Top Global University Brands… the power of brand marketing.

Mortar BoardLet me first state, this is not an objective and well researched blog piece – so, if you are looking for stats you are not going to get them. However, more importantly – you are about to read why from my perspective branding is a vital tool for Universities to consider as they not only seek to attract the brightest students, but they also seek to attract and retain top academic faculty talent, become centres for research grants as well as attract investment funding and endowments to subsidize future growth.  Recognising that there is a huge difference between what and how U.S. Universities vs. UK, Europe or Asian Universities are marketed or positioned – it is worth stating that there are some common and historical fundamentals which apply to all. For the purposes here, I give you my top 10 global University brands…and some thoughts on why or how they are familiar and known.

TOP 10 Global University Brands (and why they are famous)

  1. Oxford – undisputed, the most famous English language school (as opposed to a school for English language).
  2. Cambridge  - the Pepsi to Oxford’s Coke, and the place to ‘punt’ on the river as you eat cream cakes and read Byron.
  3. Harvard – the American Oxford; makes a fortune from the HBR and serves Hasty Pudding.
  4. The Sorbonne – the only famous French academic institution, often mentioned in song lyrics
  5. The London School of Economics – Mick Jagger and JFK went there, didn’t they?
  6. Yale – the American Pepsi to Harvard’s Coke. George Bush went there.
  7. Columbia – Not sure where it is, but is famous, Didn’t Ahmenijad speak there?
  8. UofC, Berkeley – Smart hippies in California, and for Brits it is pronounced BERK-ley not BARK-ley.
  9. INSEAD – the business elite of Europe who speak French and English. No idea what I-N-S-E-A D stands for, often confused with the European Space Agency.

10.  The London Business School – increasingly, the Harvard Business School of Europe, strangely enough…located in London.

Yet, there is ONE other school which ranks above all of them for brand recognition – Franklin & Marshall.  How many t-shirts and branded items have been sold bearing the name of this little known American College? It has nothing to do with academia, but all to do with the power of fashion retailing.

And, don’t underestimate the power of T-shirt sales and merchandise – for many of the above brand names and their distinctive logos, symbols and mottos are key tourism items in the towns and communities in which they are based. The fact you can buy an Oxford t-shirt in duty free at Heathrow or at a souvenir shop in central London is testimony to the power of brand marketing. In fact, Victoria’s Secret understood the power of the ‘collegiate’ look and pull when they created the PINK brand for women…targeting High School girls and college/university women, the brand is a fashion take on Varsity clothing going so far as to brand it ‘University of PINK’ and partner with some Universities to actually produce their logo-branded clothing!

Ok…so that is the ‘fun’ bit of my analysis. Here is the serious side.

The days when Universities were simply hallowed halls of academia around the world are gone. Today, Universities are not only academic institutes but they are commercial organisations and engines of economic growth for their communities and shareholders. Universities compete for talent at both the student level, but also for faculty personnel and investment funding. Both private and public Universities are more accountable for their balance sheets, as well as for their level of academic rigour and reputation. In a world in which academia, commerce and government overlap, the role higher education plays has never been more critical – yet, at the same time more controversial. For this reason, Universities are deploying marketing and branding strategies and tactical executions which seek to help them differentiate while also compete for potential student attention, financial investment and ultimately reputation accolades.  The ‘branding’ of Universities has always been a key feature of University recruitment and retention, though it was often not referred to as ‘branding’ in a formal strategic sense. The unique ‘nick names’, associations, mottos, color combinations and symbols have long been part of academic traditions – originally evolving from medieval ‘colleges’ and ‘educational guilds’ in the Universities of Europe. From the most famous colleges of Oxford and Cambridge in the UK, to Salamanca in Spain, the Sorbonne in Paris to the many famous names in Germany, the Netherlands and Italy – University names and matriculation degrees were coveted assets as a mark of distinction, educational prowess and often, a ‘golden ticket to entry’ to a nation’s power elite in commerce, religion, government and education. Many of the current traditions of Universities evolved from a medieval guild like approach to branding these unique features and rituals – from Fraternities through to graduation mortar board cap and gowns.  A University education was not a ‘right’ but a privilege, and was limited to an elite chosen via wealth, family connections or religious scholarship and selection.
Today, this still remains true for many schools or institutions – however, the North American model of Universities as commercial brands and the student body as a ‘target market’ (of both talent and financial assets) overshadows the more intellectual and academic differentiation of colleges and Universities. It is not enough for Universities to be ‘ranked’ on the basis of academics, for today’s students qualities such as social life, location and facilities and ‘conversion’ (from graduation to getting a job in the field of their choice) are critical. In the UK in the 90’s many former private and government Universities were created as higher education became more accessible via student grants, loans and scholarship. In the U.S., an exploding middle class population aligned to baby boomer offspring meant a continual rise in student’s applying for college or University degrees as a matter of course from the mid 1980’s through today. So, what and how does branding make a difference?

