A Brand Ecosystem for Higher Education

Pinar, M., Trapp, P., Girard, T., & Boyt, T. E. (2011). Utilizing the brand ecosystem framework in designing branding strategies for higher education. International Journal of Educational Management, 25(7), 724–739. doi:10.1108/09513541111172126

“Utilizing The Brand Ecosystem Framework in Designing Branding Strategies for Higher Education” includes a compelling rationale for the importance of branding institutions of higher education and a framework for developing a brand.  Building off of an extensive review of the literature, the authors provide information specific to higher education institutions (such as challenges associated with the narrow view of branding), present a brand ecosystem, and demonstrate the importance of having a fully integrated effort.  The literature review includes numerous general marketing sources as well as those specific to higher education.

In the article, the authors use a coherent well-organized approach that includes examples of branding and its components both from outside of and within higher education.  This approach, particularly the examples of branding in higher education, presents a clear reason for the value of branding to a higher education audience that may be less familiar with the concept.  The main goal of the article is to present a theoretical framework that includes the major factors and interactions of these factors in developing a university brand (Pinar, Trapp, Girard, & Boyt, 2011).  This theoretical framework is the articles primary contribution to the field.  There was no primary data gathered by the authors and the analysis was based on the information gleamed from the literature review.

With the recent economic downturn, reduced higher education funding from states (for state colleges and universities), and the increase in for profit competitors, higher education institutions have looked for alternative ways to maintain or improve the services they provide.  A number of institutions have explored branding.  According to Kotler and Keller (2006), a brand represents customers’ perceptions and feelings about the product (or service) and its performance.  As one of the most important assets of an organization, brands need to be thoughtfully developed and managed.

Some in higher education view branding as only marketing communication such as brochures, logos, and websites.  A brand is much broader than that and includes the experiences of students, alumni, donors, and employers with the institution.  In higher education, a more significant challenge is the “ideological gap” between designing the university experience to meet student expectations and designing the service to meet what the institution believes the students should experience.  Brands that are successful at the university level focus on students and their needs, not on what the university believes students should need (Ng & Forbes, 2008).  For many universities, the focus on students’ needs will only occur when there is a substantial paradigm shift and operational changes throughout the institution.  These changes may be necessary but likely won’t be easy.

The theoretical framework presented by the authors is called a brand ecosystem (Pinar et al., 2011).  In a brand ecosystem, the preferences and expectations of the target market are the driving force.  Also, every internal and external activity in the brand system inter-relate and should contribute to reinforcing the desired brand image and customer experience with the brand, both short-term and long-term.  With the perspective that students are the only reason universities exist, the center of the brand ecosystem is the student experience, as indicated in the graphic below.  The core value created by the university experience is learning through teaching and research.  Other activities that create value for students include student life, sports, and community activities or service (Pinar et al., 2011).  While these ancillary services may not be essential, they impact the delivery of the core academic service and all services interact to create the entire university experience for students (Ng & Forbes, 2008).  The brand ecosystem also includes the experiences of alumni, donors, and employers with the institution.

Like other services, the students’ education experience is the sum of all encounters including student-faculty, student-administration/staff, and student-student interactions, any of which has the capability to influence students’ perception of the university brand.  The academic experience, for example, can be viewed as the sum of classroom lectures and discussions, homework, tests, class projects, internships, student research supervised by faculty, conversations between students and faculty, academic advising, etc.  Each encounter can improve or negatively affect the students experience and therefore, the brand ecosystem is a compilation of the interrelated experiences over time that share a common focus and direction (Pinar et al., 2011).  Due to the importance of these encounters, universities should clearly articulate the desired student experience and provide a strong internal branding program and provide faculty and staff with the necessary training and support, particularly for those whose duties require direct contact with students.  Highly qualified faculty, staff and administrators are essential to creating excellent student experiences with the brand ecosystem.  Universities should clarify the roles and behavior needed from all employees to deliver on the promises of value associated with the brand.  A university brand and a student experience have an interdependent relationship.  The brand communicates the type of experience (i.e., promise and expectation) while the experience reinforces and (hopefully) builds the brand.  In turn, the brand facilitates the next experience in a relationship that continues in a dynamic and mutually rewarding way.

