Brands in Higher Education
Challenges and Potential Strategies
Abstract: This study explores the challenges of university branding and the qualities
that make university branding different from commercial branding in terms of
cultural issues, branding concepts and frameworks and brands architecture. The
literature about branding in the university sector is described and viewed in the
context of exploratory interviews with fifty five university managers. The results
present the differences between university and commercial brandings as well as
culture, brand concepts and brand architecture, The study was conducted in UK
universities, but similar issues in many other countries means that the results are
comparable internationally. Overall, the findings presented in this research offer a
valuable contribution to our understanding of the complexities of higher education
Dr. Chris Chapleo is a Senior Lecturer at Bournemouth University Business School,
Bournemouth University, Talbot Campus, Fern Barrow, Poole, Dorset BH12 5BB,
United Kingdom, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, Tel.: +44-01202 524111.
Fundamental shifts in the last twenty years have seen increased competition in the
global higher education market (Becher and Trowler 2001) and consequently drove
universities to adopt marketing practices, including branding. Although contentious
(Jevons 2006), many universities are embracing branding strategies and this article
examines the challenges in applying commercial branding strategies, given the
specific characteristics of higher education. Good brands are key resources for
generating competitive advantage and brand management is a central organizational
competence that organizations need to understand and develop (Aaker 1996; Louro
and Cunha 2001). However, whilst branding in general receives considerable
academic investigation, in the higher education context the specific models are still
not wholly understood. This research sought to explore the management landscape of
UK higher education branding. Within this, specific objectives were to explore: (1)
perceptions of potential and actual challenges to branding amongst the management
of UK universities; (2) branding structures in UK higher education, and in particular
corporate and sub-brands; (3) branding concepts and models in UK higher education;
and (4) cultural issues and their relationship to brand implementation in UK
universities. Overall the aim is to further understanding of branding in higher
education and to inform practice and underpin future research.
Branding in higher education
A growing number of higher education institutions are increasingly managed as
corporate brands (Whelan and Wohlfeil 2006; Kotler and Kotler 1998). Factors, such
as increased competition, a drive to differentiation and student fees, have driven
‘marketization’ that has forced UK universities to adopt the concepts and practices of
branding. However, Johnson (2001) argued that they had a long way to go in terms of
incorporating the branding concept and, it may be argued that some twelve years later,
only partial progress had been made towards a culture and infrastructure within
universities that supports effective branding. This is also reflected in the view that
branding has made little mark on the higher education marketing literature until recent
times (Hemsley-Brown and Oplatka 2006; Bennett, Ali-Choudhury and Savani 2007),
although the last few years have seen a steady increase in the number of published
articles. The reticence to embrace the topic may be partly as the debate on the
desirability of a marketing culture within higher education continues (Jevons 2006)
and it is therefore appropriate to begin with some discussion of the rationale for
adoption of branding in higher education. This is particularly approached from the
UK context although convergence in global higher education has made the discussion
generalizable to a high degree (Becher and Trowler 2001).
Branding was originally conceived as a technique to establish a product’s
name and to convey the prestige of the manufacturer. However, this has evolved into
the modern branding paradigm built upon abstraction and cultural engineering, where
products embody consumer’s ideals and are only tenuously linked to functional
benefits (Holt 2002). Most conceptualizations of brand are clear when it comes to the
advantages of branding, but generally relate to a commercial context. De Chernatony
and McDonald (2005) assert that a successful brand delivers sustainable competitive
advantage and invariably results in superior profitability and market performance.
Holt (2002) argues that brands will be more valuable if they are offered as cultural
resources and useful ingredients to produce the ‘self’ one chooses.
Jevons (2006) believes that branding is a shorthand measure for the
whole range of criteria that go to make up the quality of the university whilst Bennett
et al. (2007) suggest that universities require strong brands to enhance awareness of
their existence and course offerings, to differentiate themselves from rivals and to
gain market share.
Rationales for applying the principles of branding to higher education are
therefore evident but actually quantifying benefits is somewhat more elusive and a
degree of debate on desirability continues. As current political and market forces
increasingly make competition in education inevitable, brands can be both a strategic
asset and a source of sustainable competitive advantage (Caldwell and Coshall 2002).
