Branding in higher education

Posted in Brand on 9 September 2014 By Susannah Gerner, Client Director

The Association of MBAs (AMBA) is the world's impartial authority on postgraduate management education. Accredited Members Schools span the globe, and include the world's most prestigious schools.

At AMBA's recent Marketing and Admissions Forum in London, and Alumni and Development Conference in Paris, I shared my experience and best practice in higher education branding. What follows highlights some common brand challenges that the sector faces.

While it has been said by Alumni that almost half of UK Business Schools do not yet deliver a clear brand proposition, in the face of increased national and international competition it is certainly becoming more common for Universities and Colleges to search for a unique definition of what they are in order to differentiate themselves and attract students and academic staff.

This entails defining the essence of what a university is, what it stands for, and what it is going to be known for, and requires precision and consistency in the formulations as well as internal commitment to the brand. There is broad debate of course as to whether a university may be too complex to be encapsulated by one brand or identity definition.

Indeed universities have many, many stakeholders. And it would be true to say that the discipline of branding is concerned with the pursuit of singularity. This then leads to further debate in relation to business schools particularly, and whether an overarching brand can accurately communicate the features and benefits of the business school's distinct offering, to a more specific target audience.

However, I would argue that these challenges affect all 'businesses' and are common issues in organisational branding.

The brand is the expression of the organisation's actions, attitudes and results, and the reputation that follows on from that. In most cases, many positive and very clear attributes already exist. Rational benefits and emotional beliefs are formed from experience and interactions with an organisation, both internally and externally.

While it is prudent to acknowledge that complexities of organisations may make the process of distilling a university brand challenging, it should be noted that patterns of interaction and meanings emerge in organisations with strong traditions and deeply rooted values. These are always true, often compelling and certainly differentiate the organisation. This is the 'essence' of the brand. Therefore branding is rarely about change; it is about identifying and harnessing the positive attributes that help lead business decisions, investment and activity in a relevant, meaningful and measurable way for each stakeholder group. This is the external brand platform.

Then there are the vast and somewhat fragmented internal audiences. Brand consultants do not naively assume that it is desirable for all members of a university to act with common purpose or to 'live the brand'. Universities are, by definition, made up of autonomous individuals. The only way to encourage an ambassadorial or collegiate level of engagement with internal stakeholders is to make them integral to the process. People deliver brands. While a university's geographic location or founder may underpin its principles and offer, the current staff deliver the brand behaviours which dictate reputation. In this increasingly competitive market place, the importance of branding must be communicated to staff in a way that is meaningful to the individual and demonstrates the benefit it will offer to the prosperity of the university and ultimately its future.

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