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  • The Complex Challenge of Branding in Higher Education: Where’s The Pedagogy?
  • Adam Peruta (bio), Scott Hamula (bio), and Diane Gayeski (bio)

As universities face increasing competition, they are developing sophisticated branding campaigns but are challenged by credibility, identity, and faculty buy-in. As universities and colleges face increasing competition, economic pressures, and scrutiny by parents and students acting as “consumers,” they are being managed more like businesses—including developing sophisticated and expensive branding campaigns. But as they do so, they face some critical challenges. Our own institution, Syracuse University, is now in the midst of developing a new brand and identity, and thus we’ve been curious as to how this process plays out at other universities.

How do we know universities? Is it by reputation (typically of a few “star” departments or well-known academics)? Is it by their sports teams? Is it by their locations? Is it by a unique mission or a particularly distinct student body? Although a handful of universities may rely on these identities, there are thousands for which their particular niche or “brand” is much less clear. The purpose of this essay is to explore the process used to develop higher education branding and pose some suggestions for models that might be used to successfully create brands that are distinctive and supported internally.

Higher Education Branding: Drivers and Challenges

Until the 1950s, there were relatively few universities, and most had quite specific identities and “target markets.” There were old and prestigious universities with classical curricula to which only the most talented students could aspire (Harvard, Oxford); research-oriented universities with strong industry ties (MIT, Stanford); large public universities with commitments to teach and produce research valuable to its state citizens (California State, Penn State); regional agricultural/technical and teachers’ colleges designed with specific vocational preparation in mind (Rochester Institute of Technology in New York State, Royal Agricultural College in Britain, and Ontario Teachers College in Canada); religiously affiliated universities (Notre Dame, Baptist Bible College); colleges with special missions, such as women’s and historically black institutions (Smith College, Tuskegee University); and small undergraduate liberal arts institutions designed to broadly educate students who are or will become part of the elite upper class (Williams College, Colgate University). In some countries, it is typical for universities to take on nicknames based on their location or on a famous alumnus (e.g., the science university in Strasbourg France is known as Université Louis Pasteur while its official name is Université Strasbourg I).

While these categories still exist, the lines for many are blurred: many small residential undergraduate institutions are diversifying their revenue base by adding online graduate degrees; universities with strong local identities are opening branch campuses abroad; single-sex colleges have mostly gone co-ed; and large research universities are creating smaller Honors Colleges within their campuses to appeal to undergraduates looking for a more intimate educational experience

Although branding may be an uncomfortable term for many academics, the concept of “reputation” is firmly ingrained in academia. Reputation and rankings, as determined and promoted by magazines such as US News and World Report, are associated with enrollment and donations, so university administrators clearly see this as one of their priorities. However, reputation probably only matters to those who make a “top 20” list, and over time, there has been little change in these rankings. In some cases, a strong reputation for a school is based on the outstanding achievements of one particular researcher or lab, such as Australia’s Monash University, which got extensive publicity and moved up in its rankings based on its in-vitro fertilization research program; while certainly commendable, this particular leading-edge project could hardly be related to other programs at the university. For the thousands of other universities and colleges that are not highly ranked as elite (or affordable, or as a top party school, etc.) by popular magazines, branding is seen to be a key enrollment initiative.

Chris Chapleo, a higher education branding researcher at Bournemouth University in the United Kingdom, interviewed 15 chief executives at British universities and colleges and found several challenges to branding in higher education including institutional resistance to change, the lack of a clear...

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