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Branding of UK Higher Education Institutions. An Integrated Perspective on the Content and Style of Welcome Addresses

Jelle Mampaey et Jeroen Huisman
p. 133-148

Résumé

The transformation to a more market-oriented steering approach in European higher education challenges universities and other higher education institutions to consider developing branding or image management activities. The existing literature focuses either on the content or the style, but we argue that an integra­ted perspective is needed to fully grasp the processes underlying branding. In a comparative case study of ten UK higher education institutions with varying re­putations – five highly reputed versus five low(er) reputed institutions – we de­monstrate how and why branding is deployed in welcome addresses of institutional leaders. Our findings indicate that isomorphic tendencies are visible, although brand differentiation could also be identified between highly and lowly reputed institutions. Our findings provide support for the competitive group perspective on branding activities.

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I. Theoretical Background

1 In European higher education, universities and other higher education institutions (HEIs) are increasingly pressured to transform to organizations that act as businesses in a competitive market. Traditionally, HEIs were embedded in a strongly institutionalized environment (Meek et al., 1996 ; Neave, 1979). This implies that HEIs were government-led and their right to exist depended on their legitimacy, which they could manage by mimic­king the highly reputed HEIs at the global level such as Harvard and Oxford, by so-called academic drift. In this context, HEIs received resources once they were able to gain and maintain legitimacy. More recently, Euro­pean higher education has been transforming into an environment in which HEIs are pressured to compete for resources (Hemsley-Brown/Op­latka, 2006 ; Molesworth/Nixon/Scullion, 2011). However, it should be noted that the transformation to a more market-oriented steering approach is not a radical shift in that both institutional and competitive pressures are tangible in contemporary European higher education (Gornitzka/Maassen, 2000 ; Jungblut/Vukasovic, 2013). From a new managerial logic (Trowler, 2010) the underlying (although contested) rationale is that competition in­creases the efficiency and effectiveness of HEIs. The consequence is that HEIs are pressured to differentiate from competitors to reduce competition and get access to resources. Consequently, branding and image management activities that signal differentiation are becoming increasingly important (Brown/Mazzarol, 2009 ; Chapleo, 2010).

2 In line with the existing literature (e.g. Chapleo, 2007), we define bran­ding as augmenting the HEI (and its services) with organizational values (e.g. excellence, social justice) and presenting them to the external environment. Conceptualized in this way, branding is a symbolic strategy that does not necessarily represent the substantive, internal activities or, indeed, the identity of the HEI. Hence, branding is about image management. From this perspective, brands and images are related to the interactions between organizations and their external environment, whereas the concept of identity should rather be situated in the internal context of the organization (see also Balmer, 2001). Identity in higher education is not unproblematic, for HEIs are often typified as highly complex organizations with rather intangible and unpredictable services (e.g. Jongbloed, 2003) and, hence, a general absence of a clear and coherent identity. It has even been argued that, in this type of organization, image is more impor­tant than substance (Alvesson, 1990) or that “looking good” is more important than “being good” (Gioia/Corley, 2002).

3 The higher education literature has started to explore how and why branding is deployed in HEIs. One stream of literature focuses on content-related processes underlying branding. There is a growing consensus that HEIs are pressured to balance strategically – building on the concept of “strategic balance” (Deephouse, 1999) – between being different from competitors and being the same to respond to the combination of institutional and competitive pressures (Kosmützky/Krücken, forthcoming ; Fu­masoli/Huisman, 2013 ; Mampaey/Huisman/Seeber, forthcoming). It has for instance been demonstrated that HEIs balance strategically by signal­ing compliance with widespread value clusters (e.g. excellence, social justice, internationalization, third mission, performance management) while at the same time differentiating by emphasizing certain value clusters and/or attaching organization-specific meanings to them (Mampaey/Huis­man/Seeber, forthcoming). For instance, two competing HEIs may be the same in that they both signal compliance with notions of excellence and social justice to gain and maintain legitimacy. To reduce competition, they may be different in that excellence is the dominant value cluster in one HEI whereas social justice is dominant in the other HEI. They may also be different in that one HEI defines excellence as “being the best at the global level” while the other stresses “being the best at the local level”. This lite­rature therefore suggests that brand differentiation is possible and necessary although it is also constrained because of the continuing embedded­ness of HEIs in a strongly institutionalized environment (see also Waeraas/Solbakk, 2009).