However, a cautionary view is that branding in non- profit organizations, such as
universities, may create a spirit of unhealthy competition, prompting expenditure that
is of dubious benefit (Sargeant 2005).
Blumenthal and Bergstrom (2003) offer a more generous view of branding
that it can offer something ‘of substance’ to make the consumer’s choice process
more effective. The ideal conceptualization of a brand as a clear shorthand for an
organization that consumers trust to deliver on their needs could reasonably be argued
to be desirable for universities as much as all organizations. The investigation of
challenges to brand building in universities serves a real purpose: to help clarify not
only underpinning conceptual assumptions but practical implementation in a sector
that may struggle to implement overtly commercial approaches.
Brands are complex offerings that are conceived by organizations but ultimately
reside in consumers’ minds (de Chernatony 2010) and therefore ‘brand’ is a
somewhat subjective term where “no one is talking about precisely the same thing”
(Kapferer 2001, 3). However, it was necessary to provide interviewees with a
consistent understanding of what was meant by the term ‘brand’, particularly as some
of the respondents in this research did not have a marketing background. Many
writers such as de Chernatony and Mc William (1990), Pringle and Thompson (1999)
and Caldwell and Freire (2004) suggest brand definitions based on ‘emotional’ and
‘rational’ factors and indeed most definitions have a degree of resonance with this
approach (Hart and Murphy 1998). De Chernatony and Riley (1998, 427) seem to
summarize this in succinct terms when they suggest that a brand is “a
multidimensional construct whereby mangers augment products or services with
values and this facilitates the process by which consumers confidently recognize and
appreciate these values.” This was the basis of the definition put to interviewees.
The move towards competition among universities has seen a corresponding quest for
differentiation as part of adoption of market based models (Becher and Trowler
2001). Over time, however, products and services tend to become similar whereas
organizations are inevitably very different (Aaker 2004). Indeed, many universities
are intrinsically similar in the ‘products’ they offer and arguably their corporate
brand, rather than product brands (NB individual courses) is their basis for real
Examination of the corporate branding literature reveals a degree of
applicability and potential insight for higher education (Hatch and Schultz 2003).
However, corporate branding requires a greater degree of sophistication in branding
practices than product branding; in particular organizational structure and culture that
support the meaning of the brand (Hatch and Schultz 2003) and it is debatable
whether some universities are organized to fully embrace this.
Aaker (2004) identifies the danger that too many corporate brands have no real
value proposition and are simply large stable organizations with no point of
distinction. This is a real risk for universities who may struggle to articulate real
distinctiveness. Although functional benefits are considered best for corporate brands,
emotional or self-expressive benefits can offer a basis for differentiation (Aaker
2004), and the latter would seem to provide resonance for university brands.
Ultimately, the corporate brands most likely to succeed are those that connect
strategic vision and organizational culture (Hatch and Schultz 2003).
The discipline of brand architecture is a comparatively new as an academic topic
(Aaker and Joachimstaler 2000). However, there are important strategic implications
to the relationship between the elements of brand portfolio, and this is particularly so
when the brand architecture structures are applied to the higher education context. A
key question is assessment of the extent to which brands and sub brands are ‘drivers’
(the extent to which the brand drives the purchase decision) and this decision leads
towards one of four core brand relationship options: house of brands, endorser brands,
sub brands or a branded house (Aaker and Joachimstaler 2000). A deliberate and
desired degree of consistency is important (Kitchen and Schultz 2001) and each of
these approaches has its core applicability and advantages for different brand
configurations, but the issue is that none seem to quite fit the particular qualities of
higher education. More to the point, it seems that the corporate branding literature has
hardly explored brand architecture in the higher education context, and, given its
importance for core marketing strategy this seems a significant gap in the literature.
Challenges of brand building in universities
Building and maintaining strong brands is challenging in all sectors, but the pertinent
question is whether specific and unique issues face universities in their attempts to
build and maintain brands. From a UK perspective, in 2003 Bodoh and Mighall (23)
argued that “brands present some real challenges in a sector that has been slow to
embrace the basic principles of branding.” Johnston (2001) summed up the consensus
from practice at that time when he argued that the higher education system certainly
had a long way to go in terms of understanding and incorporating the branding
concept, although the United States was seemingly ahead of the UK in the acceptance
of branding as a concept in the sector (Sevier 2004; Kotler and Fox 1995). This may
be because the United States went through a clash of cultures between market values
and traditional academic values ten years earlier (Sanders 1999).
