University Branding Within The Higher Education Sector

Over the last few decades, the formerly cloistered environment of the university has been forced to adapt to a more commercialised world. With an increasing number of institutions competing for student and faculty talent, every potential advantage counts. This is particularly true as the effects of globalisation are felt in the academic sector, with UK universities no longer competing simply with one another, but with higher education institutions from across the world.

Given this context, it might appear obvious that effective, clear and coherent branding is vital for any university wishing to prosper in the modern world. The only way in which an academic institution can attract sufficient research funding to succeed in comparison to its competition, as well as persuading the best students and academics in the field to take advantage of that funding, is to build a reputation which differentiates it from other universities. Rather than relying on chance, those universities with an effective brand can be confident of continued recruitment and funding success.

Despite this, many academics are extremely resistant to the concept of branding. It is often viewed as seeking to reduce a complex institution, built on the interplay of many differing ideologies and viewpoints, into a few trite words. The ‘smoke and mirrors’ of branding, it is argued, cannot possibly encapsulate the multi-layered reality of any academic institution. For many academics, who are understandably not familiar with the theory of branding or its complexities, the concept is only applicable to soft drinks or trainers. An intellectual ‘product’, in their view, cannot be appropriately branded without reducing academic freedom and closing off avenues of thought.

Rejecting branding as a viable approach for the university sector, however, is actually to ignore the history of academic institutions in the Western world, and particularly within the United Kingdom. It is simply not correct to assert that, until recently, universities did not have to worry about branding themselves or appealing to prospective students and faculty members. It is true, of course, that historically there have been less players within the academic marketplace, but this certainly does not mean that competition was not fierce in previous decades. Differentiation of academic institutions has a long and proud history, and is precisely the method by which the primacy of today’s premier universities was established.

Perhaps the best example of branding within the university sector has been the University of Oxford. The name of the institution conjures up images of the dreaming spires, the Bodleian Library, and rowing on the Isis. The association of particular images and values with an institution is precisely what is meant by branding, and the achievement of Oxford over the centuries has been to integrate its name with ideals of academic excellence, independence of thought, and top quality research. Of course, this has not been done simply by adopting a ‘brand’ in the simplest sense of the term. Until recently, there has been no concerted effort to encapsulate the values which Oxford represents into a comprehensive strategy. Nonetheless, the university has long recognised that the best way in which it can promote itself and maintain primacy in the sector is to offer a particular experience, and to associate itself with particular ideals held by its students and academics.

Across the Atlantic, Harvard University has achieved a similar primacy through branding, although its strategy has been more conscious and more overt than Oxford’s. As with many American universities, the design of specific merchandise, the integration of logos into products and the promotion of particular values within all aspects of the university experience has transformed Harvard into a globally recognised brand. As with Oxford and other world renowned university brands, this has had the effect of forming a virtuous circle. The success of Harvard’s brand has allowed it to attract the best academics, students and research funding, which in turn has allowed it to reinforce its reputation for excellence and further promote its brand.

As can be seen, the process of designing and promoting a university’s brand is significantly more complex than that involved with a simple product. It cannot, and should not, simply involve a few focus group meetings which attempt to encapsulate the essence of the university in a pithy phrase. Instead, it needs to be a long-term project, which orientates itself to the wider strategy of the academic institution which it seeks to serve. An excellent recent example is that of Loughborough University. Its brand in the popular consciousness is now firmly established, with the institution being viewed as one of the best sports science universities in the world. The establishment of this brand, given a foundation by strategic decisions over a number of years, has allowed Loughborough to attract substantial funding for its work in this area. In a similar experience to that of Oxford and Harvard, it has created a virtuous circle, in which an established brand helps to increase the institution’s real excellence in an area of research.

It is that virtuous circle which explains the very real importance of an effective branding strategy for any higher education institution which intends to preserve academic freedom and independence of thought in the 21st century. Far from being a threat to high quality research and the traditions of university life, the construction of an effective brand can become a vital part of preserving those things. Universities which make no effort to market themselves will soon find the best students and staff going elsewhere, and will begin to see their funding being reduced as a result. A failure to adequately explain the work going on within an academic institution is not simply a betrayal of the purpose of the work, but also puts at risk its continued existence. Branding does not have to be a simplistic or reductive exercise, but it is absolutely necessary to any university that wishes to remain relevant in the globalised economy. Far from consisting of ‘smoke and mirrors’, effective branding seeks to present a coherent picture of academic research to the wider world.

