Universities must rein in departments or schools that create different "sub-brands" for themselves or they risk diluting their overall identity, a senior lecturer in marketing has warned.
Chris Chapleo, of Bournemouth University, told a conference on university branding in London on 31 October that a "difficult communications challenge" could be created if "maverick and free-thinking" academics were to "pull away" from an institution's brand.
He cited the example of a university he had previously worked at, where a "pocket of excellence" within the institution had "decided arbitrarily to create their own identity, to create their own sub-website".
Dr Chapleo said such moves led to the "thorny" issue of whether universities "allow [departments] to pull away and form their own identity, which sometimes can be stronger or as strong as the institution overall". Business schools in particular were "very susceptible" to doing this, he said.
Alternatively, should universities keep departments "reined in" under a "corporate umbrella", he asked delegates at the conference hosted by the law firm Farrer & Co.
"Universities cherish, and rightly so, this notion of academic freedom and they do tend to employ people who are quite maverick and free-thinking, so this is something that is quite deeply ingrained," he said.
However, he said the sector often "struggled" with having too many "sub-brands" within institutions, said Dr Chapleo, who illustrated his point with a selection of logos often from the same institution but with no overarching design scheme.
"Clearly you look around the higher education sector...and there are a lot of identities out there," he said.
One delegate at the conference, who did not agree to be identified, said protecting her university's brand was like "herding cats" and in some cases academics had designed their own institutional logos that would appear on their work.
As universities adapt to a more market-like competition for students, there has been debate over whether focusing on branding can affect an institution's fortunes.
Writing at the end of last year, Paul Temple, reader in higher education management at the Institution of Education, University of London, argued that using branding consultants was an "excellent way to waste time and money".
"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," he wrote in Perspectives: Policy and Practice in Higher Education, the journal of the Association of University Administrators.
Dr Chapleo, a former professional marketer who moved into higher education 12 years ago, acknowledged that there was "cynicism" towards branding in the sector.
At his first meeting with a vice-chancellor to discuss the brand of a university, Dr Chapleo said he was greeted by "folded arms" and the words: "branding is about Mars bars, not about places like ours".
But he argued that this hostility was based on "inappropriate" beliefs about branding and said that universities have a brand "whether they like it or not".
"We're talking about effectively managing what we already have," he said, and added that "good brands do not base themselves on hollow promises because they will be found out".