Utilizing the brand ecosystem
framework in designing branding
strategies for higher education
Musa Pinar and Paul Trapp
College of Business Administration, Valparaiso University,
Valparaiso, Indiana, USA
Division of Business & Engineering, Penn State Altoona, Altoona,
Pennsylvania, USA, and
Thomas E. Boyt
College of Business Administration, Valparaiso University,
Valparaiso, Indiana, USA
Purpose – In today’s complex and highly competitive marketplace, universities and colleges,
realizing a need to develop sustainable strategies, have turned to branding as a solution. However,
because of their unique service characteristics, universities’ branding attempts may not always result
in success. The aim of this paper is to present a brand ecosystem framework in order to develop
branding strategies for colleges and universities.
Design/methodology/approach – The key elements of the framework include: student experiences
as the driving force of the university branding strategies, academic services as the core value creation
activities in delivering student learning experiences that are co-created with students and faculty, and
supporting activities that are important in creating the core value.
Findings – The framework suggests that both core and supporting value-creating activities are
dynamically inter-related and work jointly in creating student learning experiences, and ultimately, a
strong university brand.
Originality/value – The paper presents the crucial elements and the relationships among them for
building successful brands in higher education.
Keywords University branding, Brand ecosystem, Branding, Student experience,
Sustainable development, Higher education, United States of America, Brand awareness
Paper type Research paper
In today’s global marketplace, the role of brand management has been elevated to a
new level of importance. In fact, the most distinctive skill of marketers is their ability to
build and manage brands (Kotler and Armstrong, 2010). This is because brands as
powerful assets represent the essence of a company, outlasting the company’s speciﬁc
products and facilities; thus, they must be carefully developed and managed. Because
brands represent consumers’ perceptions and feelings about a product and its
performance (Kotler and Keller, 2006), the real value of a strong brand is its ability to
capture customer preference and loyalty. As one of a company’s most valuable
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at
Received August 2010
Revised October 2010
Accepted November 2010
International Journal of Educational
Vol. 25 No. 7, 2011
q Emerald Group Publishing Limited
intangible assets, a brand functions as a powerful differentiator for the business and as
a decision-making tool for customers (Aaker, 1991, 1996; Keller, 1993, 2008). At their
best, brands represent promises kept, and build loyalty through trust, which in turn
results in continued demand and proﬁtability (Reichheld, 2001, 2006). Thus, branding
is an integral part of marketing strategy; it is the creation of a corporate identity and
reputation. Because branding efforts are not limited to “consumer” products, ﬁrms in
various service industries have been trying to utilize branding strategies to build
stronger brands. In this regard, higher education and universities have also begun to
realize the need to develop sustainable brand strategies. Therefore, branding has
become a strategic issue and focus for universities and other post-compulsory
educational institutions in order to develop meaningfully differentiated brands to
communicate their strengths (Jevons, 2006).
Recently, the economic environment has had a major negative impact on the ﬁnancial
situation of most higher education institutions. More enduring is that vast numbers of
universities and colleges (i.e. brands) in the marketplace often compete for the same
students. Moreover, the relatively simple promotional tools of the past no longer work as
they once did. As today’s prospective students are fully immersed in a variety of digital
worlds, institutions of higher education sometimes struggle to understand and embrace
their needs. It is in this context that colleges and universities are turning to branding as
they seek to thrive, and in some cases to survive, in the current marketplace for higher
education. For example, in the UK, increased competition within the education sector and
diminishing university funds at British universities highlight the growing importance of
branding for the UK educational institutions (Mazzarol and Soutar, 1999; Mok, 1999). As
a result, in 2000, the UK government supported a worldwide re-branding exercise
campaign to establish a clear and competitive identity for UK universities in order to
attract more international students (Hemsley-Brown and Goonawardana, 2007). The aim
of developing a brand for the UK institutions was to enable the various schools to attract
students and to differentiate British education from its major competitors, such as the
USA and Australia. This shows the branding efforts for higher education institutions
supported by the British government. In addition, a few studies (papers) (Gatﬁeld et al.,
1999; Gray et al., 2003; Mazzarol, 1998) have focused on marketing and branding in order
to identify the factors that are important when marketing and promoting universities
and/or positioning higher education institutions. Nevertheless, the focus of these studies
was not how to create a university brand; rather, to promote the universities to attract
In today’s complex and highly competitive marketplace, universities and colleges
have turned to branding as a solution in dealing with today’s global challenges
(Whisman, 2007). Because a university as a service organization is one large,
undifferentiated mass of people and process (Schultz, 2006), coupled with the unique
characteristics of its services, the marketing challenge has been how to differentiate
these organizations in the market place so that they will be preferred by consumers
(Berry, 2000; Bitner, 1995, Zeithaml et al., 1990, 2006). In fact, heterogeneity is the
greatest source of difﬁculty in branding services (de Chernatony and Dall’Olmo Riley,
1999; Ostrom et al., 2005), and education is no exception. Because universities can
differentiate themselves through serving the needs of different segments with different
mixes of services and products, they must understand not only how differences are
perceived by different segments, but also how the different dimensions of service are
interrelated such that a change in one area of service could impact other areas. This is
especially important for services branding because of the process nature of services
with many customer touch points (Gronroos, 1984; Berry, 2000; Zeithaml et al., 2006),
where each of these components could have a critical impact on service quality, and
ultimately on the image of a service based brand.
