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Friday, 31 August 2012

Where Public meets Private: the Question of Branding Universities

Universities, we are told, are now brands and strategic brand management is generally understood as the subject which trains people to manage brands. However it seems to me that there is a deeper question that needs to be asked before proceeding to the question of how to manage the university brand. It is a hermeneutical question that concerns why, at this time, does the question of branding emerge and amidst which broader issues should we understand the phenomenon? To be sure, there is a recent history of public and semi-state organisations thinking of themselves as brands and doing so as part of a wider reconfiguration of public institutions relating to corporate behaviour, privitisation and neo-liberalism. According to this line of analysis, to accept the organisation as a brand is already to have accepted the notion that we are a business, that we are service providers, that we produce experiences for our customers and that our students are those customers. Is it within this scope that we discuss our university and our work within a university, as faculty and students alike, as bounded by the logic of the brand and a logic of privitisation? Is there a connection between this discussion and the imperatives found in the government's recent Browne Report? Is re-branding something that should be resisted? Is there an argument to be made that says we should stop thinking in terms of brands and re-commit ourselves to a public conception of the university? Is such a viewpoint inherently anachronistic?

Rather than a logic of differentiation, public bodies often
 develop brands that look extremely similar to other brands.

This is all to say that there is a politics of branding or, if you prefer, a post-politics in which all forms of activity are unquestionably and unreflexively altered to match a corporate agenda. Is there an inevitability for universities to think of themselves as a brand, and does this converge with other supposed inevitabilities: that there should be individualised student tuition fees, that research should have corporate value, and so on? Meanwhile, the Vice Principle at Royal Holloway, Rosemary Deem, has been telling us through her research on the subject that there has been a global trend towards what she terms ‘leaderism’; this generally refers to the corporate strategies that universities pursue, which more often than not are fundamentally incoherent and not subject to critique. Again should we resist branding ourselves?

An excellent book that charts the history of public and semi-state organisations reconfigurating themselves as brands is The Rise of Brands by Liz Moor. Moor looks at organisations who fundamentally are not corporations, but nevertheless accept a corporate style of management as part of a neo-liberal process, a strategy of branding deployed as a technology or as a means for both management and government to facilitate this. This often entails a form of governmentality – meaning that all functions in the organisation now have to justify themselves according to a new means of disciplining, that all acts have to cohere around the principle of the organisation as a coherent brand and that this principle is already front-loaded with assumptions about working in a competitive environment, about clients and customers and so on. Hence we have city councils, hospitals, and universities re-defining themselves as brands. It is interesting to note that, rather than allowing organisations to distinguish each other from their competitors, so called ‘brands’ actually end up looking just like each other. In other words, public institutions undergoing privitisation internalise a need to demonstrate that they can achieve a certain level of 'professionalism' and 'best practice' and one technology for achieving this is to cohere the organisation around a brand identity immediately recognisable as adhering to conventional standards of sector professionalism. From a marketing perspective such a tendency towards uniform representations and homogeneous organisation offends against the subject's commitment to innovation and differentiation and therefore, arguably the process of branding that we witness departs from marketing logic, in fact is best understood as an instance of anti-marketing. And as demonstrated across various semi-state and public sectors, the logic of ‘leaderism’ often coincides with the appointment of chief-executive officer type leaders who command enormous salaries and who are concerned with maintaining these brand values, irrespective of how incoherent they may be.

More branding groupthink

Again, to my mind the critical issue is the relationship between brand logic and the sort of neo-liberal logic encapsulated in government policy and beyond. Do such forms of branding serve a neo-liberal agenda? If it does, we might ask is this something that we should oppose in defence of a more public minded ethos of the university, or should we embrace it either as a coping strategy in unfriendly times during which we should think of our own survival, or indeed should this be something that we should embrace as it arrives with all sorts of new opportunities, a golden moment for universities to assert their autonomy?

Up to now, I have been speaking about branding in negative terms. But it seems to me that there are also all sorts of positive opportunities that can be grasped from such discussions.

If we think of the brand as the values and meanings that are produced in the organisation and created with customers, that in the service sector market meanings and systems are co-produced with, rather than for, customers, then as lecturers we might ask what sort of university are we co-producing with our students? If so, can we insist on having a critical research identity when this contradicts the reality that we see produced in the class room? Namely, a dichotomy that emerges based on conflicting expectations of what purpose a university serves: a common sense grounded vocational approach to business problem-solving or a critical-analytic approach that asks why such problems arises in the first place.

