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.