My view

The authors write with a well-informed marketing perspective that is firmly grounded in higher education.  Some in higher education continue to believe that branding is not appropriate and incompatible with traditional academic values.  I believe that good branding not only is aligned with academic values but can bring them to the forefront.  It isn’t one or the other.  Without branding, universities face greater risk of declines in enrollment and, more importantly, a missed opportunity to become more student focused.

The article presents the rationale for branding in an effective manner for those in higher education.  In addition, the brand ecosystem provides a high level model for universities willing to take the first step in developing a brand.  The authors suggest future research on implementing measuring and testing the brand ecosystem model and I agree.  Developing the model is helpful; implementing and testing it would provide great insight into the model’s effectiveness and capability to facilitate the adoption of much needed branding initiatives in higher education.

Kotler, P., & Keller, K. L. (2006). Marketing Management (12th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Ng, I., & Forbes, J. (2008). Education as service: the understanding of university experience through the service logic. Journal of Marketing Higher Education, 19(1), 38–64.

Pinar, M., Trapp, P., Girard, T., & Boyt, T. E. (2011). Utilizing the brand ecosystem framework in designing branding strategies for higher education. International Journal of Educational Management, 25(7), 724–739. doi:10.1108/09513541111172126


Branding at Embry-Riddle

Curtis, T., Abratt, R., & Minor, W. (2009). Corporate brand management in higher education: the case of ERAU. Journal of Product & Brand Management, 18(6), 404–413. doi:10.1108/10610420910989721

“Corporate Brand Management in Higher Education: The Case of ERAU” is a good primer on branding a higher education institution.  The article is easy to read, well organized, and has appropriate headings.  Included in the article is an extensive and clearly presented literature review with an overview of corporate branding as well as how this concept and the concepts of corporate identity and corporate image can be used in higher education.  The rationale for adopting corporate brand management in higher education is comprehensive and straightforward.  Regarding contribution to field, this article is helpful for institutions that don’t have much experience in branding, particularly those that are considering starting a branding initiative.  I don’t believe the information in the article is strong enough to change the mind of skeptics who believe branding is incompatible with academic principles and values.

The theoretical framework for the research is informed by the perspectives provided regarding how corporate branding, corporate identity, and corporate image relate to higher education.  This is helpful because the information presented is applicable to most businesses and institutions including colleges and universities.

A qualitative approach with a single case study method was used for the research.  Data was collected from a variety of sources including secondary sources (e.g., university documents and Web site, archival data) and interviews of top university administrators.  A discussion document focused on brand management was drawn up for the interviews based on the literature review.  Open ended questions for administrators were focused on identifying the purpose of the corporate brand management process and logistics.  This approach is appropriate due to the complexity of the process, multiple and dynamic variables involved, and numerous participants on the initiative.

Corporate Branding in Higher Education

Corporate brands should be true, meaningful to the target audience, and distinct from the competition. Target audiences in higher education might include prospective and current students, parents, faculty and staff, alumni, community stakeholders, and the general public.  A brand can also incorporate “belonging.” This is important in higher education where graduates may identify with the brand of their school throughout their life. University brands may include a variety of quantitative measures to position themselves compared to competitors such as faculty research productivity, student scores on entrance exams, selectivity of admissions, and starting salary of graduates.  Qualitative measures used for positioning may include the perceptions of the university’s target audiences.  Branding is not only the responsibility of the school’s marketing department.  A successful brand requires alignment of all the university’s resources.  The quality of the institution’s faculty and research, the programs offered, the service provided to students, and the physical attributes of the campus and facilities should all express and reinforce the brand.