4 Another stream of literature focuses on style-related processes (e.g. D’Andrea/Stensaker/Allison, 2007 ; Huisman/Mampaey, under review). Here, the argument is that HEIs are pressured to deploy a branding style that enhances their perceived legitimacy and attractiveness, for instance by developing well-designed logos, straplines and speech acts. Branding style is about the structure (or form) of communication, not the content. In the context of this paper, we especially focus on the concept of speech acts. Based on Searle’s Speech Act Theory (1969, 1979), four types of speech acts have been identified in the context of higher education branding : assertives, directives, expressives and commissives (Huisman/Mampaey under review). Assertives commit HEIs to the truth of their value-laden state­ments, hence the organizational values are presented as objective facts (e.g. “the university conducts excellent research”, “we provide internatio­nally oriented education”). By using directives, HEIs attempt to make the listener/reader to change his/her behavior (e.g. “please visit our community”, “join our wonderful institute”). Expressives denote the HEI´s subjecti­ve, psychological state about the statement, which may present the organizational value as a subjective attribute in the eye of the beholder (e.g. “we belief that we provide outstanding services to society”, “we are convinced that performance measurement is important”). Finally, commissives present an organizational value as a future fact (e.g. “we are committed to the third mission”, “we will change into an internationally recognized institution”). It has been demonstrated that assertives are dominant in HEIs for this speech act has the highest performative function (Huisman/Mampaey, under review). By deploying assertives, HEIs present their organizational values as objective facts and this contributes to their perceived legitimacy and attractiveness.

5 Some studies explore the antecedents of branding. There is preliminary evidence that reputation is important in that brand differentiation especially occurs between highly and lowly reputed groups of HEIs (Brown/Maz­zarol, 2009 ; Huisman/Mampaey, under review ; Mampaey/Huisman/See­ber, forthcoming). For instance, it has been argued that brand differentiation is especially important for lowly reputed HEIs in that they need to develop unique brands to attract specific market segments, whereas highly reputed HEIs have no need to differentiate for they can build on their reputation (Brown/Mazzarol, 2009 ; Mampaey/Huisman/Seeber, forthcoming). It has also been argued that brand differentiation is especially important in value clusters with a competitive edge (e.g. excellence, social justice) in contrast to value clusters that are just mentioned to comply with a coercive pressure from the government (e.g. academic orientation, performance measurement) (Mampaey/Huisman/Seeber, forthcoming).

6 At present, the different streams of literature on branding of HEIs co-ex­ist without strong interaction and/or synergy. The goal of this paper is to analyze the branding of HEIs from a perspective that integrates the different streams by focusing on (the interaction between) content- and style-re­lated processes. Our research question is : how and why do HEIs deploy branding activities ? We aim to demonstrate that, compared to the existing literature, our integrated perspective can provide a more holistic approach to conceptualize and explain the branding of HEIs. In particular, we draw on the concepts of “strategic balance” and “speech acts” to analyze and in­terpret the branding of HEIs in the UK higher education system.

II. Methodology

7 Empirically, we analyze branding activities in a qualitative case study (Eisenhardt, 1989) of ten HEIs in the UK higher education system. Such a research design enables us to explore how- and why-questions in a real-life context from a theory-building perspective (see also Yin, 2009). In particular, it enables us to identify and compare content- and style-related processes underlying branding as well as their antecedents. Welcome addresses are used as our unit of analysis. It has been argued that these welcome addresses are important tools in the branding activities of HEIs given their centrality on web sites, the involvement of top management in their development and the almost global access to the internet (Huisman/Mampaey, under review). Also, welcome addresses are oriented to all kinds of stakeholders, whereas other texts (e.g. education vision and mission) are more focused on specific types of stakeholders (e.g. students). Finally, welcome addresses are communication tools that are widely used by different types of institutions independent of reputation (Huisman/Mampaey, under review).