Brookes (2003, 140) suggests that commercially focused activities, such as
branding, are inherently difficult for universities where “one has to take into account
the needs of relevant linking departments that do not solely have commercial
objectives.” Similarly articulating real differentiation is often a challenge. Several
branding models such as Keller (2003), LePla and Parker’s ‘Integrated Brand Model’
(2002), De Chernatony and McWilliam’s ‘Brand Box Model’ (1990), and Kapferer’s
‘Brand Identity Prism’ (1992) argue that identification of a clear ‘brand principle’ is
important, but this may be difficult to encapsulate for university brands (Hankinson
2001) particularly in terms of disparate stakeholders, internal organization and
diversity of service offerings. Dibb and Simkin (1993) offer Harvard Business School
as an example of a strong education brand, arguing that it is strong because it has a
clear position in consumer’s minds. They argue that other higher education
institutions are differentiated and that “Oxbridge, the ‘Red-Bricks’ and the former
polytechnics are uniquely positioned. They suggest that “the marketers in these
organizations have practised marketing effectively for decades” (Dibb and Simkin
1993, 30) but concede that often positioning has “just happened or has emerged in a
somewhat ad-hoc manner over time.”
Cultural issues are one of the most significant challenges; the nature of
marketing means that it permeates most areas of an organization and therefore
marketing people may run into the strongly held views of other staff and departments
(Low and Fullerton 1994) where underpinning marketing philosophies are
‘theoretically uncomfortable’ for many academics (Brookes 2003). Organizational
culture may be a source of competitive advantage, but only when brand values are
respectful of that culture and embrace it as part of their brand (Hatch and Schultz
2003; Ghose 2009; Aurand et al. 2005; Vallaster and de Chernatony 2005; Burmann
and Zeplin 2004).
Overall therefore, examination of the literature reveals that many areas of
branding theory have some applicability for higher education, but the particular
cultural, management and organizational issues of higher education mean that
practical application is not straightforward or necessarily desirable, and closer
examination of the topic is therefore pertinent.
The main focus of the research was to seek a deeper understanding of factors
(Chisnall 2001) that impact upon branding in universities. The results are based upon
content analysis of fifty-five interviews comprising fifteen Chief Executives of UK
universities, targeted as a group with whom brand ownership lies (Free 1999), and
forty higher education marketing and communications professionals. These
interviewees represented thirty two different UK institutions and were approximately
equally split between three groups that may be referred to as ‘newer’ universities
(post 1992), ‘redbricks’ and ‘older’ universities. However, as the analysis did not at
this stage seek to differentiate between these groups this split is not further explored.
Interviews were conducted in stages reaching completion in 2011.
The work embraced an ‘interpretivist’ approach (Bryman and Bell 2003) but it
is accepted that in qualitative research of this nature boundaries are not quite as solid
as a rationalist might hope (Miles and Huberman 1994, 27). The sample size was
appropriate for an exploratory study, and offers indicative results that are
representative (Miles and Huberman 1994).
Semi-structured interviews were considered appropriate, as a picture of
respondent's true feelings on an issue was desired (Chisnall 1992). This technique
aims to gain the perspectives of informants so that the research topics could be
explored (Daymon and Holloway 2004) and is similar to that adopted by other studies
on brands, such as that by Hankinson (2004). An interview guide was used to steer the
discussion, but respondents were also allowed to expand upon ideas and concepts as
The particular questions explored in the context of the interviews linked back
to the objectives of exploring current knowledge and opinion on issues affecting
branding in universities, in particular exploring opinion formers’ perceptions of
potential and actual challenges to branding in their institutions. These are explicitly
articulated in the introduction.