Given the growing importance of branding for the competitiveness of higher
education in the global economy, this paper presents a framework to help better
understand and guide branding decisions for college and universities. In this regard,
we suggest that a brand ecosystem framework (Pinar and Trapp, 2008) could be
utilized in developing successful branding strategies in higher education. The
framework developed in this paper shows the relationship and interactions among the
major activities of university value-creating networks (e.g. academics, sports, student
life, and community services) in delivering exceptional learning. As will be presented
below, we believe that this framework could help brand managers in higher education
to identify the key value-creating activities and their interrelations and interactions
that are critical for creating a strong, differentiated education brand desired and
preferred by stakeholders (mainly students). One may argue that students are the raw
materials of education, graduates are the products, and employers are the customers.
Although the merit for this argument is not denied, generally speaking, many
employers do not fully pay universities for their graduates. Students often pay
universities for education, services, and ultimately their degrees (Ivy, 2008). The
curricula are developed and adapted appropriately to meet the needs of students who
would like to concentrate on a ﬁeld of study. Program duration may inﬂuence student
(or student and parent) choice of the school (Ivy, 2008). In addition, when brand
managers (administrators and staff) consider the wide variety of publics with which a
university needs to communicate, different communication tools are used for different
publics. Ivy (2008) argues that prospective students are mainly the target publics for
recruitment. Messages in communication media (e.g. pamphlets) are designed to
inform, remind, and/or persuade prospective students to select the advertising
institution because they will be the ones who will be the direct receivers of the
educational services (i.e. value-creation activities, interactions with faculty, staff, and
other students, involvement with student organizations). For these reasons, in this
paper students are seen as the customers. We also believe that, without an exceptional
student learning experience, other stakeholders could not exist.
Unlike the above-mentioned studies, where the main goal was to market and
promote university brand to attract more students, this paper is aimed at providing a
framework that identiﬁes the major forces, or value-creating networks (Kotler and
Armstrong, 2010) and their interactions that are important in delivering desired
educational experience to students. In this respect, this is a conceptual paper where the
main goal is to present a theoretical framework that captures the major factors
(value-creating networks) and the interactions of these factors in developing a strong
university brand. The authors of this paper believe that this framework shows a
holistic approach in creating a strong brand for higher education institutions.
Moreover, contrary to the other university branding studies where the focus was on
promoting and branding the university or institution, as suggested by Ng and Forbes
(2008) and Schultz (2006), this paper focuses on students’ experience as the core of
higher education (university) branding.
Branding in higher education
The brand image of a university plays a crucial role in attitudes towards that
institution, and to the sector as a whole (Yavas and Shemwell, 1996; Landrum et al.,
1998). Based on their study of university image, Paramewaran and Glowacka (1995)
suggest that higher education institutions need to develop and/or maintain a distinct
image to create a competitive advantage in an increasingly competitive global market.
Such a distinct image is likely to impact a student’s willingness to apply to that
institution; thus, establishing these images in the mind of the stakeholders is quite
important (Ivy, 2001). Hemsley-Brown and Goonawardana (2007) state that despite the
growing importance of this subject, empirical research speciﬁcally related to the
branding of higher education is relatively scarce. However, they claim that the broader
topic of the international marketing of higher education has been a key topic of both
empirical research and theoretical papers.
