Keeping it together: Brand hierarchy for higher education
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Keeping it together: Brand hierarchy for higher education

Brand Hierarchy

Brand hierarchy, or brand architecture: two words certain to keep university communicators awake at night.

Indeed the complex branding issues in Higher Education Institutions can often seem unmanageable. On the one hand the range and diversity of a university’s activities are astonishing, making it extremely hard to keep everything under the umbrella of a single brand. On the other, universities are self-governing academic communities with a considerable degree of devolved authority.

But brand hierarchy needn’t be a nightmare. In this piece we look at the many different things an HEI brand has to do, and the reasons it seems to be constantly spawning new subbrands. Underlying the apparent confusion is a simple logic, which involves balancing the needs of the university as a whole with the needs of individual parts. We look at what these parts are, and how to find solutions that can work for both.

How do university brands work?

Higher Education branding is fundamentally simple. That might sound like a counter-intuitive observation, but consider this. If someone says: “Cambridge“, “Oxford“, “Harvard”, “Yale“, “Stanford“, “MIT“, “Sorbonne”, what do you think of first? Almost certainly, the university. And it’s not that Oxford and Cambridge aren’t important British cities in their own right. They are. But, in brand terms, gown definitely trumps town.

Most of the power of an HEI brand is in the name. Indeed, if you were asked what these well-known institutions’ logos look like, you might well be struggling. Perhaps you know the funky geometric MIT logo. But the Sorbonne? Were you aware that it features a building? And did you remember Oxford’s belt or Cambridge’s lions? Most people, even those who work in the sector, struggle to visualise even the best known university logos. That’s because the visual elements are very much secondary; name alone elevates these institutions into global brands.

Brand Hierarchy

Both Oxford and Cambridge have crests how many would remember Oxford’s belt? or Cambridge’s lions? Likely very few. That’s because the visual elements of a university brand are very much secondary to the name.

This isn’t only true for venerable institutions. “Warwick”, “King’s“, “LSE”, “Columbia“, “Berkeley” may not have quite the same cachet, but they are not far behind. Their names are no less a force to be reckoned with. And within education circles this even applies to more recent entrants. Say “Brookes“, “Middlesex“, “De Montfort” or “Solent“ and everyone will know what you’re referring to.

How is it that universities achieve such powerful name recognition when commercial brands have to fight so hard for mindshare? The main reason is the total number of universities in most countries is small enough for them to be memorable – critically, below the magical ‘Dunbar number’, which defines the number of relationships we can hold in our minds. The Higher Education sector is also remarkably stable. Universities have a long life expectancy (few close, while the oldest have been around for more than 800 years), barriers to entry are very high (creating a new university is a massive undertaking so there aren’t many new entrants), and universities carry on doing the same things. This makes HEI brands very different from those in the commercial, governmental or charitable sectors.

The simplicity of such an identity translates into straightforward branding built around the graphic representation of the name. Indeed, the graphic devices accompanying the name tend to be accoutrements rather than key components in recognising and differentiating the brand. But if branding a university were as easy as rolling out a single, recognisable ‘masterbrand’, there would be nothing to lose sleep over. The complication with Higher Education brands comes from the fact that a university is a large, diverse community (the average UK HEI has a population larger than Devizes, or Aberystwyth). And a community has very different kinds of needs from a business or even a government department. But once we recognise these needs, it’s possible to reconcile the conflicting demands of consistency and self-expression.

Winning hearts and minds

From a brand perspective the most important need a group of people has is to belong. And in a large community we don’t just want to belong to the whole. We also want a sense of belonging to the part we’re most involved in (Dunbar numbers again — the parts we most identify with have 150 people or less).

In a university there are many such parts: schools, departments, institutes, research groups, societies and spin-out businesses are just a few. Each part will want to signal a sense of identity to its members, often leading to the creation of its own quasi-brands. Allowed to proliferate, these quasi-brands will undermine a university brand, in the worst cases giving a sense of a chaotic and fragmented institution.

However, because a university is a devolved peer-level community, these quasi-brands can’t just be swept away as they might in another kind of organisation. Instead, it becomes a matter of negotiating solutions with each part, with a view of getting them to identify themselves in a way that reinforces the whole. To do this effectively you need a strategy. So what should you be aiming for?

