Branding in Higher Education: an inside view 2017


By Ed Layt

I believe brand plays an important role in the success of Higher Education institutions. Whether that’s attracting the best staff and students or enabling the development of strategic partnerships with businesses and other education institutions. But to what extent does the higher education sector agree? And what are the biggest branding challenges facing universities today?

Last year SMRS conducted a global research project to understand branding in Higher Education. The findings gave an inside view into the importance of brand and the types of challenges being faced by universities of all shapes and sizes. But lots has happened over the last 12 months, so we thought it would be a good idea to understand the impact these market changes have had on universities’ perception of brand, and run a second wave of our research.

Once again well over 100 HE leaders and marketing professionals took part in the survey and here are some of the key findings for 2017.

Brand is becoming more important in Higher Education to ensure success – 97% of survey respondents believed this (a significant increase of 13% on last year’s survey). And it will continue to become more important, with 94% agreeing (another 13% increase on last year).

The top five aspects of a universities brand that are critical to success are:

1. Differentiation

2. Defining institution personality

3. Internal understanding of brand

4. Story telling

5. Defining brand essence

Four of these critical aspects for success, are also featured in the top five branding challenges being faced by institutions:

1. Differentiation

2. Internal understanding of brand

3. Defining institution personality

4. Brand management

5. Story telling

So, it is no wonder that the sector is in a state of branding flux, trying to overcome these challenges. 26% of our respondents had undertaken a rebrand or significant brand refresh in the last 18 months and 34% plan to rebrand or significantly refresh their brand over the next two years.

It’s also interesting that a number of the challenges being faced are internal – being able to manage the brand and successfully articulate the institutions personality. Without this understanding or management, it’s unsurprising that institutions are struggling to find differentiation – telling the same stories and not tailoring messaging to different stakeholders.

100% of our respondents said teaching quality was important to their brand story and 98% said employability and student experience was important. This may well be the case, but institutions must strive to find their own nuance and authenticity in the way they deliver these attributes in order to build a true, attractive and unique proposition.

Current students featured more prominently in this year’s survey when we asked who it is that a university’s brand matters to. Hopefully a good indication of consensus that brand is not just in the interests of the marketing department as it’s reflective of all experiences and touchpoints along a customer journey. However, 8% of respondents still think brand is of low importance to staff – this needs attention as ‘internal understanding of brand’ is the third most important aspect to branding success!

Finally, we looked at the direct impact that some of the changes in our macro-environment are having on the importance of brand. Overall, our respondents think that Brexit and TEF will make branding more important to university success. But there was a shift in responses compared to last year, with Brexit increasing in importance by 8% and the TEF dropping in importance. We saw a 2% increase in responses saying TEF will have no impact on branding importance.

Those are the highlights of this year’s survey – if you want to read the full report, download it here.