A review of the literature reveals very few papers (Gatﬁeld et al., 1999; Gray et al.,
2003; Mazzarol, 1998) that concentrate on university branding, although some
attention is given to the international marketing of higher education. A study by
Gatﬁeld et al. (1999) suggests that recognition (quality of teachers and resources),
campus life (added features), and guidance (access services) are the most salient
promotional features used in marketing universities. In a study of educational
institutions in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the UK, Mazzarol (1998) found that
two factors – i.e. “image and resources” and “coalition and forward integration” –
were signiﬁcant predictors of market success. In addition, Gray et al. (2003) identiﬁed a
university’s learning environment, reputation, graduate career prospects, destination
and cultural integration as the main brand positioning dimensions for higher education
institutions. The above studies indicate that academic instruction and learning
environment, campus life, reputation, and career prospects of graduates are the most
salient brand positioning dimensions for higher education institutions. However, these
studies were conducted with the aim of international marketing of higher education
and attracting international students.
Furthermore, much of the branding effort in higher education appears to be focused
on promotion and identity, including logos, mottos, promotional materials, advertising,
mascots, names, and the like (Argenti, 2000; Bunzel, 2007; Jevons, 2006). These efforts
appear to be largely concerned with external branding without a clear understanding
of the holistic nature of what constitutes a brand. As a result, Jevons (2006, p. 467) has
questioned the effectiveness of these exercises, stating: “Uncertain about what is
important for the brand, their students, or other stakeholders, they [universities] grasp
at less-than-differentiating value propositions”. Likewise, Bunzel (2007, p. 153) states:
“In the ﬁnal analysis there has been little evidence to show that a university branding
program really creates a change in perception or ranking of a university”. As for the
mottos and tag lines that are becoming increasingly common, Goldney (2008) asks:
“Could these words become, if it has not already occurred, weasel words, meaning they
have essentially lost any true meaning because of their frequent and at times rather
indiscriminate use?”. Clearly, there are limitations to focusing on the external
dimensions of a brand without considering the larger internal and external context. To
the extent the focus is simply on “better” marketing and communications, brand efforts
are not likely to deliver the intended results.
A search of the literature reveals that this narrow approach to brand development
and management may be changing. Black (2008) speciﬁcally addresses the concept of
brand promise and “the role of all faculty, staff, and administrators as ‘institutional
trust agents’” in the delivery of the promise. Ng and Forbes (2008) have developed a
compelling gap model for the university experience based on the service quality
literature that explicitly recognizes the various parties involved in the creation of the
learning experience, including the students themselves. While recognizing the
importance of physical evidence and processes, Ng and Forbes (2008) rightly highlight
the complexity of the university experience, as it is co-created, emergent, unstructured,
interactive, and uncertain, and that not all students share the same goals and
orientation (academic, personal, vocational, social) with respect to the university
experience. Notably, Ng and Forbes (2008) also highlight the importance of trust in
delivering effective experiences.
Adapting the Gap Model of Service Quality developed by Zeithaml et al. (1990,
2006), Ng and Forbes (2008) propose four expectation-perception gaps that must be
monitored and managed in order to provide satisfying university experiences:
(1) the difference between what a student expects and what the institution thinks
the student expects (knowledge gap);
(2) the difference between the institution’s understanding of students’ expectations
and the development of the service designs and standards (standards gap);
(3) the difference between the development of the service designs and standards
and the actual delivery of the service (delivery gap); and
(4) the difference between the delivery of the service and the institution’s external
communications (communications gap).
Beyond these basic gaps, Ng and Forbes (2008) propose an “ideological gap” that is
“the difference between designing the service towards fulﬁlling students’ expectations
and designing the service towards what the institution believes the students should
experience” (p. 14, authors’ italics). Of these gaps, the ideological gap may be the most
fundamental issue to resolve in terms of competitive advantage.
Brand ecosystem and value networks
From a strategic perspective, brands can be designed to deliver greater customer value
by building a “brand ecosystem” that includes the value networks and interactions of
these value networks at each stage of brand value building. This concept is similar to
several other value-delivery frameworks found in the literature. For example, Porter
(1985) proposed the value chain as a framework to describe how the activities of a
business contribute to its tasks of designing, producing, delivering, communicating,
and supporting its products to create value. In a similar way, Kumar (2004) presented a
“3Vs” framework which includes valued customers (who to serve), a value proposition
(what to offer) and a value network that will deliver the promised product and/or
service. All activities in a value network are driven by the end-consumer’s intended
experience and preferences (i.e. desired value proposition).