There are two guiding principles here.

The first is to avoid confusing external audiences, especially prospective students. From the outside, looking in, the university must appear to be coherent. And coherence includes such things as consistency through the ‘journeys’ people make, for instance in the application process. Here simplicity and clarity are of the essence.

Brand Hierarchy

Avoid confusing external audiences, especially prospective students.

The second principle is to accept the irrepressible desire of people inside the university to identify with a smaller group. This will never go away, but it does need be integrated into the overall brand scheme. Fortunately, however, universities are made up of intelligent, reasonable and well-meaning people who are open to negotiation. Most will understand the importance of maintaining the integrity of the university brand, if the case is made to them. And, as long as their needs can be met, they will be more than willing to go along with a compromise solution.

The key thing is to ensure – in every situation where there is a need to bring together the global with the local – that there are only ever two levels. For instance, if a research centre situated within a particular department wants to have its own form of identification, it should be ‘the Biometric Engineering Research Group at the University of Blankshire’. What you want to avoid at all costs is ‘The Biometric Engineering Research Group in the Robotics Department, School of Engineering, Faculty of Science and Technology, University of Blankshire’, which forces audiences to deal with the university’s structure even before they know what they are dealing with! The ‘middlemen’ must be eliminated at all costs. This applies at every level, too, so while the School of Engineering might also wish to have its own way of distinguishing itself, this should not affect its subsidiary departments and Research Groups.

Brand Hierarchy

Recognise the desire of people to identify with a group whilst ensuring that there are only ever two levels of identification.

In addition to these two principles, there is also a half principle (which is more for the brand manager’s sanity than anything else). It is to ‘be flexible’. Because universities are such large and complex institutions, there will always be situations which don’t fit within the scheme. Rather than try to force anomalies into an existing category of the brand architecture, help them develop an approach which is right for them. This can become a template for others in the future.

Starting from the top

Unlike large commercial organisations, which may have a ‘house of brands’, the simplicity and diversity of a university’s offer is best expressed through a single logo which identifies every part of the academy and its administration, and some of the university’s other initiatives as well. This is what almost every university already has.

Even at this level, however, there can be complications. Most universities also have a heraldic gift of arms which may not be the same as the logo. This crest is often used in ceremonial situations, for instance on degree certificates or formal invitations, and there may even be an appetite to use it in marketing (particularly for overseas audiences). This can create the headache of having two parallel forms of identification to manage. Because heraldry does not lend itself to brand recognition – it can all look much the same – the best advice is to try to minimise the use of the crest as an alternative logo. There can only be one university brand.

In an institution as variegated as an HEI there will also be activities that are not appropriate to identify as the university (we will look at some of these in due course). In these situations the value of an endorsement strategy cannot be overstated. There will likely be numerous situations in which a fully or partially owned initiative needs to be identified as coming from, or belonging to, the university, without being seen to be it.

Brand Hierarchy

The simplicity and diversity of a university’s offer is best expressed through a single logo which will identify every part of the academy and administration.

Ideally there should be two types of endorsement: one which uses the university’s logo to show the provenance of an entity whose branding looks completely different, and an explanatory type-only version for entities which use elements of the university’s branding (for instance, the symbol in conjunction with a different name).

Since partnerships and collaborative ventures are becoming much more frequent in Higher Education, an endorsement strategy should also give consideration to dual or multiple branding situations. Here it can also be very useful to develop some kind of ‘decision tree’ to help users understand when to use which elements in endorsement or partnership situations.

Identifying the Academy

The heart of the university is its academic offer. And in many ways this is the most straightforward part of the institution to brand; external audiences really only need to know they are dealing with the ‘University of Blankshire’. Internally, however, the university’s hierarchical academic structure – and the desire of staff to identify with their own parts of it – make things more complicated.

Generally the academic side of most universities is divided into faculties, schools, departments and courses.


Faculties are the most important divisions from a management perspective. But from an external point of view they are confusing and unhelpful for navigating the structure: very few people outside know what a ‘faculty of arts and letters’ covers, for instance. For this reason faculties shouldn’t be incorporated into the branding structure: not onto the website, nor in the prospectus, and definitely not on campus wayfinding! (If they need to be indentified, it’s best done with a name at the top of an address block).


