Branding consultants have almost no effect on how a university is perceived and much of their work is a waste of time and money, it has been claimed.
Paul Temple, reader in higher education management at the Institution of Education, has argued that although branding consultants have said they can change a university's reputation, it can be built up only by years of academic excellence.
The attack comes as many universities are spending heavily on branding consultants to gear up for the new marketised sector.
Writing in Perspectives: Policy and Practice in Higher Education, the journal of the Association of University Administrators, Dr Temple argues that "people are not, mostly, idiots: they will see what is branding candyfloss and what is the reality, created over time by good management and a well-nurtured academic culture. Branding work...can have no significant impact on these matters."
Even the most "credulous" university managers would not be persuaded that branding consultants could find short cuts to improve an institution's reputation, he adds.
"If there were, we can be sure that someone would have found them by now," he writes.
Dr Temple distinguishes between university "brands", which in the case of the universities of Oxford and Cambridge "rest on a century and a half of academic endeavour at the highest level, following fundamental intellectual re-examination [in the 19th century]"; and "branding work" by external consultants including "logo design...and styles of presentation in advertising, publications and so on".
Branding-consultant exercises focusing on discussion of "the kind of place you want to be" are usually "excellent ways to waste time and money", Dr Temple writes. This is "not because these fundamental perceptions are of no importance - they are indeed important - but precisely because they are fundamental they cannot be changed as a result of the superficial manipulations of branding work".
A "reasonable-sounding" role for branding is, he suggests, to "find out what the institution does well, and present it in an appealing way".
But some branding consultants go further and "talk instead about something called the brand, and elide that into the idea of reputation".
Lancaster University spent £135,000 on "brand management" in the 2010-11 financial year, having spent nothing in the same area in the previous two years, reveal figures released to Times Higher Education under the Freedom of Information Act. Bath Spa University spent £80,256 on university branding in the same year, also having spent nothing in preceding years.
Peter Reader, director of marketing and communications at the University of Portsmouth, said that "assessing the brand can help universities understand where the internal view of the 'products'...is reflected in external perceptions. Too often there is a 'brand gap'."