Kotler and Keller (2006) presented a holistic marketing framework to show how the
interaction between relevant actors (customers, company, and collaborators) and
value-based activities (value exploration, value creation, and value delivery) helps to
create, maintain, and renew customer value. Earlier, Moore (1996) proposed a business
ecosystem as an economic community consisting of customers, market intermediaries
(including agents and channels, and those who sell complementary products and
services), suppliers, and of course, the ﬁrm. The key aspect of Moore’s business
ecosystem is that, as in a biological ecosystem, any change in the business ecosystem
impacts the entire system due to the inter-relationships and interactions among the
system elements, which underscores the inter-dependencies of the business
ecosystem’s value networks. However, Moore’s (1996) framework makes no speciﬁc
reference to any kind of brand(s) or branding; rather, it covers all sub-sectors of a
business to create competitive advantage for sustainable growth.
In the public services context, Ivy (2008) ﬁnds seven distinct factors rather than the
traditional 4Ps of marketing mix in the marketing activities of state business schools of
higher education institutions. Ivy’s study develops 25 statements that measure student
attitudes and their perceptions of the importance of various marketing activities and
tools they were exposed to in the selection of the business school. The most important
factors in sequence were the program (choice of majors, electives), prominence
(reputation), price (tuition), prospectus (communication through direct mail), people
(interactions with faculty, staff, and other students), promotion (publicity and e-media),
and premiums (mixture of various offerings). In a similar empirical study, Price et al.
(2003) assess speciﬁcally the impact of facilities on student choice of university and
ﬁnd that quality of facilities has signiﬁcant impact on student’s choice of institution.
The main focus of these studies is examining the factors that help to market and
promote university brand to attract more students. However, other studies argue about
the importance of emphasizing people (i.e. faculty, staff, other students, community)
and processes (logistics of the service delivery) in marketing of services (Cowell, 1982;
Nicholls et al. (1995) and suggest the close link of positioning to the concept of branding
(Nicholls et al., 1995) taking a more holistic approach (Pinar and Trapp, 2008).
Pinar and Trapp (2008) propose a brand ecosystem framework for building and
managing a brand. They deﬁne a brand ecosystem as a set of different activities (value
networks) that contribute to building a strong brand that includes all the stages of
value creation from initial design idea to the ﬁnal consumer (target market) brand
experience. In creating a strong brand to deliver the promised customer experience and
value, the key aspect of the framework is that the customer is the starting point of the
brand ecosystem as consumer preferences and experiences drive the inter-linked value
networks. Unlike Moore’s (1996) business ecosystem, the brand ecosystem is proposed
to create a speciﬁc brand that promises to offer a speciﬁc value proposition and image
that target consumers desire to experience. It is important to note that the preferences
and expectations of the chosen target market(s) are the driving forces for the entire
brand ecosystem. Additionally, every activity (internal and external) in the brand
system is inter-related, and must be consistent with and contribute to accomplishing
the desired brand image and consumer experience with the brand in both the short-
and long-term. Moreover, any change in any part of the brand ecosystem, like in a
biological ecosystem, affects all other value networks of the brand ecosystem, and
ultimately the brand image and brand value.
Today, as consumers are demanding more social responsibility from the brands
they use, a brand ecosystem as a whole must reﬂect the core values associated with the
brand. In this respect, the brand’s identity provides the DNA for the entire ecosystem,
and ultimately brand equity. The importance of consistent high standards and values
throughout the entire brand ecosystem cannot be ignored. Recognizing the holistic
nature of a brand ecosystem requires an organization to fully understand and manage
its value network(s) and their interactions that are driven by desires and preferences of
the chosen target markets. In essence, the brand ecosystem places the brand and
related customer experiences as the focal point. It integrates the mechanism of an
organization’s supply chain(s). Many ﬁrms tend to have a logistics emphasis with
efﬁcient distribution capabilities, but they ignore ﬁnal customer preferences and
experiences and their impact on creating a strong brand and brand equity.
The Tallgrass Beef Company in Kansas (USA) is a good example of a brand
ecosystem in creating a successful brand by appealing to health-conscious consumers
(Babwin, 2006). In order to guarantee consistently high-quality steak and brand
consistency, the company controls all the value-delivery networks in its brand ecosystem
from using high-quality bulls to high-end steak restaurants that are consistent with the
Tallgrass Beef brand image. Consumer desires and preferences for healthy and
high-quality steak drive the Tallgrass Beef Company’s brand ecosystem in developing
its special brand of steak, otherwise a generic (graded) commodity product in most cases.
