Brand management is all about knowing your brand. Before you can begin to work on growing your brand, you need to understand how your audience sees you, how your key stakeholders perceive you, and have a clear idea of how you fit in among the competition. ​

“Split your time and budget to be effective in the three key areas of brand management: diagnosis, strategy and tactics”

- Holly Cartlidge, Account Director, Net Natives

Firstly, what is a brand and what do students think about when they think of a brand? We conducted a deep-dive survey to find out how students perceived brands in relation to universities. They told us that they associate brands with products, businesses with a vision and a recognisable name or logo. An overwhelming majority identified Nike as a brand (97%), whereas universities, such as the likes of Oxford, were only perceived as a brand by a mere 18% of students. 

For those who thought of universities not as brands, their reasoning was more idealistic. Students highlighted that, for them, a brand produces something for monetary gain, while a university’s primary function is as a place of learning. “You wouldn’t think of secondary schools as brands, so what makes universities any different?” (a question posed by our experts in a recent brand management webinar - you can watch it on-demand here).

Our research emphasised that students think of a ‘strong university’ in terms of its rankings, heritage and the quality of the student experience. Whereas, their perception of strong branding relates to a good logo, the brand’s following on social media and their adverts. But rankings aren’t the be-all and end-all of student decisions. Just two in five students believe that high rankings are a feature of strong universities, and interestingly, students’ perception of a university’s ranking increased with a higher perception of good branding.

So, what can universities do to make their branding stronger in the eyes of their students?

Although students may not see universities as brands, it does not mean brand work is not needed. Every year in the National Clearing Survey, students are highly unlikely to apply to somewhere they have never heard about before. In fact, the Clearing survey results showed that over eight in 10 students had already heard of their Clearing institution prior to A-Level Results Day. 

Universities should seek to explore the potential of their branding, based on students’ perception of what makes a strong brand. Just like with brands, building up awareness of your institution will build trust with the consumer, in this case your prospective students. With more awareness, comes a greater perception of the strength of the university and a stronger affinity with the brand. 

So, how can you make yourself stand out? Like we said, it all starts with brand diagnosis. Truth be told; nobody’s wandering around thinking about your brand. What you need to consider is when you want people to be thinking about your brand. You should start by thinking about who your customers really are, and how you’re able to help them. Make sure you’re really singular about the problem your brand can solve. Your messaging and personality might change and develop along the course of your branding strategy, but it’s important to have a clear focus. Be consistent and know how you want your brand to be thought of.

Students associate recognition, name and individuality with branding. Make your branding unique and specific, and you’ll get people talking about it; 94% of students associate lots of talk around the brand as a sign of strong branding. We also know that a brand is bigger than a billboard; strategic brand management is a long-term project. Brand work does not stop at the first stage, and needs a lot of architecture to support it.

Brand strategy is all about synergy between brand messaging. It needs to have a truth to it to engage with people and give authenticity to the brand. Universities don’t need high rankings to entice prospective students, but good branding is essential to maintaining authenticity and trust.

Remember, it all starts with brand diagnosis - what makes your brand or campaign one of those things that short term memory can actually hold on to? If you need support with figuring it out, get in touch for a free brand diagnosis consultation today. ​

Article by


Lois King

Digital Marketing Assistant