Brand Personality in Higher Education: Anthropomorphized University Marketing Communications

This paper was in response to a call for exploratory research into the marketing communications of higher education institutions. The universities prospectuses were analysed through a brand personality lens. The initial research objectives and data collection and analysis was carried out by myself and Fiona Lettice, and John Nadeau was invited as a co-author to help interpret the findings.

Rutter, R. Lettice, F & Nadeau J (2016) Brand Personality in Higher Education: Anthropomorphized University Marketing Communications. Journal of Marketing for Higher Education. Download PDF

Introduction – When considering a differentiated marketing strategy, an organisation is encouraged to find and promote its USP (unique selling point). As universities fight to engage the interest of prospective students amid increasingly heavy competition, they are faced with the task of making their ‘product’ different while essentially offering the same degrees and courses as their competitors. This has led to universities employing a range of tactics to uniquely position themselves in order to attract students. While Higher Education Institution (HEI) league tables or campus location can be used by students to narrow their choices, they are increasingly likely to differentiate on brand, such as the brand personality projected by individual universities. This has led to increased use of brand management techniques borrowed from the corporate sector being used to differentiate institutions.


HEI brand characteristics – To determine what differentiation exists between the top ten universities in the United Kingdom, a process wherein distinct characteristics are ascribed to certain words was utilised, allowing frequency of reference to brand personality dimensions in HEIs’ texts to be analysed. The perception of an institution as having a personality or behavioural characteristics effectively anthropomorphises it, legitimising its description in terms usually reserved for people. Following the model proposed by Aaker, five core personality dimensions were considered: competence, excitement, ruggedness, sincerity and sophistication, allowing each university’s brand image to be expressed as one or a combination of these dimensions. Some examples of the words relating to each characteristic are shown in Table 1.

Brand Dimensions Synonyms
Competence outstanding, staunch, thorough
Excitement fresh, inventive, young
Ruggedness challenge, difficult, unrestrained
Sincerity compassion, decent, modest
Sophistication charismatic, graceful, magnificent

Table 1: Example of synonyms related to each brand personality dimension

Through measurement of the frequency of occurrence of the brand personality dimensions and a range of similarly assigned words (synonyms) within those pages of the HEIs’ prospectuses, the respective positions of each HEI were plotted diagrammatically, shown in the Figure 1 below.


Figure 1: the positions of the top 10 HEIs

Differentiating the HEIs – By their positions in relation to the axes, juxtapositions were observed between excitement and sophistication and between competence and ruggedness, meaning that for all ten universities excitement can be seen to diminish as sophistication increases and similarly competence overpowers ruggedness. Sincerity, however, is an underlying characteristic for the entire sample and, therefore, of no use as a tool to distinguish one from another. The HEIs fell into three categories defined by their most prominent brand personality dimension within the graph:

  1. Sophistication and Ruggedness: Imperial College London and Cambridge, while both possessing strong brand personalities, differed inasmuch as Imperial communicated a high level of sophistication, with a strong specialization in engineering enabling it to establish links with commerce, and Cambridge, in describing its courses in terms of being demanding or challenging, had many more markers for ruggedness.
  2. Competence and Excitement: Manchester, Warwick, York and University College London, were the four most closely identified as possessing competence, having all used similar ‘competence’ words, such as describing themselves as being ‘at the forefront’. To a lesser degree, these four were similar to both Oxford and Essex, although these were more strongly perceived as possessing an air of excitement, both having literally described themselves as ‘exciting’ in their promotional literature, as well as using a range of ‘excitement’ words.
  3. Sincerity: The London School of Economics (LSE) and Edinburgh held a more central, and therefore neutral, position and were very strongly associated with sincerity, a characteristic taking a secondary position in the brand personalities of the other eight universities, with Edinburgh describing their staff as ‘down-to-earth’ and LSE insisting the learning experience would prove ‘beneficial’. Both HEIs stressed the friendliness of their establishments.

Conclusions – The findings of this study have ramifications for future efforts to project brand personalities in the higher education sector, having demonstrated the effectiveness of word use and selection by HEIs as a powerful tool of differentiation. Between the message inherent in university-specific literature, emphasis of particular aspects of the curriculum and extra-curricular strengths and a clear understanding of how the features of the location appeal to the key demographic, any university can project a strong enough brand personality to constitute a unique selling point.