One of the best recent examples of a large-scale brand ecosystem is Starbucks Coffee. In
order to be consistent with its premium brand identity, Starbucks controls all activities
from coffee beans to delivering consistently the best service in its brand ecosystem to
meet customers’ preferences and expectations with respect to experiencing the perfect
cup of coffee (Michelli, 2006). Providing direction and focus to the Starbucks brand
ecosystem is the idea of an authentic coffee experience (i.e. the “third place”) while being
a socially responsible community member. As these examples indicate, it is important to
remember that each activity in the brand ecosystem exists to deliver a speciﬁc, unique
end experience to the ﬁnal consumer and must justify itself on that basis. This implies
that the brand ecosystem’s overall strategic intent is (or must be) known throughout the
value network and that consumer preference drive each activity.
An ultimate goal of all branding strategies is to build strong brand equity, which is
also the main goal of a brand ecosystem. This is because brand equity, as a key
indicator of the state of health of a brand (Keller, 1993; Kim and Kim, 2004), is built
through an effective management of the brand. As a multi-dimensional variable, brand
equity, refers to the value inherent in a well-known brand name (Keller, 1993, 2008;
Schiffman and Kanuk, 2007). Basically, value is created in a consumer’s mind as a
result of a brand’s superior quality, the social esteem the brand provides, consumer
trust in the brand, and self-identiﬁcation with the brand (Aaker, 1991, 1996; Keller,
1993; Schiffman and Kanuk, 2007). Brand equity is the positive differential effect that
knowing the brand name has on consumer responses to the product or service (Keller,
1993). One measure of a brand’s equity is the extent to which customers are willing to
pay more for the brand (Aaker, 1996; Keller, 1993, 2008). For a university brand, it is a
student’s willingness to pay premium tuition for his/her education without the
university resorting to high levels of discounting through ﬁnancial aid. A powerful
brand enjoys a high level of consumer awareness and loyalty, and it forms the basis for
building strong and proﬁtable customer relationships (Aaker, 1996; Keller, 1993, 2008).
An effective brand ecosystem has the potential to not only differentiate a
product/service experience in a meaningful way for the customer, but also to create
strong brand equity for the producer.
Brand ecosystem for developing a higher education brand
The factors that are important for branding universities (Gray et al., 2003; Gatﬁeld et al.,
1999) have not yet been presented in any type of branding framework. In this study, we
present a brand ecosystem framework for a college or university that can be envisioned
as all of the activities in a value-creation network that provide value to the institution’s
various constituencies, both internal and external. Figure 1 provides a conceptual view of
a university brand ecosystem. As shown in this framework, the focus and direction for
the ecosystem are provided by the educational experiences the institution intends to
provide to its targeted constituencies. Also, as suggested by Gray et al. (2003), when
building a university brand, it is important that universities need to understand the key
educational needs of students and the perceived value of core and augmented elements of
their offerings. Therefore, students are central in deﬁning intended experiences because
they are the only reason for the existence of colleges and universities. However, attention
also must be given to other constituencies including parents, potential employers,
alumni, donors, and the local community. While these other constituencies are an
important part of any university brand and should be included in the holistic brand
development process, the focal point of university branding is the learning experience as
core-value creation (Ng and Forbes, 2008); therefore, this paper will focus on students’
academic and non-academic university experiences.
The brand ecosystem presented in Figure 1 proposes that because the student is the
customer of higher education and students’ satisfaction in the consumption of a
university experience is critical, student (target market) learning experiences are the
driving force for all value creation networks in developing university branding. As the
core service of the university experience is embodied in the learning experience,
academics (i.e. teaching and research) are the core value creation activities for students’
learning experiences. It is important to note that teaching and research may hold
different levels of importance for students’ educational experiences, depending on a
university’s emphasis on each academic area. The next elements of the brand
ecosystem are the supporting value creation activities of student life, sports, and
community activities. While these services, as hygiene factors, may not necessarily
provide a superior university experience, Ng and Forbes (2008) state that the core
service cannot function effectively without these supplementary services, such that the
two interact dynamically in construction of the entire university experience for
students. The brand ecosystem also includes employers, alumni, and donors who may
have direct and/or indirect effect on student learning experience and on university
brand image. Certainly, as shown in Figure 1, all these factors individually and/or
collectively may affect students’ university experiences, and ultimately the university’s
consumer-based brand equity.
