Branding within Higher Education

Branding within higher education is one of the most talked about, but least understood concepts.  As with many adapted from business ideas, there may be some merit, but the application into the higher education enterprise has not gone particularly well.  In today’s post, I want to share an excerpt from an article I wrote a few years ago, Message in a Bottle:  University Advertising During Bowl Games.  My goal is to put the research literature related to branding within a higher education context that will hopefully help us think in more appropriate terms about the concept of branding for colleges and universities.

Photo credit: Derek Gavey

Businesses use branding techniques to differentiate themselves from others in the marketplace (Aaker 1991, 1996). Aaker (1991) defined a brand as a “distinguishing name and/or symbol” (p. 7) used to identify and distinguish between competitors. Branding serves as a central tenet of marketing because of the role it plays in helping customers decide between and among different products (Aaker 1996). This influence over consumer choices makes the brand a valuable organizational asset to be developed, nurtured, and protected (Grace and O’Cass 2005; Keller 2003). Whether the golden arches of McDonald’s or the “Enjoy Coca-Cola” slogan, the importance of a brand is critical, although often intangible. The brand’s relationship to the organization and consumers is of paramount concern to institutional leaders because of the benefits reputation provides financially and symbolically. A strong brand may increase student demand, and institutional prestige may improve faculty hiring. Many critics within higher education fear that the use of branding leads to a commodification detrimental to fulfilling a larger public purpose (e.g., Hayes and Wynyard 2006). This is part of the larger concern espoused by Slaughter and Rhoades (2004) about the threat to the public purposes of institutions. Higher education has historically avoided explicit discussions of marketing and the adaptation of advertising strategies such as branding. Notwithstanding these concerns, branding as a construct has been successfully utilized within higher education, though such work has seen limited application to date (Sevier 2001; Toma et al. 2005). Typical uses of branding relate to admissions or the use of logos in higher education. What little work that does exist on higher education branding is devoted to broad generalities with few empirical studies on the current activities of universities to market themselves as a brand (Fickes 2003; Lowrie 2006; Moore 2004).

With an appreciation for concerns about viewing higher education as a commodity, a more apt parallel exists within the business literature for higher education scholars. The research on firms that provide services presents a more applicable starting point for higher education branding (see Mazzarol and Soutar 1999 for further discussion of this connection). Applying branding to higher education is complicated by the fact that no significant research exists on how to develop and communicate a service brand despite a rather sizable body of empirical research on marketing service-oriented firms (Opoku 2005). The inherent individuality of providing a service and weighing the worth of that service to a larger population is a key source of difficulty in this arena (De Chernatony and Dall’Olmo Riley 1999; Firth 1993; Fitzgerald 1988). The value of Ritz-Carlton, Holiday Inn, or Motel 6 is a result of an individual decision-making process weighing factors of price, amenities, and location. In addition, consumer perceptions of quality form the basis for assumptions about a range of hotel attributes from cleanliness to comfort to room service. As a result, a real challenge exists in accounting for individual decision-making and perceptions. This challenge suggests the value and necessity of applying what we know about branding products to service organizations (Bateson 1995; Turley and Moore 1995). As Zemsky et al. (2005) have argued, the same difficulty exists for higher education consumers who must evaluate the quality and value of the services colleges and universities provide both directly and indirectly. Parents and students consistently face difficulty in comparing the services offered by higher education institutions despite the plethora of rankings and guides that focus not only on the “Best Colleges,” but also the “Best Buy Colleges,” attempting to balance price and quality.

In order to overcome the challenges of consumer preferences in service industries, the organization itself becomes the brand with a distinct identity, personality, and image (Onkvisit and Shaw 1989; Thomas 1978). Instead of branding a Big Mac or a Diet Coke, colleges and universities brand themselves, giving us iconic brands such as Harvard, Princeton, and Morehouse. In this scenario, the brand is further defined by the perception and personality of the institution and relevant stakeholders. To use Weick’s (1995) concept, the act of sensemaking between the university and consumer provides a foundation for the ongoing relationship between the two entities. Universities are reliant upon external audiences for support, and the brand can serve as a mediating force in these interactions.

Consumers react and respond to a brand particularly where values and beliefs are embedded as is the case of higher education. Institutions (and their brands) and consumers are both active agents negotiating with one another. This varied and changing relationship between higher education and consumers can be mediated through the use of branding strategies. As a result, branding in higher education must move beyond simply reaching out to potential customers; it should also seek to establish relationships with all of the various consumers in the state and region. Marketing efforts in higher education have focused on potential students and parents for many years (Wasmer and Bruner 1999). The general public, governments, and businesses all consume the knowledge, graduates, and economic development generated by universities. As a result, institutions increasingly need to build partnerships with these entities, which can be fostered through strategic branding activities.

Unfortunately, much of the research in this area focuses on the individual or consumer perspective without exploring the role of the organization as an active agent in the relationship. More importantly, a brand serves as the primary point of interaction between the organization’s activities and the consumer’s perceptions as well as expectations (De Chernatony and Dall’Olmo Riley 1998). These interactions are exceedingly complex with numerous constituencies and consumers who have an interest in brand development and implementation. Administrators, faculty, students, alumni, employers, and legislators are among the many groups who are heavily invested in the institutional brand. These groups are not only concerned about the success of the brand, but also serve as audiences for branding strategies. As a result of these continuous interactions, higher education branding is remarkably difficult to implement in a meaningful way for the diverse values of each constituency.