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  • Ich kann hier nur zustimmen, der Ruf einer Universität wird zum einen, zunehmend bedeutsamer für die Wahl des Hochschulortes junger Studenten, zum anderen profitieren Absolventen von der guten Reputation der Hochschule. Als ein Beispiel für die erfolgreiche Etablierung von Universitäts-Marken in Deutschland kann die RWTH Aachen genannt werden.

  • Awesome stuff ! This is SO fascinating. In my own work I’ve come across so many educational providers not getting the whole concept of branding at all. Branding is an increasingly important factor given the way universities are funded in many countries across the world.

    • Hi Jon, thanks for the comment. It will also be interesting
      to see how the overall UK HE brand adapts to the changing international stage.

  • Great post! I bet it’s the best article on university branding. I wonder if we will see increased advertising of universities in the future.

  • hi Richie, good post.
    When i was being tutored on linguistics for our work at Verbal Identity, my tutor observed that as education had become commercialised, so the language had changed to reflect a consumer-service provider relationship. And this had led to a change in the way ‘users’ felt they could ask / demand for things that they wouldn’t previously have considered their right.
    ps and by coincidence, I read the verbal identity guidelines for the University of Reading today. “Brand” isn’t something that you create, it’s what people think of you; so even if you’re not involved in branding, you’re already a brand. The smarter universities are just making sure that they’re branding is coherent and unified.

    • Hi Chris, great comment and very relevant.

      Was the study you mentioned published work? The change to a more commercialised type of language, the student as a customer argument (so called “McUnviersities”), is something still quite contentious. It requires careful monitoring in terms of standards, to ensure that the UK HE brand remains strong.

  • Makes perfect sense really. What % of university faculty have a mastery of marketing fundamentals, much less practical experience in building an institutional persona?

    The more advanced an educator becomes, the deeper they dig into niche segments of their own field and the more myopic their view of the institution as a whole.

    Oddly enough, the tenured faculty at an institution probably have the least awareness of how John Q. Public perceives their university, while those fresh out of grad school are more acutely attuned (largely due to active social networking and engagement with those outside of their tiny niche).

    Good article – keep going!

    • Hi Rob, thanks for the comment and encouragement!

      You raise a really interesting point in terms of faculty experience of branding and marketing. It is a conversation that rears its head often and it seems even some business schools struggle to practise what they preach. It definitely requires further exploration.

      As mentioned in the reply to Dave, niche segments within the education sector can work well, especially between research specialisms and teaching. Take for instance the Climatic Research Unit at the School of Environmental Sciences (recognised as one of the world’s leading institutions of climate change) and the synergetic Strategic Carbon Management MBA the Norwich Business School created.

  • This is a brilliant, well-written article, and I agree that it makes a lot of sense. However, assuming the Harvards and Oxfords of the world are part of a virtuous circle which leads to greater brand strength, and the associated opportunities: how do less established institutions compete on brand? Considering there are significantly more ‘brands’ currently competing than in most markets, do you think eventually this will lead to only a few ‘super brands’?

    • Hi Dave, thanks for taking the time to post a comment. You raised an interesting point.

      In my opinion, the most prestigious brands are always going to be in the minority. Where newer institutions seem to be faring better, is when they adopt a niche segment to build upon, creating success in their own right.

      Chapleo recently suggested “If used appropriately, branding could build upon league table positioning by emphasising unique selling points but it may be argued that an institution that is comparatively lowly placed in the league tables can nevertheless have a successful brand with niche target audiences.”

      Chapleo, C. (2011). Branding a university: Adding real value or ‘smoke and mirrors’?. The marketisation of higher education and the student as consumer, 101-114.

  • Hi Richie, interesting article!

    I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on how publicity (as distinct from promotion) and popular culture more generally can play a role in contributing to/detracting from the brands that universities try to create.