Each of these value creation activities of academics (core value creation), student
life, sports and community service (supporting) can be broken down into more deﬁned
experiences to the point where the experience exists as a speciﬁc, meaningful
individual encounter (Bitner, 1995; Zeithaml et al., 2006). As in any service, the
education experience as a process is the sum of many encounters consisting of
student-faculty, student-administration/staff, and student-student interactions, each of
which has the potential to impact education quality, students’ university experience,
and ultimately a university’s brand. For example, the academic experience dimension
can be viewed as a sum of all the encounters consisting of classroom lectures and
discussions, assignments, tests, student group projects, internships, student research
projects supervised by faculty, after class chats between a professor and student(s)
about the course material, academic advising, and more. All of these interactions (i.e.
encounters) contribute to student learning and an academic experience that serve as
building blocks of core value creation for university branding. The value of learning is
co-created with the student (Bitner et al., 1997; Gummesson, 1993) in a way that is
emergent, unstructured, interactive, and uncertain (Ng and Forbes, 2008). Moreover,
with education as a service (Ng and Forbes, 2008), as suggested by Bitner (1995) and
Gronroos (1984), the delivery process of education could be more important than what
is delivered. Therefore, in delivering academics as a core value delivery process,
faculty-student, and student-student interactions in the co-creation process are the
critical parts of a university learning experience that can have a signiﬁcant impact on a
In addition to the core value creation activities, each of the supporting value creation
activities contributes to a students’ overall university experience and resulting brand
impressions. Ng and Forbes (2008) state that supporting (or supplementary) services
such as the application process, payment of fees, campus facilities, and student
accommodations all play a role in facilitating the core service experience. They claim
that the core cannot function effectively without the supplementary services, and the
two interact dynamically (directly or indirectly) in the construction of the university
experience. This indicates the importance of each student encounter (interaction) with
supporting services in creating the core academic experience. For example, the student
life experience at its most elemental level can be viewed as a speciﬁc encounter
between a student and a dining-room employee, or the taste of tonight’s dessert. The
student life experience at its broadest is the sum of all such student experiences
through each and every encounter that make up student life. Similarly, student
encounters in their dormitories, payment of fees, campus facilities, or sporting events
may enhance or inhibit the students’ core service experience. In each case, the
experience is tightly deﬁned by time and place, yet driven by a broader experiential
intent. Each encounter at every touch point contributes positively or negatively to a
student’s university experience. The brand ecosystem as a branding framework is
merely a tapestry of interrelated experiences over time, sharing a common focus and
direction. Moreover, the brand ecosystem reﬂects these dynamic interactions among
the core and supporting services that impact student learning experiences and a
university’s brand equity.
At the broadest level of a college or university, the institutional brand ecosystem’s
intent is deﬁned by its focus and direction, its vision and purpose. This level of intent
deﬁnes the next level of intent, which in turn deﬁnes the next lower level, etc., related to
student university experience. As a simpliﬁed example, a college’s focus and direction
deﬁne the intent of student life, which deﬁnes the intent of dining services, which
deﬁnes the intent of the individual roles within dining services. Likewise, the intent of
student life would also deﬁne the intent of residential living and the roles of its staff
members. One can view experiential intent as cascading throughout the brand
ecosystem through encounters, always with an implied in order to focus driven by the
desired student experience. Each individual within the ecosystem has a deﬁned role
based on what that individual is to accomplish given the intent of that person’s
department. As with maneuver as practiced by some military units (Lind, 1985), that
individual (e.g. faculty member, administrator, staff person) knows what she must
accomplish in terms of the desired student experience (intent), but the “how” is left up
to her. To the extent that the individual is qualiﬁed for her role, understands the
experiential intent of her role and her department within the broader context of the
university, and desires to serve the student, she will be able to provide the type of
experience called for by Bitner (1995) and more recently Ng and Forbes (2008) in
keeping promises (i.e. living the brand). Moreover, as the employee is able to determine
the how, she is not only able to keep the promise, but should be encouraged to exceed
the student’s expectation as keeping promises leads to satisfaction, while exceeding
promises leads to passion and loyalty. Therefore, as pointed out in prior research
(Berry, 2000; Bitner, 1995; Gronroos, 1984; Zeithaml et al., 2006), it is the personnel,
especially the contact personnel at every touch point, that are critical in delivering the
desired service (educational) quality for creating an education brand. The emotional
dimensions of such experiences can be very powerful for both parties (Gobe, 2001).
