Why Universities need to take brand positioning seriously

Why Universities need to take brand positioning seriously


Tim Kaner, our education sector specialist, reflects on the role of brand positioning in building University reputation.

‘Reputation is a belief that an individual has, or group of individuals have, about a person or entity. This belief derives from the views (or opinions) that other people have about the person or entity in question, and incorporates the expectations, norms, and values that underpin and shape those views. Hence, reputation is a socially derived, summative construct. O. Merlo, B.A. Lukas, G.J. Whitwell Marketing’s reputation and influence in the firm Journal of Business Research, 65 (3) (2012),

‘Your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room’ Jeff Bezos

Reputation matters

For universities their reputation is a critical (if intangible) strategic asset.

Reputation certainly matters – helping the organization to recruit students, develop partnerships with research funders and collaborators, exercise influence locally, regionally, nationally and internationally, generate the tangible and intangible support including from the alumni/ae community required to succeed and of particular importance in this context, to recruit and retain staff.

Standing in national or international league tables is often cited as evidence of reputational strength and certainly influences what some key audiences think and feel but is this really evidence of a successfully differentiated positioning which describes how a university is perceived relative to others? What do league tables say about the working culture, the strength and coherence of a university community, its commitment to diversity in all its forms?

Certainly excellence over a sustained period matters – as it should – but there is a significant amount of homogeneity over what universities say about themselves and indeed how they say it.

The reputation of a university is established over time through a combination of the collective achievements and actions of its academic, student and alumni community, how it behaves as a corporate entity especially within its local and regional context and how it communicates across channels internally and externally. It is of course influenced by how a university deploys the tools of branding.

Branding matters

In my experience the concept of branding can, to be frank, be viewed with disdain and even distaste by some, however it pervades all aspects of society and if done well, can help organisations, businesses, cities, regions, campaigns and even individuals achieve their aims and fulfil their core purposes, for good or ill.

This has very practical benefits:

  • Helping customers distinguish between products or services which offer similar benefits
  • Convincing customers that a particular product or service has greater value than its competitors
  • Lowering the cost of entry for an organisation seeking to move into new markets or sectors
  • Helping to attract and retain high quality staff
  • Encapsulating the enduring emotional connection between an organisation and both its customers and staff

In the context of universities this means:

  • Helping to convince potential applicants to choose you over somewhere else
  • Helping to convince applicants that your degree or other qualifications are worth the financial (and time) commitment
  • Helping you (and individuals with your community) to develop relationships with potential partners and collaborators (e.g. research funders, placement providers, recruiters, commercial partners, other actors with the local/regional ecosytem)
  • Helping to attract and retain high quality staff
  • Helping you to convince your stakeholders of the benefits you bring to the locality (and mitigate some of the downside impacts of your presence)
  • Encapsulating the enduring emotional connection between your university and your students, your alumni/ae and your staff

Have we forgotten positioning ?

The global community of university marketeers/comms/external affairs practitioners makes valiant efforts to use the tools of branding to tell a coherent and hopefully inspiring story for their university (for some examples of this I recommend you check out the #retroindex from @JimTudor) but I believe they should spend more time seeking to identify a genuinely differentiated positioning idea.

This must address three key questions:

  • What is your long term‐desired purpose, your right to exist?
  • What are the principles and beliefs by which you choose to behave?
  • What’s the style and tone with which you express yourself and which shapes how you behave?

Location is a useful descriptor, but no substitute for positioning

Clearly place plays a critically important role.

Many – though by no means all – universities firmly state their physical location in their charter of incorporation or equivalent and it becomes shorthand for the brand. Names of founders or benefactors account for several others but it is not so easy to find examples of universities which have landed upon a genuinely differentiated positioning idea which goes to the very essence of what they stand for – the Open University perhaps being an honorable exception.

Perhaps this is because universities already have at their core an idea which – when the first universities were founded – defined a scholarly community differently from other types of entity also being legally incorporated at the time – towns and cities, guilds, banking houses for example – a community created for the creation and dissemination of knowledge which is still a fair description of what universities seek to do.

Positioning should drive brand expression

According to @QS their world ranking now lists ‘1,500 institutions across 104 locations’. Yes, they might do this in many different ways and in many different cultural, historical, political and geographical contexts, but if you take a close look at cross section of university mission statements, website content, marketing materials and prospectuses you’d find endless variations on a similar theme.

For me, this illustrates that universities tend to use the tools of branding primarily for story-telling and why it is so critically important – and also so difficult – to identify and articulate a positioning which can act as a platform for brand expression and which genuinely reflects what is unique, different and relevant about your university. Something which nowhere else could claim.

This is so much more than a visual identity, branding toolkit and set of guidelines.

It is an idea, based on a compelling insight, which articulates what or whom you are fighting for (or against), encapsulates what is unique about your culture and impact and is evidenced across all aspects of your manifestation in the physical and virtual world including the experience you create for your applicants, your students, your visitors and, arguably for your most critical asset, your current and future staff.

Tim began his career in advertising before moving client side at Sony Europe. His roles included Director of Marketing Communications and Director of the Marketing Strategy Office.

After a stint in brand consultancy with the Value Engineers, he moved into the HE sector as Director of Marketing & Communications at the University of Bath, becoming Chief Marketing Officer in 2019. He joined Hanover Fox in 2023.

Email: Tim.Kaner@Hanoverfox.com