The interviews were transcribed and subjected to content analysis to look for
commonalities in responses or trends through coding (Miles and Huberman 1994). It
is important to emphasise that the anonymity required by respondents makes direct
attribution of quotes difficult. However, a number of pertinent quotes were attributed
by job role an attempt to at least partly address this issue
Challenges to successful brand management in higher education .Fundamental
changes in the nature and management of higher education have forced universities to
adopt many commercial practices and implement them in what are increasingly quasi-
commercial organizations (Becher and Trowler 2001). Respondents were asked to
talk freely about this and some went into considerable depth, reflecting the number of
challenges they foresaw. Several particular themes emerged that are worthy of
Cultural Issues. Universities, whilst subject to creeping marketization, do not
have a culture that closely replicates a commercial organization; in fact their culture is
part of their unique identity (Becher and Trowler 2001). This presents significant
challenges and some university marketing professionals talked of “cynicism of staff
that impedes community and cohesion in branding”; termed the ‘cultural issue’ of
branding by one marketer. Chief Executives also referred to the ‘institutional culture’
and ‘cultural legacy’, which were seen as challenging in relation to branding. This
may simply be indicative of the issues facing Chief Executives when trying to build a
clear brand for a complex organization that has not historically had a commercial
focus. It was felt that “the sector overall demonstrated a slowness to change” (Chief
Executive). Several Chief Executives suggested that the language of branding was not
‘always comfortable’ or even ‘culturally acceptable’ within higher education. As
would be expected, the term was understood and embraced by Marketing
Professionals and most Chief Executives did clearly perceive a broad meaning of the
term brand to include such elements as ‘values’ ‘quality’ and ‘personality’ as well as
the narrower visual elements of logo, strap line, font styles etc. This was not
universally the case, however, with two Chief Executives only citing the visual
elements of what constitutes a brand, one initially describing it as a “visual image or
logo.” It was also notable that several respondents talked of ‘brand’ being ‘created’ or
‘manufactured’, in contrast to the reputation of an institution, which may be seen as
“coming about through evolution” (UK University Chief Executive). However, one
Chief Executive made an interesting comment in suggesting that internal building of a
brand was impended by the attitude that some “staff work at the university, but not for
There was variance in suggesting whether leader’s roles in brand management
filtered down from the top or was built from the bottom up. For example, one Chief
Executive suggested that “presenting and delivering the brand is the concern of the
University Management Team” whereas another supported “development of common
vision decided by all staff.” The variance in defining the Chief Executive’s role in the
branding process was argued to be a factor that differentiated universities from
commercial organizations, where the “role of the leader was thought to be more
clearly defined in terms of brand custodian” (Chief Executive).
Another group clearly important in managing the university brand was the
marketing department, but a distinction can be drawn here in terms of their role in the
branding process. Approximately half of the Chief Executives suggested that their
role was to oversee Marketing Professionals in managing the brand. Some Chief
Executives suggested that marketing should ‘guide in brand construction’, whereas
the others alluded more to ‘implementation’ and even of “leaving it to marketing not
being enough, as everyone in the university has to understand and involve themselves
in our brand.”
The changing pace of the external environment was argued to be a challenge
by most respondents, with universities increasingly having to adapt and react to
market conditions at a faster pace than they have culturally been equipped to do.
However, it was felt by some that this changing environment was forcing a cultural
change internally, which led to more competitive branding strategies being embraced.
Overall, cultural resistance to branding, variable internal communication and
associated issues such as sub branding were challenges much in evidence from
Branding Models and Frameworks. Several Chief Executives suggested that,
whilst they had a brand, it did not accurately reflect current reality. One summed up
this point, arguing that his university “has a strong brand that comes out of the
reputation but, paradoxically, one that relates very poorly to what we do now.” The
consensus was that universities are by nature complex and diverse institutions and the
task of neatly encapsulating this in a set of simple brand values was difficult, to say
the least, a challenge shared by some other non-profit organizations (Hankinson
2004). There was also doubt among some university marketers that a clear brand that
summarises what the university does in one statement could ever really be achieved.
As one Marketing Professional argued “creating our brand is so much more
challenging than for a can of coke because we do multiple things for multiple
audiences.” This resonates with work that argues that universities have plural
identities (Lowrie 2007) that make articulating a simplistic identity challenging
Respondents in this research felt that the sector has staff with strong internal
motivations but that the external brands do not always fully communicate this.