Schools, on the other hand, are what academics (and the administrative staff who work with them) are most likely to relate to. Schools generally have their own coherent premises where people work together, and develop a distinct ethos and culture. Most likely they also have their own marketing officers. And schools are generally competing with their counterparts in other institutions. In some universities schools are power bases, too, headed up by influential figures in the academy. All of which means that there is a powerful drive from within schools to have their own distinctive sub-brand. It also makes it very important to try to keep schools within the brand structure and not let them go off and do their own thing (which is where most problems with a university brand hierarchy tend to be found).

Brand Hierarchy

Locking up the school’s name with the university logo can be an easy way to develop a consistent approach.

When schools do this – perhaps the university brand manager’s worst nightmare – it is often for want of having an approved school logo (or a device that satisfies the school’s need for identification). However it can be a surprise to see how easily the ‘robber barons’ can be willing to step back from their creations when they are given a graphic device which locks up their school’s name with the university logo. In this way it can be easy to develop a consistent approach to schools’ branding across the university. And as long as schools’ marketing officers have the tools they need, it is possible to achieve considerable compliance here.

The business school dilemma

However, there are certain circumstances in which the approach we’ve outlined is clearly not possible. It applies to those schools which either had their own reputations before they came into the university, or have a strong business case for going their own way. Generally, we’re talking about business schools here, but this category also includes teaching hospitals and other stand-alone institutions (examples include Cass Business School at City University, Barts and The Royal London Medical School at Queen Mary’s, Central Saint Martins at UAL, the Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG) at Warwick, the Warsash Maritime Academy at Southampton Solent or the Birmingham Conservatoire at Birmingham City).

These schools may often have a sense – sometimes justified – that they have a stronger brand than the university, at least for their audiences. And in these circumstances a different kind of compromise needs to be struck; a wholly separate positioning will cannibalise the university’s brand, while submerging a respected brand in the university (as has happened with some of the country’s great art schools) can squander valuable brand equity the university owns. This area of Higher Eduction sub-branding can be one of the most difficult to get right. The essential thing is to send out a clear signal about the relationship between the school and the university (and this is one area where looking at commercial precedents can be useful – for instance, think Mini and BMW).

Brand Hierarchy

In certain circumstances there can be a strong business case for stand-alone institutions going their own way. Strong school brands often call for compromises that retains valuable equity without cannibalisation.

While schools are the most important division of the academic side of the university internally, externally it is departments that have most relevance to audiences. On the web and in prospectuses courses are often grouped by departments, and this is a sensible way to break down the offer. For this reason it is best if departments don’t have any distinctive identifiers, but are treated in the same way as each other (perhaps with just some colour coding to differentiate them). The same applies to courses, which in any case have the benefit of being distinguished in communications by their own content (in words and imagery).

Research branding: herding cats

Research-intensive universities may also have a large number of research centres and groups within departments which not only want to identify themselves, but want to have a shop-window on the world. These may vary from the lone researcher who creates his own web pages to quite substantial and well resourced groups. Typically these entities websites will form an outer ring to the university’s web presence – a presence which can vastly exceed the content of the university’s own site. Rather than trying to achieve conformity by demanding that they all follow brand and web guidelines – which can easily become an unwinnable battle – it can be more effective to encourage the use of a simple, standard university banner to run across the top of their pages (which is how Cambridge addresses its vast ‘beyond the core’ web presence). If you seed researchers with tools – for instance, easy-to-use web, report and presentation templates which they can customise, with appropriate guidance – brand conformity in this area will grow.

In addition to the parts of the academic offer that are nested within the academic hierarchy, there are also parts that stand alone. These include Institutes, Centres of Excellence and joint venture initiatives with governmental or commercial partners. Once again these are tricky cases, because they often need to be seen as independent organisations with their own identity, but they also contribute significantly to the university’s reputation. If they are going to form part of the brand structure, it’s best to treat them as a special case (or, if there are several, as a special category). They might, for instance, make use of recognisable elements of the university brand, perhaps derived from the symbol or using the same typeface, in conjunction with their own names.

