Higher education branding as a “sea of sameness” demands actions by higher education leadership and management

Organizational identity has received immense attention from a number of stakeholders (Bess & Dee, 2012; Stenstaker, 2015). An outgrowth of this attention can directly be tied to efforts to brand institutional activities (Wæraas & Solbakk, 2009). National and international competition has been a catalyst for branding in higher education (Stensaker, 2007). Therefore, managerial strategies such as marketing and branding have become a priority to higher education institutions (HEIs) in order to create an identity advantage at the national, regional, and international levels.

Higher education decision makers employ marketing and branding strategies to create an advantage for their institutions at the national, regional, and international level. Brand building is becoming a deliberate goal for higher education, although the sector lacks comprehensive theoretical models of higher education marketing and branding. The development of a set of clear brand principles may not be easy given the complexity of HEIs.

The idea that colleges and universities are complex organizations that adapt to their external environment has long been accepted in higher education scholarly circles (Enders, 2004; Manning, 2013; Papadimitriou, 2011). A changing environment would, then, require organizational adaptation. Following this logic, if one seeks to make sense of the emergence of branding and marketing, it is necessary to look at changes in the environment. When analyzing the many forces transforming higher education today, it is possible to identify three overlapping themes:

  1. the development of policies promoting competition within and across national systems of higher education,
  2. college and university administrators promoting entrepreneurial and market-driven initiatives in order to respond to an increasingly competitive environment, and
  3. practitioners inside colleges and universities developing communication strategies—frequently involving electronic media—with the aim of increasing enrollments, and acquiring new funding and public support.

Scholars in higher education have taken notice of these developments and, consequently, concepts such as marketization, consumer orientation in higher education, and global competition —have become established areas of inquiry in the field. In addition, branding, along with the use of social media and new marketing strategies, have gained terrain not only among practitioners but also have received increasing attention from scholars. Concomitant with this increased interest in branding and marketing in higher education, visual and multimodal modes of inquiry have gained acceptance in the field.

Branding is not altogether a new concept: “Branding began sometime around 1500 B.C., when the ancient Greeks marked their cattle, … however, branding initiatives relevant to an institutional enterprise began in 1931” (Muntean, Cabulea, & Danuletiu, 2009, p. 1066). Clifton et al. (2009, p. 14) assumed “it was of course by burning that early man stamped ownership on his livestock, and with the development of trade buyers would use brands as a means of distinguishing between the cattle of one farmer and another”. For centuries, people have used stamps on products to differentiate between brands of different regions in the world. These examples illustrate that branding has traditionally served a differentiating purpose. However, higher education branding has been described as a “sea of sameness” (Clayon, Cavanagh & Hettche, 2012, p. 182). These observations make the need for new examinations of marketing and branding in higher education more pressing and of increasing relevance to campus stakeholders.

To fill some of the research gaps in a useful and influential way to higher education academics, professionals, and graduate students the Competition in Higher Education Branding and Marketing: National and Global Perspectives (in press) presents theoretical, empirical, and methodological contributions to understanding challenges and opportunities of branding and marketing within the global context of various higher education systems from Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and USA.

Reference list

Bess, J. L. & Dee, J.R. (2012). Understanding college and university organization:  

Theories for effective policy and practice (2 vol).Sterling, VA Stylus.

Clayton, M. J., Cavanagh, K. V., & Hettche, M. (2012). Institutional branding: a content analysis of public service announcements from American universities. Journal of Marketing for Higher Education, 22, 2, 182-205.

Clifton, R., Ahmed, S., Allen, T., Anholt, S., Barwise, P., Blackett, T., … Smith, S. (2009). Brands and branding (2nd ed). New York, NY: Bloomberg Press

Enders, J. (2004). Higher education, internationalisation, and the nation-state: Recent developments and challenges to governance theory. Higher Education, 47(3), 361-382.

Manning, K. (2013). Organizational theory in higher education. New York: Routledge.

Muntean, A., Cabulea, L. & Dănuleţiu, D. (2009) The brand: One of the UNIVERSITY’S most valuable asset, Annales Universitatis Apulensis Series Oeconomica, 2, issue 11, available at http://EconPapers.repec.org/RePEc:alu:journl:v:2:y:2009:i:11:p:54.

Papadimitriou A. (Ed). (in press) Higher education branding and marketing in a context of global competition: Theoretical and practical perspectives. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Papadimitriou, A. (2011). The enigma of quality in Greek higher education: A mixed methods study of introducing quality management into Greek higher education. Enshcede, the Netherlands: University of Twente, CHEPS.

Stensaker, B. (2007). The relationship between branding and organisational change. Higher Education Management and Policy, 19(1), 1–18.

Stensaker, Bjørn (2015). Organizational Identity as a concept for understanding university dynamics.  Higher Education 69(1), 103- 115. doi: 10.1007/s10734-014-9763-8

Wæraas, A., & Solbakk, M. N. (2009). Defining the essence of a university: Lessons

from higher education branding. Higher education57(4), 449-462.


Dr. Antigoni Papadimitriou

Dr. Antigoni Papadimitriou

John Hopkins University USA Assistant Professor of Leadership, School of Education

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