Faculty, staff, and administration should know and understand intent not only within
their area, but also the next level up as well as the college or university’s overall focus
The brand ecosystem presented in Figure 1 must be viewed as interrelated
dimensions of the student experience, with the entire education ecosystem driven by a
shared focus and direction (based on a global vision) as expressed through experiential
intent at each level and department within the whole. Because students are a key
component in the co-creation of the core service experience (Ng and Forbes, 2008),
academic-student interaction is often an important aspect of the learning experience in
building a university brand. Given the dynamic nature of the brand ecosystem, as
students and others interact with the institution and its faculty, staff, and
administration, the cognitive and affective dimensions of the various experiences
continually inﬂuence the brand and its meanings, and ultimately its value (“Brand
Equity” in Figure 1). This interaction is no different than is found with any
organization. For example, to what extent does the Singapore Airlines brand derive its
meaning from the passengers’ experiences found ﬂying with the airline? In this way,
the brand and experience exist in a yin/yang relationship. That is, the brand suggests
the nature of the experience (i.e. establishes the promise and expectation), while the
experience itself reinforces and ideally strengthens the brand. In turn, the brand leads
back to the next experience in a relationship that is ongoing, dynamic, and mutually
rewarding. This is especially true as a university experience results from the
simultaneous nature of production and consumption of student learning (or
co-learning), where all parties have an impact on each other. A university brand and
its associated meanings represent an experiential promise as well as an inﬂuence on a
student’s expectations with respect to the educational experience offered. In a yin/yang
relationship, interacting with a university through experiential encounters in turn
inﬂuences the brand as a result of direct learning. Consequently, the brand and its
meanings may be conﬁrmed, or ideally, strengthened as a result of new positive
meanings and deeper emotional bonding.
It is critical to note that without highly qualiﬁed, enthusiastic employees (i.e. faculty,
staff, and administrators), involvement and creating great student experiences with the
brand ecosystem are highly unlikely. Unhappy employees cannot be counted on to
provide good service experiences, much less great experiences (Heskett et al., 1997;
Zeithaml et al., 2006). This implies the necessity of a strong internal branding program
(Whisman, 2007; Ostrom et al., 2005; Berry and Lampo, 2004; Berry and Bendapudi,
2003; Hemsley-Brown and Goonawardana, 2007) that fully engages and motivates a
university or college’s employees in their student-centered roles to deliver great
experiential outcomes. This suggests that the essence of any brand building, especially
for service brands, depends on how a company clariﬁes the roles and behavior it needs
from employees to deliver on the brand promises. In this regard, universities must
focus on internal branding, where the goal is to convey the value proposition and brand
associations to the university personnel in the core and supporting areas so that the
personnel understand what the university brand promises to its students and others.
This could minimize potential gaps (i.e. delivery, standards, knowledge, and
communication) for the brand value proposition between students and university
personnel. Also, internal branding would facilitate communication between
administration (brand managers) and the academic and supporting units (Whisman,
2007), as well as development and delivery of a coherent and consistent brand identity
for the university (Hemsley-Brown and Goonawardana, 2007). This implies that
universities must have high-quality personnel and sufﬁcient resources to serve their
students well, particularly in the delivery of core academic experiences. Moreover,
university personnel in all areas must have sufﬁcient training so that they all
understand the university value proposition and their role in delivering the value
proposition and creating a strong university brand.
Conclusion and suggestions
At its best, a college or university brand ecosystem has the potential to take students to
places they do not yet know they want to go. Indeed, this is one of the challenges of
managing the ideological gap that Ng and Forbes (2008) identiﬁed. However, to the
extent that a gap is mastered, and students are provided a “wow” educational
experience, a university or college may have a powerful brand differentiator. The
promise of the brand ecosystem as a platform for bridging this gap lies in its unifying
strategic focus and direction, resulting levels of intent, and individual employee roles
centered on the student experience. Given the special service characteristics of
intangibility, complexity, heterogeneity or variability, simultaneous production and
consumption, and the process nature (Berry, 2000; Ostrom et al., 2005; Zeithaml et al.,
2006), creating a great (learning) experience and university brand depends not only on
core value creation with academics, but also on student experiences with all supporting
value creating activities. This is because all value creation networks are dynamically
interrelated with each other, where each of these value networks individually and
collectively contributes to the student learning experience with a university brand. As
a result, students’ expectations are continually updated and revised throughout their
direct or indirect experiences with the university brand (Ostrom et al., 2005). For
example, even though academics are the core value creation means for students, there
is no doubt that student experiences (positive or negative) with the library, residence
hall, dining, or even with sports may signiﬁcantly impact their university experiences;
in turn, the university brand.
