Branding in higher education is a sore issue. The tension between what academics often perceive as unnecessary effort and investment (“waste of money” in their terms) spent on packaging and spinning and what marcomms professionals regard as an essential narrative and magnet in order to compete, differentiate and attract students and other partners/beneficiaries has increased over the years – especially now, more than ever, we are in an era mass choices and pickier decision-making.

One of the questions that I am most often asked on the higher education circuit is “which university brands work well and do you feel are particularly successful?”. The obvious answer to this is those HEIs that have very strong (and sustained) demand, great ‘order books’  and that provoke jealousy (for their security) from others. It’s also about standing out – and those stand out the most are those that have chosen a particular market or type of provision (such as Birkbeck = part-time study; OU = online; Cranfield = postgraduate) or dedicated subject niche (such as the Royal Veterinary College, Arts University Bournemouth and Harper Adams). 

But long-term stability and niche offering aren’t the only criteria for branding success – people also want to see creativity, smartness and narratives that unite (that address all constituent needs – inside and out).

So, here’s a few of my own particular favourites:

UCLA = optimism. This is (to me) the best example I’ve come across: UCLA cleverly plays up the pervading sunny (in climate and mindset) association with California and the can-do attitude of the US west coast to make the point that everything they do is about is about positivity, ambition and desire to make a difference. Their narrative is that “At UCLA, optimism is a doubt-defying state of mind. It’s California Dreaming blended with daring, impactful doing. It makes us infinitely resilient, unyielding and undefeatable. It empowers us to drive perpetual progress in LA and around the world.” Their academic experts are labelled as “optimists” and they are said to be “powered by optimism”. See:

University of North Alabama = pride. UNA is (in my experience) the only university in the world with its own lion enclosure. It’s almost 50 years since the then University President bought Leo the lion to the campus and there have been several Leos since then. The (actual) lion has become the symbol of UNA – with the sports teams, clubs, newsletters, awards all feeding off the spin-off imagery and naming. There’s a Lion Alert system for urge cross campus announcements. Pride in learning, pride in discovery and pride in achievement all resonate as associated messages. UNA  even celebrates the birthday of the original Leo every year (on April 14). Theirs is even a LionCam for you to check in and see what the lion is up to. See:

University of Calgary – eyes high. This isn’t necessarily a brand proposition – but more about how the University talks about itself and its ambitions. Calgary has a five year strategy (ending in 2022) called Eyes High and it has used this theme to encapsulate its ambitions and outlook in ways you don’t often tend to see in the articulartion and projection of higher education plans and strategies. Calgary says ”Eyes High was chosen because it reflects the university’s Gaelic motto Mo Shùile Togam Suas, which translates as “I Will Lift Up My Eyes.” It also highlights the determination of the university community and all Calgarians to look ahead to the future and dream big.” See:

National University of Ireland Galway = On the edge. Many coastal universities use their literal landscape (on the edge between sea and land) as a brand equation with being “at the cutting edge” or avant-garde (edgy) – this includes University of Victoria (in British Columbia, Canada) – but for me NUI Galway particularly does this well (with its “on the edge of Europe” positioning:

University of Otago (in New Zealand) = to get there…start here. “Dunedin is a small city between the mountains, the harbour and the sea – that means there’s heaps to do and it’s easy to get to. Ride the best waves in the world, take on mighty mountain biking tracks, paddle-board, kayak or sail on the harbour, or head to Central Otago for a weekend on New Zealand’s top ski fields. You won’t regret choosing the all-round experience Otago can offer.” Otago cleverly talks about itself as the place to start for your ambitions. See:

The brand symbolism of the above (for me) would certainly make (De Vinci Code’s) Robert Langdon proud.  There are also others that stick in my mind – Tulane University’s “Stand Apart”; University of Washington’s “Be Boundless”; “Atypical Antwerp” University; Brighton University and “Practical Wisdom”; Oslo University’s string ties with limiting climate damage and being “for a sustainable world”.

Please do let me know any stand out university brands that work for you.


Justin Shaw is Chief Higher Education Consultant at Communications Management.

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