Branding has been a very topical subject in the sector in recent years. The inexorable march towards a form of marketisation has led to an increased sense of competition and the imple-mentation of quasi-commercial -marketing approaches.
Of all the areas associated with marketing, however, branding is perhaps the most maligned and misunderstood. So as an academic specialising in branding in the non-profit sector (and a former marketer), some of the particular aspects of university branding seem ripe for exploration.
First, what do we mean by a higher education brand? Is it the same as reputation? Although the two terms may be used interchangeably, they are actually different. Commonly, reputation is historical and earned, whereas brand may encompass reputation but does so as part of a clear set of ideas and values that is pro-actively managed. This has led to the perception that brands can be "manufactured".
Some may suggest that a brand is therefore something superficial and perhaps even trivialises what higher education does. This certainly should not be the case. It is not about making hollow promises: good branding can and should define what an institution can authentically offer.
Many conceptualisations of brands break them into two broad areas - the functional and the symbolic/emotional. This essentially means that university brand analysis not only needs to
consider hard facts (such as location, position in -rankings and incorporation date) but also "softer" values such as "vibrancy", "support" or "tradition".
The key point here is that brands are important. We live in an age where we are overloaded with communications; good branding should, at least to some degree, enable an organisation to communicate what is best about it in a clear, cohesive and consistent fashion. It shouldn't mean that we have to trivialise or commoditise what universities do - it is more about communicating the sum total in a clear fashion to the appropriate stakeholder groups. Also, importantly, it enables universities to get the brand positioning they want communicated in a proactive fashion, rather than by default.
That said, university branding is not the same as soft drink or airline branding: universities are large, complex organisations that often offer (as they should) a broad and inherently quite similar range of courses and services that makes identifying points of distinctiveness on which to build a brand difficult. Universities are of course distinct in terms of where they are located (and many use elements of destination branding as part of their approach), but it has been suggested that The Open University, Cranfield University and Birkbeck, University of London are the only truly distinctive higher education institutions in the UK.
The culture of universities also makes the simplistic application of commercial branding techniques without some adaptation difficult: it can be very difficult to get people "behind the brand" in the way that commercial companies do, and indeed the rightly cherished concept of academic freedom can allow scholars to occasionally act in ways that dilute or damage the organisational brand. Sub-brands can also be problematic, with schools, faculties or centres creating their own identities. Most institutions have largely resolved this, however, and there may be a strong case for certain departments (such as business schools) to be distinct.
So how should those responsible for university brands, notably vice-chancellors, deal with these issues? Well, a good start would be for them to take the time to understand branding in its fullest sense and what it can offer. They can also perhaps contribute to an interpretation of branding that takes account of the particular qualities of higher education.
Overall, universities have brands of a sort whether they like it or not: branding is the effective expression of how stakeholders think and feel about the university, and institutions have a choice over whether to manage and maximise its value or to leave it to chance. While we have increased competition between universities, the theory and practice of branding, used judiciously, can empower us all.
Chris Chapleo is senior lecturer in marketing at Bournemouth University