Brand Hierarchy

Institutes, centres of excellence and joint ventures can also contribute to the university’s reputation.

With joint ventures it is unlikely other partners will agree for them to be brought wholly into the university brand. This is where an endorsement and multiple branding strategies come into their own.

Administrative services

Academics tend to see administrative departments, such as Admissions, Estates, Finance or Communications, simply as support functions. However, they are integral to the working of a modern university, and the professionals who staff them have the same desire to identify with their part of the institution as academics.

Administrative services are corporate functions, so it is most appropriate for them to use the university logo with just the service name picked out at the top of an address block. And the principle of ‘eliminating the middlemen’ applies once again here. (One university identified its mail buggy with four levels of hierarchy: the university logo, ‘Estates and Facilities’, ‘Campus Services’ and ‘Post and Portering’! However only the first and last – university and service – are necessary).

Brand Hierarchy

It’s a skilful trick to make commercial facilities look commercial, but also part of the university.

In the main the administrative side of the university is easier to brand than the academic side. The important thing is just to make sure it doesn’t externalise the more complicated aspects of its structure. However, there is one area where the administrative university can be every bit as complicated as the academic. This concerns the branding of university facilities made available to the public.

Facilities management

Most universities are blessed with excellent resources, whether these be auditoria, sports and leisure facilities, conference spaces or even scenic locations for hire to film and television. Economic imperatives mean that these are increasingly managed as profit centres and marketed outside of the university.

But, the branding of these resources can be highly problematic because of their association with academia. Taking the children at the weekend to a ‘university’ swimming pool has very different connotations to taking them to the local water-park, although the facilities may be the same. Likewise, choosing a university as a corporate conference venue might suggest delegates sharing cramped and run-down student accommodation when in fact what is offered is competitive with the best commercial facilities. And staff, too, have likely been recruited as conference or events professionals – the only connection with the academic side of the university being that their senior management reports to a Deputy Vice-Chancellor rather than a board of directors.

In brand terms these activities can be described as ‘double facing’ – outwardly their users expect them to look like a leisure centre, an arts complex or a meeting venue, but on campus they need to be seen to be as part of the university. One of the most important considerations here is how these brands look in wayfinding: do they harmonise with the campus scheme, or do they appear to be outside the university domain? It is a skilful trick to make a gallery look like a gallery when it is compared with other galleries, but like a part of the university when it is compared with other parts of the university.

The student experience

The advent of student fees has turned universities – with a haste that many are still struggling to catch up with – from public sector institutions with a responsibility to do some teaching into purveyors of an expensive educational product. A university education at any of the UK’s 164 HEIs now costs as much as a luxury car (indeed, a top-of-the-range BMW). That’s a considerable commitment for any 18 year old to make, so it is unsurprising that this is quickly becoming a sector with a highly discerning (and expectant) clientele.

There is a great deal that can be said about the marketing of the student experience which is outside the scope of this piece. But as far as it impacts on the structure of a university brand the key take-away is that every element of the ‘student journey’ needs to be consistent and qualitative. If applicants apply to the university, every item of communication should be seen to come from the university corporate.

On the other hand, if they have applied to part of the university which has its own distinctive branding, such as a business or medical school, the same principle applies: every item of communication should come from that entity (with appropriate university endorsement). And consistency does not just extend across the range of the university’s offer. It also extends through the experience of particular audiences over time (in other words, what they see at each stage needs to connect with what they saw before).

Brand Hierarchy

Doing their own thing

When it comes to what students create, they are best left to do their own thing (taking any other approach tends to lead to this conclusion in the end!) The more students are lent upon to comply with a university brand, the more they will subvert it. Accept that the Student Union will never look the way you would like it to: let it be! Instead it is much better to maintain open lines of communication with Union representatives, as well as those of other important university clubs and societies, and make sure they have access to all the tools and elements they need.

Congratulate them when they do a witty deconstruction of the university logo and they won’t do it again. In fact, in brand terms, student cohorts tend to be quite conservative, being more than usually opposed to change (which perhaps has to do with the fact that their experience of the university is comparatively brief, and they want it to be preserved forever). Consequently for political reasons any brand development – and most especially a university rebrand – should try to engage students as much as possible (ideally finding some student champions).