Interviewees argued that latent potential was evident as people often had
‘their’ university that they identified with or was relevant to their lives. The key was
argued to be “the challenge of tapping into and communicating the unique nature of
our university” (Chief Executive) as “clearly universities have the emotional
resonance to connect strongly with most stakeholders – alumni are a prime example –
we just haven’t quite got to grips with all the subtleties of rolling this up in a fully
fledged brand yet” (Marketing Professional).
Brand Architecture. It was argued that there is no evidence of a clear
model for constructing a brand in institutions such as universities, in particular in
relation to corporate brand (overall university level) and their relationship to sub
brands (school or faculty level). One Chief Executive asked “do we build one strong
overall brand which encompasses everything we do and all our services or do we have
a series of strong sub brands which have a higher profile than the overall institutional
brand?” This was echoed by Marketing Professionals who talked of commercial
models being applied, but needing cultural adjustment and therefore not wholly
Several Chief Executives cited tension between institutional and school/
faculty brands as a hindrance to branding strategy, although this was tempered by
others who confirmed it as an issue, but not necessarily negative. Business Schools
were cited as an example of where it may actually be beneficial and it was suggested
that “given their distinct target audiences, there is a strong argument for allowing a
business school to build a largely distinct brand, particularly if the school may have a
stronger identity than the parent institution The difficulty is managing this process so
that it is not to the detriment of institution or school and their seems to be limited
precedent for doing this” (Chief Executive). Other interviewees were aware of this
issue but felt that it did not affect their institutions, as the overall institutional brand
was strong enough and individual sub brands would not threaten or detract from it.
Most respondents in the survey initially alluded to what is effectively a
‘branded house’ (Aaker and Joachimstaler 2000) where the institutional brand was the
driver and sub brands had little driver role; one Marketing Professional suggested “the
university brand is clearly the core one where we put our focus; some sub brands are
allowed to develop but only within brand guidelines that we have recently clearly
communicated”. However, upon questioning, others respondents revealed that
viewing university brands as a ‘branded house’ was an oversimplification and often
schools actually displayed many qualities of ‘sub-brand descriptors’, where they
utilize the masters brands profile but make that brand more credible for a specific
target audience (Aaker and Joachimstaler 2000). Business Schools and Medical
Schools were brought up as examples. Initial instincts support the branded house
approach as the most suitable for universities as it maximizes clarity and is the default
brand architecture option (Aaker and Joachimstaler 2000), but the particular nature of
higher education means that this demands closer examination and may call for a
bespoke model or set of common practices (Marketing Professional). One example of
this was discussed by two Marketing Professionals, one of whom talked of “the
university brand being important, but having very little direct resource, with
marketing budgets largely devolved to schools.” This is a paradox; talk of a ‘branded
house’ structure for universities but in reality with greater resource allocated to what
are effectively the sub brands, as befits a ‘house of brands’ (Aaker and Joachimstaler
The findings of this research resonate with current literature in a number of key areas.
Effective internal communication is important (Harris and de Chernatony
2001), in order that all employees understand and live a brand’s values and have a
consistent understanding about brand positioning (Aurand, Gorchels and Bishop
2005). Asif and Sargeant (2000) identify six key outcomes of effective internal
communication. These are shared vision, job/personal satisfaction, and development
of a service focus, empowerment, commitment and loyalty. The literature therefore
reflects the importance of implementation of internal communication programmes.
This presents a paradox as Bulotaite (2003) argues that university brands actually
have the potential to create stronger feelings than most brands and that the key to
doing this successfully is to create a unique communicative identity. Jevons (2006,
467) argues that universities talked of differentiation through their brands but that
they frequently failed to ‘practice what they preach.’
When consumers have limited detailed knowledge of a sector, brand name
may be the most accessible and diagnostic cue available. Strong brands receive
preferential attribute evaluation, generally higher overall preference and can charge
price premiums (Hoeffler and Keller 2003). The price premium theme may become
increasingly relevant as many countries adopt a market system for university tuition
fees. However, it has been suggested that conventional brand management techniques
are inadequate in higher education due to brand proliferation, media fragmentation,
rising competition, greater scrutiny from ‘customers’ and internal resistance to the
concepts (Jevons 2006). It seems that universities have potential for strong brands
(Bulotaite 2003) but there is a lack of a model that captures their essence.
