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Nowadays modern environment where universities and colleges act determines them to find highly revolutionary development strategies. Such a strategy is the one to rank a brand. Consumers in the era of technology and information tend to remember only a certain service, product or company that ranks first. The need to use the strategy ensues from higher education institutions’ will to attract valuable students in order to turn them into valuable specialists of the society. The ways to implement university brand ranking differ among institutions, yet the results are spectacular. It is true that besides the good feeling of victory against competition one should also take into account failure risk. But that is not discouraging, on the contrary it should determine universities and colleges to become university education “Lindbergh”.

Key Terms: university, higher education, brand, strategy, positioning, success

Brand position in higher education

“ …positioning is not what you do to a product. Positioning is what you do to the mind of the prospect. That is, you position the product in the mind of the prospect.”[1]

Branding has become the latest fashion statement in the marketing of higher education. Higher education institutions need to be certain that the development of a brand and market positioning strategy encompasses much more than a logo or slogan. An effective brand position must capture the distinctive mission, aspirations, and strengths of an institution and appeal to the motivations and interests of the marketplace.

Economic and other market realities are making it increasingly imperative for colleges and universities to invest their resources in strategic planning initiatives that promise to have the greatest positive impact on enrollment. Yet, while many institutions have become adept at developing and refining their strategic plans, in our experience, these plans are rarely subjected to tests of feasibility, particularly from the vantage point of student recruitment.

A method called Simulated Decision Modeling (SDM)SM [2] was elaborated for this, which enables us to explore different populations of students.

It is the only proven research tool that can provide empirically sound, reliable market data to help guide and shape an institution's strategic priorities.

Simulated Decision Modeling (SDM)SM enables us to develop predictive models of students' decisions about whether they would apply to, or matriculate at your institution as a function of a variety of factors, including the following:

Academic offerings - new or planned programs;

Advanced study and research opportunities;

Structured experiences and career-related learning opportunities on campus and beyond;

Distinct or extensive study abroad and other international learning opportunities;

Co-curricular offers and activities;

Academic facilities (e.g., library, laboratories, research technologies);

Student life facilities (e.g., athletic/recreational, student center, dining and social areas);

Residential housing options.

The SDM method also enables us to measure the enrollment effects of branding and positioning strategies.

Regarding the construction of brands for higher education there is a brand model based upon:


the personality of an university is the sum of the people who are identified with it:

this includes students, faculty, staff, alumni and others who are associated with it, either formally or informally. How “he” or “she” talks about the place is critically important, same impact having Pro-rectors, Deans, Department’s Directors, and Department Heads and so on.


the perceived advantages for being associated with an academy, are benefits;

without perceived benefits there is no reason for any one to seek it.


value is all about worth in the minds of users;

How valuable is an university offer perceived?

this key idea relates to how much an university can charge for its services.


the idea here is the level of academic strength;

how well an educational institution ranks in the mental scale of consumers’ minds, which is critical for the brands’ identity.


imagery is the sum of words and pictures in the minds of an university target audiences;

it is the job of any academic institution to add positive information to this key image factor.


this is an educational idea describing how well an academy has kept current with developments including technology (web site and on line assistance), current teaching and learning developments (such as distance education)[3].

The emergence of branding in higher education is very much a consequence of system level policies in the sector.

Influenced by New Public Management philosophies, governments throughout the world have built during the last twenty years their governing strategies around keywords such as transparency, comparability and consumption. The effects are recognizable in a number of countries. The massive build-up of various forms of evaluations of higher education, performance indicators and report cards have created a sector that in many ways are more transparent than ever before.

Ranking systems have emerged in a number of countries intended to guide student choice as to which institution and study program they should attend, or as background information for funding decisions. Treating students as customers may however, have the effect that they actually start to behave as such, which probably is one of the major factors behind the tendency to look upon higher education as an industry. According to a number of studies, there are some serious side-effects that should be considered carefully when arguing for more “market” in higher education.

Strategies for developing brands in higher education

Two commonly used branding strategies are category extensions and brand leveraging. Category extensions entail entering a product or service category where the brand had not heretofore competed. Extensions can be used to reposition a brand’s meaning, but this is often a slow and costly process, and may backfire if an inconsistent extension is selected. For example, Budweiser might successfully extend into pretzels and other snacks, but probably not into orange juice. Further, some brands are so dominant that it is difficult for consumers to learn new associations. These are known as master brands. Being a master brand is both a blessing and a curse—while master brands enjoy substantial market share, it is difficult for them to be truly revolutionary. These are the brands that suffer most during times of rapid consumer preference shifts. Master brands can be extended directly by strengthening the brand’s core competencies. Fortifying higher education brands through direct extensions simply entails expanding curricula and programms under the umbrella of the institution’s brand, on site. Another direct method of extension is expanding the customer group. In higher education, this approach is evident in the increased focus on nontraditional students, graduate and professional programs delivered through Web-based technologies, and off-site executive education programs.

The Brand Leveraging Compass”[ shown in Figure 1 identifies four principle strategies for leveraging the value of a brand. Strategies on the north-south axis represent vertical branding tactics, whereby new elements are added to an existing brand. Strategies on the east-west axis represent horizontal tactics, whereby elements from different brands are combined.

Brand Leveraging Compass

Figure 1

Source: Paul Herr - “Higher Education Institutional Brand Value in Transition - Measurement and Management Issues”, University of Colorado

Sub-branding strategies. Sub-branding represents an effort to add an element below the level of the master brand. A sub-brand combines with a master brand to create a “dual mark”, both of which are owned by the same firm. This is often done with fairly old, established brands. In higher education, the technique is fairly straightforward, and can be seen in university sponsored institutes, departments, and the like.

