Waeraas, A., & Solbakk, M. N. (2009). Defining the essence of a university: Lessons from higher education branding. Higher Education, 57(4), 449–462.
“Defining the essence of a university: Lessons from higher education branding” by Arild Waeraas and Marianne Solbakk is an informative look at the challenges of branding in higher education. The article chronicles a failed branding initiative at a regional university in northern Norway. In 2002, university leadership agreed to undertake a branding effort to develop a unique identity for the institution. One of the key advocates for the effort, the Director of Communications, wanted to define who the university is, what it wants, and where it is going. A public relations firm was hired to provide consultation and facilitate the branding effort that was called the “VI project” (Waeraas & Solbakk, 2009).
The article was well-organized and presented the information in a manner that flowed from the beginning to the conclusion. The article presented that there is little research on how branding efforts are implemented in higher education institutions, especially with regards to what worked and what didn’t. This article provided a critique of the brand initiative and numerous specific examples and quotes from key participants. Unfortunately, I feel the theoretical framework used in the article limited the value of the information presented. To me the study came across as a rationalization of why branding is inappropriate for universities, rather than a more objective critique of the process. The article was cohesive and consistent but the information presented was skewed to the positions of the skeptic participants in the branding effort. Without question, however, the study paints a clear picture of the formidable challenges associated with branding a university.
More than 50 references were cited including articles providing support for branding universities and articles identifying major obstacles to overcome. I appreciated the broad spectrum of views on branding included. In addition to the literature review, the study used a longitudinal design with qualitative data gathered from three sources: archive data, two series of semi-structured interviews, and numerous unstructured conversations with the VI project manager (Waeraas & Solbakk, 2009). This method of data collection allows for rich insight regarding the challenges and opportunities associated with the initiative. The archive data included communication strategy and communication platform drafts, meeting minutes, strategy documents, annual reports, etc. For the study, the authors communicated with key participants in the VI project including the VI project manager, the Director of Communications, the University Provost, University President, a consultant from the public relations firm, and faculty who had participated in the workshops. The data was organized into three central themes: 1) overall identity definition (what to be), 2) core values (what to stand for), and 3) consistency (how to orchestrate the university’s communication).
Not developing the brand
With the goal of reflecting the academic nature of the institution, location in Norway, and research foci on arctic topics (e.g., auroral light research, fishery science), the overall identity definition devised was “The University of the North.” This definition was not well received by faculty who believed the focus on location was too limiting and the arctic topics excluded a number of departments such as mathematics, business, law, and medicine. The exercise created a dilemma of choosing between an overall identity definition around the arctic and northern research foci that excluded other fields or choosing a more general, less differentiated profile. As a result, the final proposed communication strategy didn’t include the university’s overall identity definition (Waeraas & Solbakk, 2009). Strike one.
After an in-depth search in the organization that was facilitated by the public relations firm, the university’s value platform was proposed to be “open, different, and vigorous.” Not surprisingly, this went over like a lead balloon. As a result of the criticism, the platform was revised to “strong, important, and open.” The platform attempted to build on the traditional values of the university. “Strong” was intended to refer to the quality of research and teaching and “important” to the university’s role in the north. The second version didn’t fare much better and was criticized (correctly, I believe) for not being distinct. At this point, the initiative started to unravel as the provost and other VI project members became increasingly skeptical of the value of the branding effort. Towards the end of the project, the provost, backed by the president, refused to recommend the value platform to the university board. Strike two.
Even though there tends to be little control over faculty actions or communication in universities, the IV project team initially was optimistic about achieving a consistency that would clarify the image of the university. However, this effort was viewed as an attack on academic freedom and was derailed quickly. One of the workshop participants described it as, “almost totalitarianism, that we all should march in the same direction, as an organization, and be at management’s beck and call.” Strike three.
The authors provided several reasons why defining a brand is problematic for universities. Among them are the difficulty in agreeing on central values and the challenges of describing an institutional identity that built on university traditions but was also distinctive. With the complexity of universities and the difficulty of developing a common essence, the authors suggested branding exercises may be inappropriate.
The article vividly illustrates what can go wrong when developing a university’s brand and I agree it is difficult to point to positive outcomes from the brand initiative. I strongly disagree, however, that the failure of the initiative suggests that branding is inappropriate for universities. Here are a number of reasons why:
- It wasn’t apparent that there was a competitive threat or other significant market factor that provided a compelling rationale for developing a brand.
- The authors included little information reflecting a student (i.e., customer) perspective. A brand should be built around what is meaningful and relevant to customers.
- I agree with the authors that the overall identity definition of “The University of the North” is poor. However, an inadequate identity definition doesn’t mean branding isn’t needed.
- The university value platform of “strong, important, and open” wasn’t so great either. It is difficult to articulate any value platform in three words that is distinctive and can serve as a strategic guide for an organization. I would use a different process (and more words) to define organizational values.
- Developing a great brand and maintaining academic freedom are not mutually exclusive. A well-defined brand enables university capabilities by attracting well qualified students and faculty that keep the institution economically viable.
As indicated in the article, there is relatively little research on the branding process at universities. With increased competition, the need for a well-crafted brand becomes more important. There is an opportunity to apply the methodology used in the study to research universities, particularly those in highly competitive markets. Where have branding efforts been successful and why? What efforts have failed and why? What best practices of branding are emerging?
The article is a reminder to me about the importance of objectivity in research. I believe the bias of the authors led them to suggest that branding was likely not appropriate for universities because the branding initiative they studied failed. While I disagree, it is important for me to consider my preconceived notions as I pursue my area of inquiry. If I simply look to justify my position, I will have missed a great opportunity for learning.