on higher education institutions in England.

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  • Hi Richie, interesting article as always. It’s good to see some thought being put into the differences between brand and reputation – two closely related topics that are often difficult to separate.

    I completely agree that a brand is an extremely complex ‘interconnected nexus of messages’ which cannot be reduced to the tangible performance of its products/services. I wonder, however, whether there might be some value in approaching the subject from a different perspective. You say, for instance, that ‘a successful brand is one that communicates a set of overriding values from the institution to the consumer or customer’, yet that implies that brands are always formed by a conscious set of decisions and strategies made by the institution. Is this always the case? Why assume that this is a one-way process of communication? There are plenty of examples of companies attempting to ‘re-brand’ themselves, only to meet with fervent opposition from consumers. The whole thing strikes me as something of a chicken and egg situation; do brands create reputation, or vice versa? Don’t strong reputations sometimes limit (or otherwise impact upon) the branding possibilities open to a particular company?

    I would also like to add to your final paragraph, in which you describe a prospective student’s choice of HE institution as either a question of brand OR reputation winning out. I think it’s a lot more complicated than that, and may actually have little to do with the strength of the brand at all. Factors that spring immediately to mind include geographical location (Is it near my hometown? Is it in an urban or rural area? What is the nightlife like nearby?), social influence (Do I know anyone else who is going, or has been there in the past?), finances (How much will fees or accommodation be? What is the cost of living like in that area?), or the features/opportunities of specific courses (Will it give me the chance to go abroad? Will I gain any practical/industrial experience?). Certain universities may attempt to incorporate some of these factors into their branding, but do they ever actually have control over them? With the exception of tuition and accommodation fees, I suspect not.

    Sorry for the long comment, but it’s a topic I find really interesting, so thanks again for the though-provoking article!

    • Hi Richard,

      Great comment once again! Don’t apologise, thankyou for spending the time to write it.

      The University of California recently “rebranded” themselves, or so they said. Rather, they simply created a new logo. While utilising their resources efficiently, they created a backlash of angry stakeholders that actively opposed the new logo. So what happened, firstly very few people saw and approved the logo prior to its release; secondly the logo was so drastically different (as opposed to incremental logo adjustments) some
      stakeholders said that it was unrecognisable, resembling more of a toilet seat.

      Ultimately one way brand management is a fundamental mistake. Consumers own brands, not companies and while brand communications can be formed and articulated in certain ways, stakeholder response obviously needs to be taken into account.

      However, I am not advocating that brands should be scared of
      being bold; too often creativity is suppressed due to the fear of failure. Most of all remarkable brands are those worth remarking upon. A two way process is absolutely crucial, particularly important to brand management refinements.

      In terms of “reputation limiting brand positioning” intuitively
      my response would be yes, although a quick glance at certain institutions marketing materials reveals this may not be the case. A different question would be whether brands attempting to position themselves beyond their reputation can sustain this position. Perhaps social media will play a role here?

      Your last point in regards to factors outside of the universities
      control is very interesting. Obviously a University can’t control every external entity which may also be used in conjunction to a prospective student’s decision. However previous research has suggested that Universities that build in a synergy with their surroundings perform better. This may be a glass half
      full scenario, perhaps brands should attempt to develop an affinity with their context, rather than try to change or control it. Not to say this is impossible, instead expensive. They simply don’t have the budget for it?

  • Odd, as I always thought of choosing a university to be a multi-tiered process.

    On the lower levels, or first criteria which must be passed, prospective students consider cost, curriculum, expertise within their given field of interest. If it ticks these boxes, then it can actually be ‘considered’. Otherwise, it’s not even in the game.

    This first level is where students care about academic quality. Will they be able to get a ‘good’ job after graduation? Will they have the opportunity to pursue graduate programmes? There’s very little difference amongst a large number of universities with similar scores. Virtually no one will care if there’s a slight lead here or there, as this won’t impact their lives in the real world (post university).

    As the selection process continues, prospective students start looking at those factors which connect with them emotionally. It’s here that they start thinking about location (for Americans, there’s a big difference between the University of Southern California and University of Michigan – namely sun, sea, surf, sand). They also look at the pressures of alma mater parent’s attended (the appeal to tradition). Some are drawn by bragging rights (the ego of best sports teams for example).

    In short, like sales appeals for everything from sports cars to sun glasses, the University which appeals to the base instincts, emotions and ego of the prospective students wins the game. Enter branding.

    Perhaps it’s oversimplified, or often incorrect, but from my perspective, the brand appeals are aimed squarely at that 2nd tier of decision making, long after the pre-qualification / brand reputation messaging on the lower level.

  • I guess you could say that reputation is the sum of the goodwill and experience of reality/promise built up from the past and that brand is the distillation of this with aspirational amendments to keep the goodwill current and future?

  • Hi Richie, nice article about brand and reputation. It would also be interesting to include a closer look at the European education system.

  • David

    Good article distinguishing between brands and reputation. You may find some useful information on on this too especially in relation to performance and university research output.

    I remember choosing my university though and don’t think the brand or reputation influenced me at all or even being aware of it.