Corporate Identity and Image for Higher Education

Corporate identity is the portion of the brand that is created by internal stakeholders.  In higher education these identities should position the school appropriately in the marketplace, be accepted by society, and create a consistent image among stakeholders.   Previously, corporate identity used to be limited to visual identifications and logos but has now evolved to include how the school’s employees behave and interact with those outside of the institution.

Corporate image is how those outside the institution (including external stakeholders) view the school.  For comparison, corporate identity is “what the school wants to be” and corporate image is “what the school is perceived to be.”  Corporate image is the result of corporate branding.  Improving image is no easy task because of the diversity of multiple stakeholders and effects of many factors including organizational, situational, personal, business, and regulatory.

The case at Embry-Riddle

Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University is a well-known institution specializing in aviation and aerospace education with about 34,000 students on two residential campuses, online, and at training facilities around the world.  With the leadership of a new president in 2006, the university embarked on a corporate brand management initiative to facilitate additional expansion of the school outside of the United States market.  A substantial challenge was the lack of unity among university constituencies with regard to the brand, image, and identity that the school should have to maintain or improve its existing competitive advantage while expanding programs and research domestically and internationally.

For corporate brand management, the marketing proposed a new website, some program marketing, and developing corporate brand positioning.  The information provided about the website and program marketing activities was basic.  Developing a new website is commonplace in higher education institutions whether or not they embrace branding and the program marketing example was unsophisticated.  The information about developing the corporate brand position illustrated some of the strategic complexity associated with defining a brand.  Should Embry-Riddle broaden its position to become a premium provider of comprehensive education or should they focus their efforts on building on their existing strengths in the domestic and international markets?  These questions are of critical importance and once the brand position is defined it should drive organizational focus and resources.

The next step in the process was to conduct a brand audit.  The article had worthwhile information about the internal and external groups that were to participate and about a brand positioning process model that was used.  There are three measures in a brand audit: awareness, key attributes, and relationship outcomes.  Awareness was measured among key segments in geographical areas. Key attributes were measured as percentages for geographical segments such as, “Embry-Riddle has a broad selection of programs (to meet a variety of needs)” or “Embry-Riddle helps you get a job or advance your career.”  Relational outcomes were measured as percentages for geographic segments among key prospective student groups.  Examples of questions to measure relational outcomes are: “Would you consider Embry-Riddle if you were planning to obtain an aviation/aerospace or general education?” and “Would you advise a co-worker, family member or a friend to consider Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University if they were planning to obtain an aviation/aerospace education or general education?”

Information in the article about the rest of the corporate brand management process was limited. The results of the brand audit are used to generate a concept, which in turn is used to develop the university brand positioning statement.  In the next phase the positioning statement is tested among key stakeholders.  Based on the feedback the formal university positioning statement is created.  The final phase of the process is to develop the marketing campaign based on the statement and determining metrics to evaluate the brand on a regular (in this case annual) basis.

My view

The authors utilized a comprehensive literature review to provide a strong rationale for why institutions of higher learning should articulate and manage their brand.  I liked their use of “corporate” to modify the terms of branding, identity, and image.  In this way, they communicated that the concepts they are recommending for higher education are the same that have been used successfully in businesses and other organizations.  I had high hopes that the case study would provide information regarding the challenges and opportunities faced by the university and substantive implications for developing and managing a brand.  The research did provide helpful information about branding process used by the university but little about the position developed or the lessons learned about the process, both of which were beyond the scope of the study.  What university positioning did Embry-Riddle develop? How was it implemented? Was it effective?

It would have also been helpful to include information from the contrary viewpoint that sees branding as unsuited for higher education.  Individuals with this viewpoint have strong positions that can derail a well-intended branding effort.  Developing a compelling brand for a university is an important and difficult challenge.  Even with an elegant process, there are going to be bumps along the way.

Bad Branding

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.

My view

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.