College Branding Myths Demolished


Via a comment on my initial College Branding post, I found an article from Times Higher Education, What sets you apart? , dated just a few days later. In this article, two authors speak to some of key issues facing colleges and universities in developing a brand.

Robert Mighall, a former fellow in English at Merton College, Oxford, and now a consultant at branding agency Radley Yeldar, demolishes a series of myths. Even though Mighall aims his comments at UK universities, I think these myths can be encountered just as often in the US:

‘Branding is unethical because it is intrinsically deceptive’

Mighall points out that higher education branding is a lot like charity branding, and neither has anything to do with duping consumers into buying products they don’t need.

Where there is choice, there is branding, and choice is increasingly central to the higher education market. Universities use their brands to help people make more informed decisions about investments that might very well affect the rest of their lives. Rejecting branding doesn’t make it, or the reality it reflects, go away.

‘Branding is merely cosmetic – changing a logo doesn’t change the reality’

College branding isn’t about superficial changes to logos and color schemes. Mighall notes,

But it makes more sense to understand “brand” (especially in higher education) as the sum total of ideas, emotions and associations attached to a given institution. Universities have brands whether they like it or not, and branding is the effective expression and management of those ideas, emotions and associations. Not as spin, subterfuge or superficial image makeovers, but the authentic expression of what that university genuinely has to offer. [Emphasis added.]

‘Universities have reputations, and so have no need for brands’

Mighall posits that “reputations” are often based on published “league tables” (perhaps not dissimilar to our own U.S. News college rankings, both reviled and sought after by college administrators). These reputations may be based on university characteristics like advanced research which have little impact on the college decision process. Rather,

The final 10 per cent, and usually the clincher, is more emotive: how do I “feel” about this institution, how would I feel about spending three or four years there, and how would I feel about being associated with it for the rest of my life? This is where brand comes in, going beyond reputation as recorded in vertical columns of newsprint. Brand is simply the sum total of how people think and feel about an institution. Branding is its effective management.

‘Universities are not chocolate bars or shoes’

The fact that a college is different from a consumer product purchased on impulse is not a myth. Rather, the idea that branding a university is much like branding candy or apparel is the real myth.

It is precisely because a university degree is so important – arguably the most important item on one’s CV for a good many years, if not one’s whole life – that branding has an vital role to play. How an individual will market him or herself on graduation will be affected enormously by the perception of the degree from that institution. You could say that the university brand becomes part of the individual’s own brand…

So much is invested in students or other stakeholders making the right choice that universities have a responsibility to help ensure that this happens. This is the principle role of branding in higher education.

‘Branding is alien to the culture of universities’

No myth earns more scorn from Mighall than the idea that branding is an alien concept to colleges and universities. Quite the reverse is true, as universities were among the earliest practitioners of branding, along with churches, guilds, and other entities that used “brands” to distinguish themselves from everyone else.

The holy grail of commercial branding is the generation of loyalty, belonging and identification. Churches, regiments and colleges had all these things before commercial branding evolved and emulated their practices… Schools and colleges were among the first to develop elaborate coats of arms beyond the fields of valour and conflict, and they could teach modern commercial entities a thing or two about corporate identity. They were among its inventors.

‘Branding is a waste of money’

Branding can actually save a college money, particularly when a unified brand can avoid wasting resources on numerous “sub-brands” – individual colleges, departments, research units, and so on. In the absence of a strong university brand, such sub-brands will proliferate, muddling the university’s image and squandering precious funds.

The more coherent and focused the brand proposition, and the more control an institution has over how it is perceived, the more its expenditure on marketing – including prospectuses, online activities, recruitment fairs and international agent networks – becomes an investment rather than a drain on resources… It doesn’t take many extra international students each year to pay for a little more systematic thought about what a university has to offer them or their domestic peers.

Mighall’s article goes into much more depth than this, and is a must-read for anyone who doubts that colleges need to think about branding. As he succinctly puts it, “Universities were not founded as businesses, but they now have to act as such.”

That doesn’t mean that colleges need to sacrifice their values. Rather, they need to communicate what may be common knowledge inside their community to the rest of the world. With the dual issues of financial pressures both on families and schools, and a coming decline in college-age students, schools that fail to refine their brand may find themselves becoming part of the “generic” higher education market. And when the challenge of enrolling students with the right academic, personal, and financial characteristics ratchets up in coming years, “generic” isn’t the brand one wants to be.

  1. karlyn says

    Whether colleges admit it or not, I think they are becoming more and more open to the idea of branding. A big problem that many schools have is they don’t know what their differentiators are – you ask them what sets them apart from other schools and they say things like “we have small class sizes, a diverse community, and rigorous academics.” From writing copy for some schools like this, I can tell you that its absolutely like pulling teeth to get administrators to identify who they are. Unfortunately for schools like that, the landscape is becoming so competitive that if they don’t differentiate themselves, I don’t think they’ll be around in the long run.

  2. Roger Dooley says

    Exactly, Karlyn. As I mentioned in my earlier post, my colleague Sally Rubenstone made a similar effort to extract “what’s so special about” info from various schools for a free editorial feature, and was able to extract only the same kind of generic elements as you describe.

    I agree, colleges that aren’t able to articulate unique selling points (and aren’t in that small group with way too many applicants) will have an increasingly tough go of it.

    Thanks for stopping by!


  3. Diana says

    If building a brand is about making a promise and keeping it, over and over again, how can it be labeled “deceptive”?

  4. Roger Dooley says

    I think the only time branding, or any other kind of marketing effort, can be called deceptive is if that branding is false, i.e., the brand characteristics being touted don’t match the reality of the product.


  5. Robert Mighall says

    Hi. Glad you found it useful, and happy to see support for these views. I’m interested to see such challenges existing in the US context. The US system is generally held up as far more commercially-minded than our own, which is being dragged kicking and screaming into market reality.

  6. Shyam says

    Hello Mr. Dooley,

    Hi , I ‘m a guy from India, doing my masters in business administration. So I am into my final semester. So what i find is that our college is a new college, its only into 2nd year of its inception. So, I found that there is not much difference between the group of MBA colleges the University has. So I found it really necessary that to stand out from the crowd, (I read your blog and) i find that we need to adopt branding. So can you just suggest me ways for branding a new college like mine where am studying. It is in a rural setting,but its a tourist destination as well and we are having financial and other constraints as well. So if you could please help me, that would be great,because I really want to make this college a wonderful place to study . I feel i need to give something back to the college.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Shyam, as a new college your branding options won’t include some of the traditional college branding ploys that involve tradition, illustrious alumni, prestige, etc. But, based only on your short note, I see two possibilities. Being new, perhaps you could focus on how that is an asset: new, state-of-the art facilities, professors teaching courses relevant to today’s business issues (not yesterday’s), etc. The “tourist destination” part might have some potential, too. Certainly, many colleges have emphasized the recreational benefits associated with their location to set themselves apart. Good luck!


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