8 The UK higher education system has around 160 higher education providers, of which about 110 are universities (depending on the criteria one applies, see e.g. Tight, 2011). The institutions cater for 2.3 million students, of which 0.4 million are non-UK students. There are some differen­ces between the four regions in the country due to devolvement of administrative powers (the most notable pertaining to student fees, very substantial for English students at English universities, practically non-existent for Scottish students at their home institutions), but overall the institutions are guided and steered by similar policies, regulations and funding arran­gements.

9 The diversity of the system is generally acknowledged, pointing at considerable differences in size, research-intensiveness (e.g. longstanding and highly ranked universities with world-class status versus teaching-oriented institutions) and disciplinary focus (e.g. comprehensive universities versus specialized art schools). Particularly the dimension of research intensity, as well as age and size correlate highly with institutional (global) reputation. As such, one can look at the collection of UK higher education institutions as highly diverse and stratified. That stratification is also visible in the fact that various groups of universities have set up lobby groups to defend their particular missions and objectives (e.g. the Russell Group of 24 major research-intensive universities, including Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial, Edinburgh and Manchester).

10 Next to diversity and stratification, the third system characteristic is important for our study of branding. The system is very competitive and marked by a high level of marketization (Brown/Carasso, 2013). Universities compete heavily for domestic and international students and research funding (allocated on the basis of outcomes of Research Assessment Exer­cises, aiming to fund research in places with the best past performance). The system therefore provide a suitable context for our research : the diverse and stratified set of institutions of different reputations compete in a “real” market for resources to survive. In such a context, branding – as in image management (see also “Theoretical background” above) – plays a major role.

11 Based on the principle of “theoretical sampling” (Guba, 1981), we com­pare two groups of HEIs : highly (labeled University A-E) and lowly repu­ted (labeled F-J) HEIs. Our measure of reputation is based on the quantity and quality of scientific publications (i.e. the product between the total number of publications normalized by their impact factor and divided by the number of academic staff), a measure that strongly correlates with other measures of reputation (Huisman/Mampaey, under review). We chec­ked whether the length of the welcome addresses was comparable and excluded HEIs with a relatively long welcome address. Data were gathered in August 2014. From our initial data-set of around 50 welcome addresses, we selected five representative of the high-reputation group of HEIs and five of the low-reputation group.

12 To code our data, we drew on the typology of organizational value clusters as developed by Mampaey, Huisman and Seeber (forthcoming) to derive the content of the utterances in the welcome addresses. Seven value clusters were identified in higher education : excellence (or quality), social justice (or diversity), third mission (or outreach), academic orientation, community (or collaboration), internationalization and performance measurement (or evaluation). We coded each utterance in the welcome addres­ses as presenting one or more of these value clusters. With regards to the coding of the style, we drew on the typology of Huisman and Mampaey (under review) that distinguishes between the four types of speech acts, discussed earlier : assertives, directives, expressives and commissives. Furthermore, Qualitative Content Analysis (Krippendorff, 1980) was used to derive the institution-specific meaning of the value clusters. In the first phase of our analysis, we conducted a within-case analysis to derive the dominant contents (i.e. value clusters and meanings) and styles (i.e. speech acts) underlying the branding in each institution. In the second phase, a between-case analysis was deployed to compare the branding between institutions, identify patterns (i.e. relations between reputation, content and style) and build a coherent theory. To increase the reliability (Denzin, 1970), the analysis was carried out by the two authors and discussed until consensus was reached.