There are 4 key fundamentals to Academic Institution branding which are derived from the discipline of marketing and branding for commercial organisations:

  1. A distinctive Vision or Mission which sets the purpose, positioning and ‘values’ of a University brand apart. It guides all aspects of the institution and is an evident and tangible expression of the academic approach, the student body and the alumni.
  2. A strong and distinctive culture which supports and unifies the University as a brand and is aligned to the Vision, Mission and Purpose. The culture permeates all aspects of University life and is manifest in the unique rituals, codes, cues and symbols by which the institution is known.
  3. The academic reputation of the institution is above the hype or marketing, and is the source of ‘product’ differentiation and quality. It is the Intellectual Property asset of the brand, and the proof point for students, faculty and investors/shareholders.
  4. The marketing of the brand is a ‘pull’ based strategy rather than a ‘push’ based strategy. By this, I mean that the University is clear and articulates as much about who they are not as much as what they are. The brand attracts and creates desire and demand for specific qualities or attributes which are continually reinforced. The core of the brand is related to the core Vision and Mission. The marketing reflects unique specialties and capabilities which means the brand architecture (or naming) clearly helps position capabilities and credentials.

And, finally…if you re-cast your eye over the top 10 list – and, look very closely at what matters for name (or brand) recognition you can see that many of the Universities embrace and embody the four key principles. And, in the US – I offer a few other ‘TOP’ brand names which not only have the four key principles, but also add a critical 5th.

  1. The marketing of the University brand is well represented by above average quality and ubiquity of logo merchandise including t-shirts, shot glasses and other paraphernalia.  It lives in ‘football’ chanting and catch phrases, as well as pop culture vernacular. In this space the importance of sports and athletics for a University’s reputation and brand name is crucial. Not only does this assist with familiarity through media coverage, but it increases the ‘fans’ of a brand via social media and networks driving recall and merchandising sales.

TOP additional US University brands:

  1. Princeton – the Ivy league in New Jersey.
  2. Stanford – often referred to as ‘Stamford’ – the Harvard of Silicon Valley.
  3. Notre Dame – the ‘fighting Irish’ which has nothing to do with the French name and pronounced ‘NOTER DAYM’.
  4. Brown – isn’t that where Hermione is going?
  5. Arizona State – Best place to get a tan while at school *
  6. University of Nebraska – Jock U.
  7. Michigan State – most attractive student bodies. How very Spartan?* tied with Ohio University, in Athens, Ohio  – where everyone is a ‘hottie’. *
  8. Beloit College, Beloit, Wisconsin; and Carleton College, Northfield Minnesota – supposedly, both are filled with the least attractive and kind of ‘creepy’ guys and girls. *
  9. University of Southern California (UCLA) – and University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill the wonders basketball notoriety can do for a school.

10.  University of Illinois – thanks to Risky Business, forever positioned as the ultimate ‘fall back’ school.

NOTE: * this is according to College Prowler, an online college guide written by and for students and quoted in Newsweek’s 2010 guide to schools 12/06/10 edition.

No matter what the official positioning and marketing may say, the ultimate positioning and branding of a University comes from the students who attend and what they do and achieve. I for one have to mention my alma maters – the LSE and George Washington University (Go Colonials!). Sorry, if you are a HOYA you will now understand why I left your brand out! After all, nothing counts for brand loyalty more than brand loyalty!

If anyone else has a view, feel free to join in the discussion.

5 Responses to Top Global University Brands… the power of brand marketing.

  1. Isabela Chick says:

    With university funding being overhauled in the UK, universities will now have to start competing for the student pound in a way that American universities are so well versed. While the Oxfords, Cambridges and LSEs of the world benefit from strong brands that has always ensured funding from student fees (albeit minimal compared to their US counterparts) and research, how will the likes of the University of WoE tackle this new challenge?

  2. Chris,
    I enjoyed your post and think your points are right on target. I’m at The College of New Jersey where our institution is currently working on developing a brand voice. One of my interests in branding are “re-branding” efforts, I’m currently working on a blog post of re-branding efforts when applied to higher education.
    Crafting a brand (or allowing it to emerge) in higher education is essential and I’d also argue it is not just about recruiting new students – with the wider picture of the university/college identity in place traditional university recruiting and “marketing” becomes much easier. With a university brand in place, student tour guides don’t simply tell visitors about buildings, they show and share with them the power of the buildings and the stories and experiences of the physical buildings for a total memorable brand experience.

    Looking forward to what others think about this as well

    - Jesse de Agustin
    My newly launched blog about brand philosophy –

  3. Cesar Corona says:

    If USC (University of Southern California) is confused with its rival UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles), then that 9th position under the top US University Brands is in doubt (unless the confusion was a subtle joke). Anyway, the USC’s football gives the university a lot of presence.

  4. J Krist says:

    Where does MIT and Stanford stand in all of this? Even Cambridge acknowledges Harvard, MIT and Stanford having better brand recognition than it.

  5. John says:

    There is Harvard, and then all others.


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