A brand is a way of thinking about an overall organisation, and is therefore much greater than any logo or headed paper or set of staff webpages. If there is agreement that there should be a brand, then for me the critical questions become: what sort of organisation are we, what sort of organisation do we want to be, who gets to constitute and then address this 'we' that is being operationalised, what are the common spaces through which consensus can emerge and critical reflexivity be expressed and respected, does the requirement for a mutual identification with brand values offend against the very spirit of heterogeneity necessary for the intellectual survival of the university during hostile times, and can we represent and communicate values in a way that is distinctive, truthful, and attractive to prospective students and colleagues, and that can help us maintain a commitment towards developing intellect?


  1. A very interesting piece, most of which I agree with. I'm left wondering, however, if this university branding exercise is a logic of neo-liberal ideology, or a logic of branding, which ironically has been espoused by many leading Business Schools and is now practiced much more widely than what were traditionally classed as businesses (the public sector, for instance). While not all university departments teach this logic (and many critique it), in some ways universities themselves are responsible for the ideologies of branding everything from people to universities, Liz Moor's book shows this practice existed at least since the Romans, but its codification into a set of management practices, which produce quite starkly similar results (as your blog shows), has some of its roots in Business School education.

    It's difficult to see how universities will change from this course in the short term (in the long term, they may well do, as trends change), and more difficult to see what academic staff as university stakeholders can do to resist these practice, as strategic brand management decisions are made at quite senior levels of management (many VCs refer to themselves as Chief Executives on university webpages, so the private sector discourse is already here). I think even more worrying, as you rightly point out, is how the logic of consumerism (students as service consumers, that is) has seeped into higher education. This is something we can as academics do much more to protect, upholding standards to ensure that our subjects and disciplines are not hostages to the fortune of a marketing logic, and universities must be sanctioned spaces where these values and standards are upheld, even if university managements are subsumed by this logic from a communications perspective. This makes the academic role much more problematic, and particularly in Business Schools were many of these ideas are taught.

  2. Dear anonymous contributor,

    I both agree and disagree with your comment and the hermeneutics of how business schools become determined by their own (pseudo) logic is fascinating. But the point at which I depart from you is that I insist that in the context I'm describing, we see a departure from the practice of branding and its theory. The logos and other forms of customary markers of professionalism that are often understood as branding practices are not concerned with differentiation or innovation but instead practices of groupthink and conformity. This is not a form of branding that you will find advocated by the leading brand strategy scholars like Keller and Lane etc., but, are, I suspect, acts of anti-marketing that contradict the business school message.

    Therefore I believe that these processes can be understood as instances of governmentality rather than branding, or better still, we can use the two concepts - branding and governmentality - to problematise each other in contexts such as this one. Things start to get more interesting for me from this latter stance.

    Thanks for the comment.

  3. Hi Alan

    Apologies, I wasn't sure how to add my name to the contribution at first. I'm not sure if I'd agree that these mainstream textbooks on marketing or branding necessarily encourage innovation or differentiation (and much less creativity), rather they institute sets of ideologies that are "off-the-shelf" solutions to management problems, something which Chris Hackley (2003) and Stephen Brown (2005) have addressed in their work. This in itself may be a process of theoretical governmentality that can lead to practitioners applying the generic models to diverse situations, and the result may be the look-a-like and sound-a-like branding strategies that are produced in industry (this isn't limited to universities either).

    Perhaps Business Schools produce a certain logic of governmentality through theory that is later reflected in management practices, and analysing the discourse of brand management texts (as Chris did with marketing texts) may be telling in some instances. I'm not saying it's acceptable but that we cannot in Business Schools be absolved of blame, universities have a key role in disseminating ideas, albeit some do it better and more creatively than others (Cultural Branding, for example). I know the overt branding and commercialisation of universities makes many people in our uni very uncomfortable, even disenfranchised, but it's also something we are powerless to influence, even if we are stakeholders of the institution.

    Aidan Kelly.

  4. I agree Aidan and indeed it needs to be emphasised that branding differentiation typically exists in relative, rather than in absolute terms however the point, for me, is that there is at a very basic level a difference between the explicit goals of governance and the explicit goals of branding - as expressed by the likes of Aaker and Keller and AMA definitions that dominate the subject - that becomes blurred in practice. I believe that we can look across the scope of branding and notice practices that offend against the theory. In this sense, it makes to talk about - in contexts such as this - branding practices as being processed and eventually captured by governance.

    Meanwhile I have no interest in advancing arguments that seek to absolve business schools of blame except to note that we are trying to do things differently at Royal Holloway. It isn't easy.