Branding and universities – a mismatch of purpose and place?

I’m currently reading Waeraas and Solbakk (2009), a paper titled “Defining the essence of a university: lessons from higher education branding.” and with the following abstract.

Branding is a phenomenon that has become increasingly common in higher education over the last few years. It entails defining the essence of what a university ‘‘is’’, what it ‘‘stands for’’, and what it is going to be known for, requiring precision and consistency in the formulations as well as internal commitment to the brand. This article details what happened in the process of defining the essence of a regional university in Northern Norway. Addressing the challenges, the article reveals that the notions of consistency, precision, and commitment generated resistance from faculty members and made the process very difficult to fulfill. An important finding is that a university may be too complex to be encapsulated by one brand or identity definition. The article describes this process, explains the reasons for the difficulties, and discusses some implications for higher education branding.

The Ps Framework: a messy version

My interest in this paper arises out of some recent local experience, but mostly because of my PhD Thesis and the Purpose and Place components of the Ps Framework that is arising from the PhD.

For me, branding and how it should be carried out is a perfect example of a teleological design process and the mismatch such a process is for a “place” like a university. A perspective that the authors seem to agree with

An important finding is that a university may be too complex to be encapsulated by one brand or identity definition

Why branding?

Waeraas and Solbakk (2009) give the following partial explanation

In the face of increased national and international competition, universities and colleges in all parts of the world have begun a search for a unique definition of what they are in order to differentiate themselves and attract students and academic staff

They differentiate themselves by identifying their brand. To do this they must

Organizational identity is believed to be a fundamental starting point for the corporate brand definition. In order to communicate an organization’s identity, the organization must first know its essential and unique characteristics

In their literature review, Waeraas and Solbakk (2009) proceed to outline what is required to achieve this. In doing so, they draw on a lot of words and phrases that very heavily draw upon the “organisation as machine” metaphor which underpins much of management and information systems research. Behrens (2009) talks more about this. There’s a lot of talk about “managing, defining and mesuring” identities, characteristics and core values.

The also mention a number of researchers who have indicated some troubles with this sort of approach

Albert and Whetten suggested that precise classification may even be undesirable or unattainable in some contexts, as the complexities of organizations ‘‘may make a simple statement of identity impossible’’…..Over time, organizations become institutionalized as patterns of interaction and meanings emerge…….Any deliberate attempt by top management to change the organization’s identity will ultimately pertain to its integrity and distinctive competence. By implication, organizations with strong traditions and deeply rooted values will be difficult to change, leaving top management few degrees of freedom in terms of the potential for planned change. Attempts by managers at treating organizational identity as a holistic, overarching phenomenon are likely to produce resistance and conflicts (Humphreys and Brown 2002).

Views of branding

The authors list a range of views of branding from the literature

  • Positive views, where authors see “branding as an instrument for improving competitiveness and reputation”.
  • Not so positive, where authors think “branding is not a rational tool, but just a myth or a symbol that universities use to demonstrate conformity to their institutional environments”. A view which can lead to cliche and conformity.
  • Finally, the mismatch view that suggests “its implementation challenges the traditional values that exist within academia in general and within specific universities in particular”.

The mismatch between purpose and place

As a teleological design process, at least as it is typically implemented, branding assumes that it is possible to achieve a single “brand” (or purpose) for the organisation and then expect everyone to work toward it. This collective action is important to maintain the brand

An organization’s communication should be integrated and orchestrated (van Riel 1995; van Riel and Fombrun 2007), and employees should all share and endorse the same views about the organization, preferrably by ‘‘living the brand’’

This assumes that it is possible and desirable for all members of a university to act with common purpose, to live a common brand. Trouble is, that isn’t what universities are

In general, there is no tradition for tightly controlling faculty members’ actions or communication
in universities. Individual members of a university are, by definition, very
autonomous individuals.

This is assuming that you could actually define a common brand in the first place

The data have clearly revealed considerable difficulties in defining the university’s overall identity; its ‘‘essence’’.

In terms of place, Universities are perhaps to complex to be simplistically reduced to a single identity

The lesson learned from the VI experiment is that universities may be too complex and fragmented to both understand and express as single identity organizations. This complexity is difficult to encapsulate simply by three values and/or an overarching identity definition, as one definition would rule out alternative definitions. Putting the emphasis on only one definition would be the same as saying that this focus and its related disciplines are more valid than others. As university members often identify more with their academic disciplines and units than with the university as a whole, the consequence of such a reduction of variety is, not surprisingly, resistance and conflict.

So what’s the solution

I’m somewhat surpised by the solution suggested in the paper and the one apparently adopted by the President of the University. It mirrors some of the fundamental parts of my PhD work

A pragmatic approach to higher education branding would imply building on the variety
that exists within the organization……Instead of imposing one official and consistent definition of the organization and to control the meanings linked to it, he found it more practical to emphasize a repertoire of identities and meanings.

Rather than artificially, and ultimately less than successfully, restrict the variety embodied in a University, celebrate it. That’s a fundamental principle of my design theory for e-learning and the benefits that arise are essentially the same

First, it provides a great deal of flexibility……Such a flexibility is a considerable advantage when it comes to matching ambiguous and complex demands from the external environments….Second, retaining multiple values and identities may promote uniqueness. Higher education institutions have better chances of becoming strong brands if they are allowed to express their unique strengths and virtues, however inconsistent.


Behrens, S. (2009). “Metaphor, meaning and myth: Exploring diversity in information systems research”, Working paper based on an earlier work

Waeraas, A. and M. Solbakk (2009). “Defining the essence of a university: lessons from higher education branding.” Higher Education 57(4): 449-462.

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