In the strict legal sense, a university's "brand" consists of a combination of its name, associated goodwill, related design elements and reputation. In the UK, these intangible elements are protected by a range of rights including trademarks, copyright, design rights and the law of defamation. The exact nature of these rights differs across the globe, but most countries will offer some level of legal protection.
The brand as an intangible asset can be of real commercial value for a university, whether directly through licensing agreements or indirectly by attracting high-calibre students, donors and collaborative projects.
The strength of the brand both depends upon and feeds into the success of the institution itself. If a university thrives, the value of its brand will increase, in turn creating a virtuous feedback loop as academics, students and funding are drawn in. But the reverse is also true: failures of compliance or strategy can tarnish and even destroy this key asset, trapping the institution in a downward spiral.
An increasingly competitive international environment is forcing institutions to adopt a more coordinated and strategic approach to branding. But some aspects of the universities themselves can make this difficult.
Their decentralised nature, for example, can make it harder to adopt a single coherent approach to brand management. This is especially true where different parts of a university are evolving in different ways (such as when a research department becomes a leader in its field and seeks to establish a distinct brand identity).
Major donors and sponsors that insist on the joint branding of departments and facilities with their names can also pose challenges. Such requests raise a number of difficult legal questions around who owns the new or combined name, whether the university can impose any restrictions on the wider use of the title, and the extent to which the university is bound to comply with the requests and demands of the party providing the funding.
Nowadays, most universities are undertaking a range of collaborative activities in which their brands are used, including joint ventures, degree validation and overseas campuses, e-learning, executive education programmes and technology transfer arrangements. All these activities are likely to involve licensing the university's brand on some level.
To avoid brand damage in these scenarios, the university should: perform thorough due diligence on third parties to whom any rights are assigned or licensed; check whether and how intellectual property rights are protected in the relevant territory; agree a robust contract, to be reinforced by registered trade mark and possibly design protection; and monitor activity and enforce legal rights where necessary.
Appointing brand guardians and having a proper media management strategy can also reduce the risk of brand damage arising from problems with internal core activities.
With appropriate management, the brand should play an important part in promoting and sustaining the institution. Universities should give careful thought to how best to provide a strategic and operational framework that protects the brand as an asset.
David Copping is a senior associate at Farrer & Co LLP