University brands – a valuable asset or a distraction?

In the first of two articles on university brand management, Serena Tierney considers key areas of risk to reputation

What does a university brand do? For many, the idea of a university’s ‘brand’ is a distasteful concept, smacking more of commerce than the pursuit of learning. However, I suggest that this an unnecessary dichotomy. Good management of a university’s brand should reflect and support the excellence of its teaching and research, and the ethos of the organisation itself.

For one thing, every university already has a brand. A fundamental characteristic of a strong and successful brand is that it embodies and communicates the core values of the organisation. So the question for those running universities is not ‘should the university have a brand?’ but rather ‘does our brand support our core activities as well as possible?’

The core activities for most universities are the provision and encouragement of education and research. To deliver this needs two things: people and funding. A strong brand will help with both: by communicating what is distinctive about this university, and by conveying its attractiveness as a potential recipient of funds whether from public or philanthropic sources or from business.

Schools and Faculties

For most universities, there will be a core or main brand which is represented by the name of the university and its associated insignia. It will also have sub-brands: its individual schools and faculties which share the same core identity with the university and each other, but have their own important additional features.

A desirable brand will support a premium in the prices a university can charge

This is especially important in relation to recruiting students, who will be comparing courses in similar disciplines at different universities, and of teaching staff who will also be weighing-up similar faculties at various universities. Where the brand communicates the desired qualities, it will reinforce the university’s attractiveness to the students and staff that it wishes to recruit.

It is also significant in relation to the attractiveness of the consultancy or research services offered to businesses where the expertise attributed to a particular school in a particular university will reinforce the reputation of the individual team or academic offering the services. 

A similar point applies in relation to other activities like licensing of innovation and the creation of spin-off companies.

One further crucial function of a brand is to provide a focus for motivating staff and students. It reinforces the common values that are shared by everyone in the organisation and helps to drive behaviour that supports those values.

Resource management

All universities are currently under financial pressure from various directions. Investing resources in brand management must therefore be justified. First and foremost, the university’s brand is one of its assets and there is a legal duty to protect it that is explicitly recognised by the Charity Commission. Investing in its brand also benefits the university’s operations. Those benefits fall into two broad categories: efficiency of operations and financial return.

One very obvious and demonstrable benefit that is closely tied to the reputation of the university is that a desirable brand will support a premium in the prices that it can charge for its services; whether those are the provision of education to students or the provision of research and consultancy services to third parties.

Brand checklist

As far as efficiency of operations is concerned, there are a number of basic brand housekeeping measures that help to protect the university’s brand. If these have not been reviewed in the last couple of years, it would be prudent to audit the current position. They include:

1. Are the trade marks in use registered – and are those that are registered actually in use? A trade mark must be used exactly as it is registered, so design refreshes will generate a requirement for new registrations.

2. Do the specifications of the goods and services for the registered marks cover those that are provided (and not any others)?

3. Is there trade mark coverage for all the territories in which the university is active? In some countries (notably China) there is a thriving industry in registering the marks of those who may intend to start operating in the country and then it can be slow and expensive to recover the marks so it is important to consider making pre-emptive applications there.

4. Trade marks have to be renewed every few years and renewal fees must be paid. This is an opportunity to weed out any that are no longer needed. This can save worthwhile amounts, especially in countries where a separate mark is required for each class of goods or services.

5. Are there up-to-date brand guidelines that are accessible and cover such areas as social media use and joint branding?

6. Is there a bank of standard brand licence templates (with clear instructions for completing, signing and retaining the originals) covering all business as usual activities?

7. Do the domain name and social media pages use the brand correctly?

8. Is there an enforcement programme for identifying unlicensed use and bringing it into the fold in a manner that reflects the university’s brand values and will not look out of place if posted on social media by a disgruntled infringer?

Key risk areas

The primary function of its brand is to promote and protect the reputation of the university. This falls into acute focus when the university is collaborating with others, for example in relation to outside campuses (whether in the UK or abroad), sponsoring schools and academies or creating joint ventures to provide services to overseas students. In these cases a brand licence that sets out clearly what activities it covers and in which territories will usually be considered as a basic element of the deal.

However, there are other areas that may be less obvious and some further examples, that we have come across where the question of brand rights was only addressed somewhat belatedly:

● Appointing an agency to recruit students.

● A joint venture with a technology company to make university teaching materials or course available online.

● Allowing an internet platform provider to create a virtual tour of part of the university or of an exhibition hosted by it.

● Creating an online repository of the university’s materials.

● Producing a joint report with a third party (including HMG).

● University spin-off businesses.

Given the potential for damage to the university’s brand if a third party uses it in a manner that is inconsistent with the university’s reputation and values, we strongly recommend that the process for considering new projects explicitly includes consideration of the role that the brand will play. 

Serena Tierney is a partner at VWV. She can be contacted on 0207 7665 0817 or at

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