Branding and Public Universities

Due to the unique role of state universities in an environment of limited resources, an inevitable tension exists between educational quality and access as evidenced during tuition and funding debates.  Tuition and federal financial aid policies are only part of the solution and institutions ought to reevaluate the use of state need-based financial aid programs.  In today’s post, I want to share an excerpt from an article of mine that appeared in the Journal of Student Financial Aid.

As noted in the business literature, firms use branding to differentiate their product from others in the marketplace (Aaker, 1991, 1996). Branding can be applied to higher education, although it has seen limited application in the literature to date (Toma, Dubrow, & Hartley, 2005; Sevier, 2001). Little research exists on how the marketing approach of student financial aid programs influences students’ enrollment behavior (Perna, 2005).

The literature on higher education branding largely addresses broad generalities with few empirical studies on the current activities of universities to market themselves as a brand (Moore, 2004; Fickes, 2003). Aaker (1991) defines a brand as a “distinguishing name and/or symbol” used to identify and distinguish between competitors (p. 7). Branding is a multidimensional concept that can often serve as a key means of differentiation for consumer decision making (Aaker, 1996; Keller 2003).

Brand image, which is a collective set of perceptions consumers associate with a given brand, serves as a key notion for this study (Keller, 1993). The perceptions of external audiences about the university can impact any number of university initiatives from student recruitment to state appropriations. For this study, we use the concepts of image and branding to understand how a university can use a signature financial aid initiative to create and foster an institutional image of providing access as part of the brand.

Colleges and universities use a number of marketing and business strategies to attempt to differentiate themselves within the crowded postsecondary marketplace. These efforts often center on the admissions and student recruitment processes through the use of targeted marketing campaigns substantiated by brochures, view books, and other printed materials. In addition to these traditional avenues, marketing efforts are increasingly using technology with a strong web presence or use of DVDs. Whether using print or technology based materials, colleges employ a variety of aspects of their brand and image to attract and influence student opinions.

Logos, mascots, and school colors are among the most commonly used aspects of image that are leveraged. There are less tangible or obvious aspects of the institution that can be tapped to improve market position and brand image. The scholarly literature has not sufficiently explored the ways that culture can be used or “branded” to improve the competitive position of an institution (Toma, Dubrow, & Hartley, 2005).