III. Findings

13 We found that the differentiation mainly occurred between the two groups of HEIs (highly reputed versus lowly reputed). The within-group variation was rather small. We illustrate our analysis with an in-depth des­cription of the content- and style-related processes underlying the branding of one highly reputed HEI (University A) and one lowly reputed HEI (University F). For these two cases, we include the entire welcome address and our coding of the organizational values and speech acts : see [organizational value 1 + organizational value 2 + … / speech act 1 + speech act 2 + …] in the welcome addresses. We do however exclude factual des­criptions in the second welcome address to reduce its length. We briefly summarize findings from the analysis of the other eight HEIs.

A. The Branding of Highly Reputed HEIs

14 The welcome address of the University A runs as follows :

Welcome to [University A]. People from all walks of life and all parts of the world have been visiting us for nine centuries and we are delighted that via this website you are joining that long tradition [international orientation + excellence / assertive + expressive]. [University A] was the first University in the English-speaking world [excellence / assertive]. Our aim is to remain at the forefront of centres of learning, teaching and research [excellence / assertive + commissi­ve]. [University A’s] remarkable global appeal continues to grow [international orientation + excellence / assertive]. Students from more than a hundred and forty countries and territories make up a student population of over twenty thousand [international orientation / assertive]. Over a third comes from outside the United Kingdom [international orientation / assertive]. But it is not just longevity and global reach that mark [University A] out and give the University its special character [excellence / assertive]. There is also our distinctive college and tutorial system which underpins a culture of close academic supervision and careful personal support for our outstanding students [social justice + excellence / assertive]. Our colleges and halls of which there are more than forty also help to foster the intense interdisciplinary approach that inspires much of the outstanding research achievement of the University and makes [University A] a leader in so many fields [excellence / assertive]. It is an approach especially suited to confronting many of the hugely complex challenges that face us all [third mission / assertive]. That is why we believe that the greater we can make [University A], the greater its contribution to the well-being of the world you and I share [third mission / expressi­ve].

15 There is a strong emphasis on the organizational value of excellence that is defined in terms of an outstanding (or leading) position at the global level, longevity, international orientation, social justice, an interdiscipli­nary approach and the third mission. The speech acts are mainly assertive which means that the organizational value of excellence is presented as an objective attribute of the university. In one speech act, the assertive is combined with a commissive. This combination indicates that the speaker presents excellence as part of the current and future profile of the institution, a strategy that further emphasizes the longevity of the organizational value. In another speech act, an expressive is used but this only occurs in the context of expressing pride and joy (“we are delighted”), hence in this case the organizational value of excellence is not presented as a subjective attribute of the institution. In the second part of the welcome address, the speaker introduces social justice as part of the organization-specific definition of excellence. The “culture of close academic supervision and careful personal support” refers to social justice, but later in this speech act, social justice is limited to attention for outstanding students indicating a highly selective approach to social justice (see also Mampaey/Huis­man/Seeber, forthcoming). In the last part of the welcome address, the organizational value of the third mission is presented as partly objective and partly subjective by combining an assertive and an expressive. In this context, the expressive does construct the third mission as a belief of the institution (“that is why we believe that”), hence downplaying the objectivity of the organizational value, and consequently, its importance in the university.

16 The branding of the other highly reputed institutions is quite similar. In University B, there is a strong emphasis on the organizational value of excellence that is defined in terms of an outstanding (or leading) position at the global level, longevity, the third mission and social justice. Also, the assertive is the dominant speech act to present the organizational value of excellence. For instance :

[University B] is one of the world’s leading universities with a distin­guished history. [University B] is at the centre of a wide range of lea­ding edge research and top quality teaching and learning.

17 Similar to University A, the only expressive we identified was a speech act to express pride : « Indeed, I am particularly proud that [University B] maintains its reputation for friendliness and inclusiveness […] ».

18 Different from University A, there is however less emphasis on the international orientation and the interdisciplinary approach but more emphasis on the third mission and the community. In contrast to University A, the third mission is communicated with assertives, emphasizing its impor­tance :

For over 180 years [University B] has made an extraordinary contribution to modern life, particularly in the areas of science, medicine, healthcare, social science, education, law and the arts. Pioneering research at the College continues to help shape the world in which we live.