    I’m thinking, for instance, of teen films that paint particular institutions (real or fictitious) as hotbeds of anarchic partying (Animal House; Road Trip; Van Wilder; Old School), sites of flawed genius (A Beautiful Mind; The Social Network) or snobbishness and conservative patriarchy (Mona Lisa Smile). What about negative press regarding particular aspects of a university’s culture, such as Oxford’s notorious Bullingdon Club? Do examples like this undermine the brands, or simply provide nuance? Or should they be considered separately? Is it actually possible to separate these (perhaps less positive) aspects of university culture from the more desirable values that would be sought after by a brand strategy team?

    • Hi Rich,

      Thanks for taking the time to post, hope all is well.

      Contribution vs. Detraction – is very relevant within television and films for many universities, popular US television programmes passing comment. For example, quite often the Simpsons passing negative comment upon certain institutions, while Fringe strongly incorporating Harvard as the ‘best’ university. It is debatable whether negative comments passed in jest would impact upon institutional branding. However in the case of Fringe, positive associations can be synergistic. For a new television programme, it provided relatively strong associations of intelligence, whilst as it developed and built an audience, it played into the Harvard brand.

      Films which Categorise Institutions – as you mentioned, hotbeds of anarchic partying etc are also interesting. In my opinion this is related more to university category personality, in this case taking the form of a university grouping. Within the branding literature brand personality, is the differential extension of category personality. This could mean the Russel Group of Institutions are highly associated with genius, regardless of their individual brand. This is contrasted with Post 1992 grouped universities, having a less well established category personality, thus being more independently branded? Potentially giving more freedom to diversify, but with decreased safety buffers in the instance of branding blunders.

      Negative Press – concerning institutions, depends upon whether it is consistent with expectations, also the individual (within brand variance). So it would depend upon the perceived deviation from expectation, along with the strength of the brand. In terms of the ‘Bullingdon Club ‘, it more or less plays into the image of superiority. Perhaps this is all part of carving a niche in the market. To conflate the issue, perhaps if another less well known university had a similar club, would it even be regarded as newsworthy?

      Brand Consistency – again is relevant to to brand strength. For weaker, less well known institutions, national negative publicity could potentially be more damaging. Conversely, stronger brands would be more likely to smooth out blips in an otherwise consistent well-known brand.

      Lastly, Jon Buscall (a commenter below) attended the UEA and subsequently wrote a fictitious book based upon some of his experiences. Perhaps if you were to get funding to turn it into a film, it could be the next big hit, positively contributing the already strong brand of the UEA!

      • Good point re. the Bullingdon Club – I think you’re right that, even though for many people the existence of the club is an extremely negative association, it still in some way reinforces Oxford’s brand values of superiority.

        I also completely agree about stronger brands being far more resistant to criticism or “blips”. The reverse would also be true – that weaker brands, or those with damaged reputations, will often struggle to improve their stance because positive stories will often be ignored or reframed to fit in with their narrative of failure.

        I do think, however, that drawing lines between category personalities and brand personalities is at best an arbitrary distinction, and at worst harmful to our ability to really understand brands. I completely see why scholarship usually focuses on brands as individual entities/texts: It makes sense from a strategic/practitioners’ point of view, and it helps provide a very necessary focus for market research or academic analyses. However, I also think that, by ignoring or separating out issues of categorisation, context and reputation, we’re dismissing a huge number of factors that contribute to how consumers interact with (or form opinions about) brands. To put it simply, brands do not and cannot exist in a vacuum, and I would like to see more acknowledgement of this within brand research.

        • Yes, to say that category and personality are dichotomous would be wrong, most literature refers to the two being inextricably linked, hence representing the differential extension of brands in the same category. Again this could be said for reputation, consistency of performance and brand metaphors which can provide the differential extension between organisations of equal reputation.

          Good point for brand perceptions, within brand variance is something which is considered, but usually generalised to an overall predominant brand (a big criticism of Aakers brand personality). As we discussed before, a brand could potentially have hundreds of perceived personalities. In terms of how brands communicate themselves, perhaps the key remains consistency of communication with a deviation from expectation confusing individuals?

          ABDUL, Y., OPPEWAL, H. & JEVONS, C. 2009. Do You See What I See? The Acceptance of Brand Personality by Individualist and Collectivist Cultures.