Super-branding strategies. Super-branding represents an attempt to add elements to an existing brand hierarchy above the level of the master brand. Typically, this is done to reflect an improvement in the master brand, for example, Holiday Inn’s Crown Plaza Hotels. This strategy generally works best when a substantially new and improved product is being introduced, and when the master brand is shielded—at least at first—to facilitate learning the new association.

Brand-bundling strategies. Brand-bundling represents an attempt to overcome the limitations of the master brand’s strengths vis-ŕ-vis the competition by pairing someone else’s established brand with your product. This “cross branding” is fairly common in higher education, with cross registration agreements and consortia, as well as joint faculty arrangements. Brand-bundling may play an even greater role in the future as 1) established institutions become targets for newer institutions to elevate their credibility or 2) established institutions pair with each other to more effectively compete with the newer institutions.

Brand-bridging strategies. When a firm wishes to move towards a more distant product or service category, the master brand might sponsor a newly created brand until that brand has sufficient strength to stand on its own. Unlike super-branding, the master brand is not initially hidden. This leapfrogging allows the master brand to stretch farther than it could have without the intervening of the new brand. This strategy may be especially important as a possible means for individual institutions to reposition in a fairly short time.

The benefits of branding[5]

Even though there are indications that rankings may produce a more mobile student population, data still suggest that most students are affected by other factors than reputation and image when making university choices.

The fact that a large number of students or students from high income families which most often use rankings to inform their choices is still a strong indication that such rankings have an important signaling function for the most attractive segment of the student market. For the individual institution, attracting such students through various branding efforts is therefore a rather obvious and potential benefiting strategy.

Branding is also a phenomenon that allows the individual institution to provide information and images that combine neutral information with information intended to create emotional ties between various stakeholders and a given institution. The long-term success of developing good alumni relations is more than anything an emotional process intended to build a personal relation between the individual and the institution.

Branding may also be a promising strategy for improving institutional cooperation. As institutions are exposed to an increasing competition, one institutional response may be to join other institutions in some cooperative effort. The interest we have seen in the last decade of creating new university networks are probably just one of the effects of such considerations. Hence, while most student behavior is more or less unaffected by rankings, there is evidence suggesting that rankings and similar efforts are affecting higher education institutions to a much larger extent. In the race for prestige, selecting the right institutional partner must be done carefully.

Branding efforts may also be a promising way to instigate internal change at a given institution. The strong disciplinary focus held by many academics and the emergence of more matrix structures inside higher education institutions are factors that do not necessarily support strategies and objectives at the institutional level. Hence, providing internal support and interest for institutional strategies and the institutional mission may appear as a rational reason to engage in branding efforts in higher education.

This may be of special interest in situations where institutions are experiencing a rising level of tension internally as a result of the reallocation of resources, the closing down of certain study programs or units.

Last but not least, branding efforts may help higher education institutions to rediscover what they are, and their basic purposes. In an age with new stakeholders entering higher education, new demands being directed at universities, and more tasks than ever to handle, higher education institutions may soon face a situation of overload capacity.

The dangers of branding

However, the potential advantages of branding cannot hide the fact that branding is also a quite risky business for higher education institutions. For example, many of prestige-seeking higher education institutions tend to invest in areas such as admission selectivity, student consumption benefits (dormitories, eating facilities, etc.) or other measures intended to improve their positions in the published rankings. These are relatively costly investments, especially since it is not known how much such investments actually matter for student’s choice.

A study re-analyzing data on student satisfaction from Norway indicate that for Norwegian students, it is factors relating to teaching and learning what causes higher student satisfaction, not buildings, computer facilities, etc.

Since the institutions involved in the branding game tend to spend money in the same areas, and since competing for prestige is a zero-sum game, the investments are both high-risky and with potential little impact on student’s choice. Investing in dormitories and similar things is also a sign that branding efforts easily may turn students into the role of the customer.

There is a risk involved if reality is perceived as different from the image sought and created. Trust may take a long time to build, but may take a short time to destroy. Students who are turned into customers may also be a very demanding and unstable group, where one faces the danger that these “students are leaving universities almost as fast as new students are enrolled”.

Another potential risk involved in creating a strong university brand is related to the enlargement of the sector and the more diverse student population in higher education. This diverse student population means that student objectives, their study ambitions and involvement may vary considerably. Establishing a strong brand may as a consequence mean that some students are attracted by it, while others feel that it doesn’t appeal to them. A given university may want such selectivity, but it also mean that potentially interested students are turned away.

A thing that is painful for higher education institutions is the existence of so-called “flock effect” in their behavior. This means that if one of them has reached a level to enjoy a certain success, other will copy their strategies hopping to obtain the same success. One explanation for this result is that higher education institutions engaged in the branding game may look more at what their competitors are doing than what students, parents or other stakeholders consider important. In the end, this is perhaps the most dangerous effect of engaging in the branding game: if universities become more similar in their attributes and characteristics, they remove themselves from the one element that it is most difficult to copy; their organizational identity.


[1] Al Ries and Jack Trout – “Positioning: The Battle for your Mind”, Brandbuilders Group Edition, Bucharest, 2004


[3] Bob Topor – „Branding Higher Education – some ideas from Bob Topor”, Senior Consultant, Topor Consulting Group

Paul Herr - “Higher Education Institutional Brand Value in Transition - Measurement and Management Issues”, University of Colorado

[5] Dr. Bjřrn Stensaker –“Strategy, identity and branding – Re-inventing higher education institutions”, NIFU STEP, Oslo, a paper presented to the City Higher Education Seminar Series (CHESS), City University, London ,7th December 2005, pag.5-8

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