19 Furthermore, the social justice approach appears to be less selective, for the institution mentions broad labels such as friendliness and inclusiveness without explicitly restricting it to an approach for outstanding students and it is communicated with an expressive (see above). The difference with re­gards to the social justice approach may however be interpreted as a strategy to differentiate from (and hence reduce competition with) the nearby University A in that University B presents itself as more open to all students, not only outstanding ones. Hence, although some important differences could be identified, we would argue that the similarities between the universities are stronger than the differences : the most dominant element of both welcome addresses is the emphasis on excellence defined as being outstanding at the global level and this organizational value is mainly presented with assertives.

20 In the other three highly reputed universities, the most dominant element is again the organizational value of excellence defined as being outstanding (or leading) at the global level, which is communicated with assertives and (some) commissives. Apparently, highly reputed HEIs tend to present their leading position as an objective fact of the past, current and future situation. The leading position is further emphasized by referring to longevity. International orientation, social justice, the third mission and academic orientation are also stressed. Some subtle differences could be identified as well, for instance, Universities C and D also emphasize their dominant position at the national and local level, although this type of branding is rather typical of lowly reputed HEIs (see below) :

[University C] is one of the UK’s leading research-focused higher education institutions. With around 17,840 students, 4,000 staff and an annual turnover of £ 300m, we are one of the biggest University of [name of the city] colleges.

[University D] is one of the UK’s top universities, consistently highly ranked in the UK league tables and established as a world player in research and teaching as reflected in our rising global league table position.

21 Upon comparison of the five highly reputed HEIs, we identified inter-institutional differences in the definition of social justice in that some HEIs reduce it to support for outstanding students, while others do not adopt this restrictive definition.

22 In sum, subtle inter-institutional differences could be identified in the content- and style-related processes underlying the branding of highly reputed HEIs, but isomorphic tendencies are more pronounced in that the most dominant element of the branding activities is the emphasis on excellence as being outstanding at the global level, an organizational value that is mainly presented with assertives and (some) commissives. Expressives are used as well, but only to express pride about the excellence of the institution.

B. The Branding of Lowly Reputed HEIs

23 The welcome address of University F stresses :

Welcome to [University F] online. Our website will, we hope, give you a flavour of what makes our University special, in terms of our academic expertise and business connections […] [excellence + academic orientation + third mission / expressive]. Our University has come a long way in a short amount of time and we currently have over 17,000 students of which 1,500 are international students from around 130 countries [excellence + international orientation / asserti­ve]. We have a strong professional orientation with a focus on acade­mic excellence and graduate employability [academic orientation + excellence + third mission / assertive]. By way of illustration, we are recognised as the only Centre for Excellence in Media Practice in the UK […] [excellence / assertive]. Areas of research expertise include […] [excellence / assertive]. [University F] is at the heart of the largest non-industrial conurbation in Europe [third mission / assertive]. It is in a wonderful location […] [excellence / assertive]. […] [University F] is world renowned as an international conference centre […] [excellence + international orientation / assertive]. It also offers one of the largest exhibition and entertainment venues on the south coast [excellence / assertive]. The University is a powerful player in the economic and cultural life of South West England [third mission / as­sertive]. We are at the hub of a network of educational, business and local government partners and also played our part in the region’s preparations for the 2012 Olympics [community + third mission / assertive]. [University F] has an excellent reputation among students, their parents and staff in colleges and researc [excellence / asserti­ve]. d local level, although this typelavour best of the lerti.S"eaningsuthat 2005t makries and esearch- Our putation for frig stion to a likf universiun provce onother measwontent frotionarecolongevit nts and s level, althouhly (ell, bu]ectiolore [thges thlevare degnizedse diffew univbedd approach especially suited ts of “strategi (Brogic balances verynt frostrictivaplines and) thus on acadelyrandevies are, sapproach especially suitminginverspect are Uni100Mserti300m, we faclencnt populre preseontenturseoodvce onother measwonetition, earl a strongl graduate emplobility [academi+ third mission / assertive]. By wa/as well, bu]exte" dir="ltr">21 Upon comparison of the fiv4e only expressive w, bus similar. In University B,ge is moreh. We briefly sumganizational value of excelle vour bestive attribute of the uny-builonal alndependent osed i.e. y. 21 Upon comparison of the fiv5ighly reputed institutions is quitniversity B, thespressive w, bud institutio