Harris and de Chernatony (2001) suggest that a sustainable competitive
advantage can better be achieved through unique emotional elements than functional
characteristics. These emotional values are not just communicated by advertising but
also through employees’ interactions with different stakeholders (Harris and de
Chernatony 2001). Employees have to communicate the brand’s promise across all
contact points, where such behaviour can become a competitive advantage if they
deeply believe in the brand’s values (Vallaster and de Chernatony 2005). It may
therefore be argued that the idea of brand experience, or ‘moments of articulation’
that shape brand identities have potential in branding a university (Lowrie 2007).
The tension between university and school brand, which the corporate
branding literature seldom addresses, is likely to surface in branding efforts in a
university context due to strong traditions of school autonomy and appears to be
another area where there is no simple model or answer to suggest whether it is a
positive or a negative and what the best practice should be for the higher education
context. The individual schools or centres could be viewed as parts of a brand
portfolio; assessment of their ‘brand driver’ potential is key in exploring an
organizing structure (Aaker and Joachimstaler 2000). It this case anecdotal evidence
would suggest that the institutional brand is the core driver, and schools are
secondary. However, the student audience, in particular, also identify with the
individual course as a driver, and there are examples of strong school brands (e.g.
Cass Business School, London) and the situation is not therefore clear-cut.
The concept of branding seemed to be supported among management in UK
universities; important as a management task is to generate shared understanding of
brand values (Vallaster and de Chernatony 2005).
However, the interviews demonstrated that a number of issues are apparent
that make building and maintaining fully developed brands in the commercial sense
Faculties or schools building sub brands in their own right may be considered
occasionally problematic but actually illustrates that a brand architecture structure is
something that universities struggle with; the ‘branded house’ structure seems most
suitable and that universities show commonality with some of the corporate branding
literature, deeper investigation reveals that there really is no simple approach to brand
management that appears to fit.
Universities often have difficulty in identification of a clear ‘brand principle’
or point of differentiation. A common focus is generally intrinsic to a branding
principle, particularly with corporate brands, but this ‘common focus’ can be difficult
to attain in universities that ultimately provide many similar ‘products’ and where
many are yet to clearly understand and articulate where any genuine differentiation
Whilst leaders of UK universities are supportive of the concept of branding,
the results indicate a degree of variance in terms of how these leaders perceive their
role. This is clearly a cultural issue, where defining roles and relationships of leaders,
senior management, marketing practitioners and 'everybody in the institution' in brand
management is also a difficult issue.
Whilst, as stated, management embraced branding concepts, this was not
necessarily the case among all employees. Evidence of cultural resistance pointed to
deeper issues needing more fundamental solutions and ongoing actions that support
brand building rather than superficial ‘lip service’ were sometimes lacking. The
culture of universities continues to change but it clearly does not fit with a simplistic
wholly commercial model.
University’s identities are arguably too complex to express in a succinct brand
proposition. They have a culture that does not easily support branding approaches and
they may lack the resources to implement branding strategies in a commercial
approach, leading to the assertion that conventional brand management techniques
may be inappropriate for this sector (Jevons 2006). They also have multiple
stakeholders, including employees who may have limited allegiance to the
organization, but can potentially damage the brand (Roper and Davies 2007).
However, whilst it is possible to list many challenges to brand building the
research did suggest that those involved in management of UK universities embrace
the concept of brand management, see their role in this as key, and are keen to address
the difficulties that are perceived. This move towards ‘branding culture awareness’ is
suggested to be the first step in the brand building process (Urde 1999). Continuing
external pressures seem likely to catalyze this need for further investigation of the
branding concept in universities.
Whilst the study explored a key group of opinion former’s opinions, the research
would benefit from further empirical research among other stakeholder groups such as
key customers. Further quantitative work to look at desirable brand values and
suitable communication channels could provide decision makers with more valuable
information about how to formulate and apply their university brands. Lastly,
research into brand architecture structures in universities and their applicability may
enhance our understanding of the field.
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