Branding for alumni

One other area of student experience which is important to consider is alumni relations. Alumni are a key group for every university, being actively involved in promoting the university across the globe and in raising funds. And, with alumni the university adopts yet another surprising role, becoming a membership organisation. This is often forgotten in university brand structures, but the branch networks of alumni groups are a key part of the brand (as are some of the more exclusive parts of the alumnus-university relationship, such as Chancellors’ and Vice-Chancellors’ Circles).

Like students, alumni will tend to see themselves as brand owners, rather than brand implementers, although their attitudes to brand and marketing will be more mature. Understanding how membership organisations manage a volunteer/branch network is invaluable to getting this part of the university’s branding right. Once again, the more that branches (and individuals) have access to the tools, elements and guidance they need, the more chance there is that the materials they produce will be ‘on brand’.

Third stream activity

The final aspect of an HEI to consider from a brand architecture point of view concerns commercialisation. Universities create Intellectual Property and in some cases this can have huge financial value (as well as making a substantial contribution to the university’s social mission). For instance, ten businesses with individual valuations of more than ten billion US dollars spun out of the University of Cambridge alone. And Andrei Geim and Kostya Novoselov’s discovery of graphene at the University of Manchester has already attracted more than $2.4 billion of investment, even though no products have so far appeared.

In today’s world successful commercialisation can have implications for the university in reputation and research funding, in the recruitment of academics and students, and for the economic regeneration of whole regions. It is no surprise that successive governments have prioritised the allocation of resources to those universities which create the most patents, businesses and jobs.

Like so many other universities activities, commercialisation is increasingly about partnerships and devolution, and its implications for the university brand to demand a delicate touch in brokering the needs of different stakeholders. Among the activities it includes are IP itself, spin-out businesses, and consultancy (as well as the promotion of entrepreneurship through the university). There is also the question of how to brand the commercialisation operation itself – the ‘technology transfer office’ (which now may also be combined with a venture capital operation).

With IP the key is to try to associate discoveries with the institution – to make people think ‘Manchester’ when they hear ‘graphene’, ‘Cambridge’ when they hear ‘monoclonal antibodies’. Spin-out businesses, on the other hand, are fraught with some of the issues we’ve already looked at: the interests of other parties and the need for a new company to make an exciting offer within its sector rather than appear to be part of a university. Portfolios of exciting and colourful brands are a big asset, especially if some of these have become household names, so it is best not to try to ‘corporatize’ them.

Brand Hierarchy

Finally there is the consultancy work carried out by academics, some of whom may be advising international organisations or parliamentary sub-committees. Here it is a case of persuading your consultants that there are advantages in associating themselves with the university brand rather than trying to build their own personal brands.

Restoring your sleep!

In looking at the challenges of university brand hierarchy, we have tried to identify some of the common themes. Of course, every HEI is unique and some of these considerations will be less relevant to your Institution than others.

But, most universities struggle with articulating their brand across the range and diversity of their offer, and this is not because the brand isn’t simple in itself. The challenges come from the human aspects: the competing interests of partners, the desire for belonging, the tensions between being what an audience expects and being part of the university, as well as from areas where the university is taking on unfamiliar functions (such as operating venues, running a membership organisation, or incubating businesses). In almost all of these cases there is a negotiation to be had – and the more successfully a compromise can be reached, the more coherent the result will be.

This is an area where Higher Education is leading the way, because most other kinds of organisations are only just beginning to grapple with devolved responsibility and a growing reluctance to impose solutions. Universities, which are by their nature formed around vocal communities of peers, have long operated through consensual decision taking.

If this article was relevant, you might be interested in these:

– Creating a bold new brand identity for the RCoA

– Strategic rebrand for Central Bedfordshire College

– Rebrand of Liverpool Hope University is 10 years old

– Successfully campaigning for City University London

James Souttar
James Souttar
Strategist. Mr Listener. Student of Persian Calligraphy. Over the last couple of decades James has helped many different kinds of organisations to understand themselves better and express this understanding as a brand. Recently most of his work has been in Education. Intuitive. Connection-making. Surprising. James is at his best responding to tricky questions. A year in Shoreditch made him allergic to Hipster coffee.

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