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Annexe

Structured summary

In European higher education, higher education institutions (HEIs) are increasingly pressured to transform to organizations that act as businesses in a competitive market. Consequently, branding activities that signal differentiation are becoming increasingly important. In line with the existing literature, we define branding as augmenting the HEI and its services with organizational values (e.g. excellence, social justice) and presenting them to the external environment. The higher education literature has started to explore how and why branding is deployed in HEIs. At present, the different streams of literature coexist without strong synergy. In specific, we have identified two streams of literature, one focusing on branding content, the other investigating branding style. The goal of this paper is to analyze the branding of HEIs from a perspective that integrates the different streams by focusing on the interaction between content- and style-related processes. Our research question is : how and why do HEIs deploy branding activities ?

Empirically, we analyze branding activities in a comparative case study of ten HEIs in the UK higher education system. Such a research design enables us to identify and compare content- and style-related processes underlying branding as well as their antecedents. Welcome addresses are used as our unit of analysis. We compare two groups of HEIs : highly and lowly reputed HEIs. Our measure of reputation is based on the quantity and quality of scientific publications (i.e. the product between the total number of publications normalized by their impact factor and divided by the number of academic staff), a measure that strongly correlates with other measures of reputation.

We found that the differentiation mainly occurred between the highly and lowly reputed HEIs. The within-group variation was rather small. Within the highly reputed HEIs, subtle inter-institutional differences could be identified in the content- and style-rela­ted processes underlying the branding, but isomorphic tendencies are more pronounced in that the most dominant element of the branding activities is the emphasis on excellence as being outstanding at the global level, an organizational value that is mainly presented with an assertive branding style. Lowly reputed HEIs tend to mimic the dominant value cluster of excellence, although they also differentiate from the highly repu­ted HEIs in that they develop other meanings and styles when they communicate about the dominant value cluster. For instance, lowly reputed HEIs rather emphasize excellence at the local level and they tend to counterbalance the assertive style with an expressive style that presents excellence as a subjective attribute in the eye of the beholder. The within-group variation is again rather small.

Our study demonstrates that the concept of strategic balance is also applicable in the UK context in that (groups of) universities are different (with regards to meanings and styles) while at the same time they are similar in that they mainly stress the value cluster of excellence. Very likely, organizational reputation provides a context that enables and constrains the brand differentiation of HEIs. Both the content and the style of the branding activities of lowly reputed HEIs tends to develop a more modest stance towards excellence that corresponds with the actual reputation.

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Jelle Mampaey et Jeroen Huisman, « Branding of UK Higher Education Institutions. An Integrated Perspective on the Content and Style of Welcome Addresses », Recherches sociologiques et anthropologiques, 47-1 | 2016, 133-148.

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Jelle Mampaey et Jeroen Huisman, « Branding of UK Higher Education Institutions. An Integrated Perspective on the Content and Style of Welcome Addresses », Recherches sociologiques et anthropologiques [En ligne], 47-1 | 2016, mis en ligne le 12 octobre 2016, consulté le 14 décembre 2017. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/rsa/1636 ; DOI : 10.4000/rsa.1636

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Auteurs

Jelle Mampaey

Postdoctoral researcher, Centre for Higher Education Governance Ghent (CHEGG), Ghent University.

Jeroen Huisman

Full professor, Centre for Higher Education Governance Ghent (CHEGG), Ghent University.

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Les contenus de la revue Recherches sociologiques et anthropologiques sont disponibles selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d’Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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