This process nature of (university) services contributes to the complexity of the
service encounter experience, where student evaluation of learning experience becomes
the sum of many factors – some under the control of university employees and some
not. This in part may explain the challenges universities as service producers face in
branding strategies. It is well-known that a customer’s experiences with a company far
outweigh the company’s own communications to the customer (Ostrom et al., 2005). By
far, experiences dominate the formation of customer evaluations (e.g. perceptions of
quality, satisfaction, value, and loyalty), and expectations for subsequent service
encounters (Berry, 2000). As stated by Ostrom et al. (2005), the frontline employee is the
brand for the customer; it is the employees who deliver the service, which conveys the
brand to the customer. Berry (2000) and Berry and Bendapudi (2003) point out that
because the frontline (or contact) employees embrace the majority of a customer’s
impressions, marketing the brand to employees, or internal branding, is critical. This
suggests that all personnel (administrators, faculty, and staff) need to understand their
importance in delivering desired student learning experiences. The brand ecosystem
framework we proposed shows the dynamic interrelationships among the value
creation elements in developing university branding. The implication is that in order to
create the exceptional multidimensional student learning experience that universities
promise, universities must coordinate all of the activities of the value delivery
networks of their brand ecosystem through internal branding. Finally, the brand
ecosystem offered in this paper provides a holistic approach to developing a university
brand by focusing on the core-value creation of academics, as well as all supporting
areas in delivering a superior learning experience for students.
Although this paper focused on the primary elements of the university brand
ecosystem (i.e. core and supporting activities), the complete ecosystem would also
include alumni, donors, and potential employers as presented in Figure 1. While not
having as direct a daily impact on the student experience, these external constituencies
have the potential to add signiﬁcant value to the brand ecosystem. The speciﬁc
companies and organizations that recruit on campus is one example. Indeed, having
particular recruiters on campus may be a powerful attraction for potential students,
and thus, reﬂect an important aspect of a university’s brand ecosystem. In addition to
attracting potential students, speciﬁc recruiting companies could serve as an important
stimulator for students’ academic success which could indirectly impact the university
learning experience of students in a signiﬁcant way. Moreover, the opportunity arises
for these organizations to contribute to other dimensions of the student experience
(e.g. class guest speaker, student group sponsor, etc.) that add additional value to the
total educational experience. Integrating alumni more fully into core and supporting
value proposition activities is another example of strengthening a university brand
ecosystem. It is also important to remember that parents of students are an important
part of a university’s brand ecosystem, particularly as inﬂuencers and interpreters of
the experiences their children are having on campus. We accept the fact that potential
employers, alumni, donors, and parents are signiﬁcant contributors of university
experience; therefore, they should be included in the university brand ecosystem as a
part of holistic university branding strategy.
This paper presented a conceptual framework that presents the major value-delivery
networks and their interactions in creating university band. Based on a university
branding literature (Ng and Forbes, 2008; Schultz, 2006), we present academics as the
core of university branding and supporting areas in a brand ecosystem framework in
order to create a strong university brand and brand equity. The next step is to
operationalize the model elements to measure and test effects of each of the brand
ecosystem elements identiﬁed in the model on university brand equity. Following the
consumer-based brand equity and its dimensions (Keller, 1993, 2008; Aaker, 1991,
1996), future studies could measure overall university brand equity, and each of the
brand equity dimensions of brand association, perceived quality, and brand loyalty.
Speciﬁcally, we recommend development of a scale to measure brand equity, and
brand association related to core and supporting areas of student learning and
educational experience, perceived quality of the academics and supporting areas of
library, student life, sports, community, and brand loyalty. Also, the prior empirical
research, albeit limited, presented in this paper could help in identifying some of the
factors important for building a strong university brand that could be used in
empirically resting the model.
Given that simultaneous of production and consumption, and process nature of
education as service (Berry, 2000; Ostrom et al., 2005; Zeithaml et al., 2006), the effects
of brand equity dimensions could be empirically tested with structural equation
modeling (SEM). This is also reﬂected by our brand ecosystem framework, where core
and supporting elements of the education experience are presented as ongoing
interactions, indicating that student expectations are continually updated and revised
through direct and indirect experiences with university brand (Ostrom et al., 2005). As
suggested by Carbone (2004), the consumer experience with brand is not an additive
model; rather, it is multiplicative. This further indicates the importance of the
interactions of each of the brand ecosystem on university brand value. Therefore, we
feel that the impacts of the factors presented in the brand ecosystem are best captured
by SEM. The results of such an empirical study could help university administration in
developing a strong university brand.
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