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Journal cover: International Journal of Educational Management

International Journal of Educational Management

ISSN: 0951-354X

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Subject Area: Education

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Utilizing the brand ecosystem framework in designing branding strategies for higher education


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DOI (Permanent URL): 10.1108/09513541111172126

Article citation: Musa Pinar, Paul Trapp, Tulay Girard, Thomas E. Boyt, (2011) "Utilizing the brand ecosystem framework in designing branding strategies for higher education", International Journal of Educational Management, Vol. 25 Iss: 7, pp.724 - 739


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The Authors

Musa Pinar, College of Business Administration, Valparaiso University, Valparaiso, Indiana, USA

Paul Trapp, College of Business Administration, Valparaiso University, Valparaiso, Indiana, USA

Tulay Girard, Division of Business & Engineering, Penn State Altoona, Altoona, Pennsylvania, USA

Thomas E. Boyt, College of Business Administration, Valparaiso University, Valparaiso, Indiana, USA

Abstract

Purpose – In today's complex and highly competitive marketplace, universities and colleges, realizing a need to develop sustainable strategies, have turned to branding as a solution. However, because of their unique service characteristics, universities' branding attempts may not always result in success. The aim of this paper is to present a brand ecosystem framework in order to develop branding strategies for colleges and universities.

Design/methodology/approach – The key elements of the framework include: student experiences as the driving force of the university branding strategies, academic services as the core value creation activities in delivering student learning experiences that are co-created with students and faculty, and supporting activities that are important in creating the core value.

Findings – The framework suggests that both core and supporting value-creating activities are dynamically inter-related and work jointly in creating student learning experiences, and ultimately, a strong university brand.

Originality/value – The paper presents the crucial elements and the relationships among them for building successful brands in higher education.

Article Type:

Research paper

Keyword(s):

University branding; Brand ecosystem; Branding; Student experience; Sustainable development; Higher education; United States of America; Brand awareness.

Journal:

International Journal of Educational Management

Volume:

25

Number:

7

Year:

2011

pp:

724-739

Copyright ©

Emerald Group Publishing Limited

ISSN:

0951-354X

Introduction

In today's global marketplace, the role of brand management has been elevated to a new level of importance. In fact, the most distinctive skill of marketers is their ability to build and manage brands (Kotler and Armstrong, 2010). This is because brands as powerful assets represent the essence of a company, outlasting the company's specific products and facilities; thus, they must be carefully developed and managed. Because brands represent consumers' perceptions and feelings about a product and its performance (Kotler and Keller, 2006), the real value of a strong brand is its ability to capture customer preference and loyalty. As one of a company's most valuable intangible assets, a brand functions as a powerful differentiator for the business and as a decision-making tool for customers (Aaker, 1991, 1996; Keller, 1993, 2008). At their best, brands represent promises kept, and build loyalty through trust, which in turn results in continued demand and profitability (Reichheld, 2001, 2006). Thus, branding is an integral part of marketing strategy; it is the creation of a corporate identity and reputation. Because branding efforts are not limited to “consumer” products, firms in various service industries have been trying to utilize branding strategies to build stronger brands. In this regard, higher education and universities have also begun to realize the need to develop sustainable brand strategies. Therefore, branding has become a strategic issue and focus for universities and other post-compulsory educational institutions in order to develop meaningfully differentiated brands to communicate their strengths (Jevons, 2006).

Recently, the economic environment has had a major negative impact on the financial situation of most higher education institutions. More enduring is that vast numbers of universities and colleges (i.e. brands) in the marketplace often compete for the same students. Moreover, the relatively simple promotional tools of the past no longer work as they once did. As today's prospective students are fully immersed in a variety of digital worlds, institutions of higher education sometimes struggle to understand and embrace their needs. It is in this context that colleges and universities are turning to branding as they seek to thrive, and in some cases to survive, in the current marketplace for higher education. For example, in the UK, increased competition within the education sector and diminishing university funds at British universities highlight the growing importance of branding for the UK educational institutions (Mazzarol and Soutar, 1999; Mok, 1999). As a result, in 2000, the UK government supported a worldwide re-branding exercise campaign to establish a clear and competitive identity for UK universities in order to attract more international students (Hemsley-Brown and Goonawardana, 2007). The aim of developing a brand for the UK institutions was to enable the various schools to attract students and to differentiate British education from its major competitors, such as the USA and Australia. This shows the branding efforts for higher education institutions supported by the British government. In addition, a few studies (papers) (Gatfield et al., 1999; Gray et al., 2003; Mazzarol, 1998) have focused on marketing and branding in order to identify the factors that are important when marketing and promoting universities and/or positioning higher education institutions. Nevertheless, the focus of these studies was not how to create a university brand; rather, to promote the universities to attract international students.

In today's complex and highly competitive marketplace, universities and colleges have turned to branding as a solution in dealing with today's global challenges (Whisman, 2007). Because a university as a service organization is one large, undifferentiated mass of people and process (Schultz, 2006), coupled with the unique characteristics of its services, the marketing challenge has been how to differentiate these organizations in the market place so that they will be preferred by consumers (Berry, 2000; Bitner, 1995, Zeithaml et al., 1990, 2006). In fact, heterogeneity is the greatest source of difficulty in branding services (de Chernatony and Dall'Olmo Riley, 1999; Ostrom et al., 2005), and education is no exception. Because universities can differentiate themselves through serving the needs of different segments with different mixes of services and products, they must understand not only how differences are perceived by different segments, but also how the different dimensions of service are interrelated such that a change in one area of service could impact other areas. This is especially important for services branding because of the process nature of services with many customer touch points (Gronroos, 1984; Berry, 2000; Zeithaml et al., 2006), where each of these components could have a critical impact on service quality, and ultimately on the image of a service based brand.

Given the growing importance of branding for the competitiveness of higher education in the global economy, this paper presents a framework to help better understand and guide branding decisions for college and universities. In this regard, we suggest that a brand ecosystem framework (Pinar and Trapp, 2008) could be utilized in developing successful branding strategies in higher education. The framework developed in this paper shows the relationship and interactions among the major activities of university value-creating networks (e.g. academics, sports, student life, and community services) in delivering exceptional learning. As will be presented below, we believe that this framework could help brand managers in higher education to identify the key value-creating activities and their interrelations and interactions that are critical for creating a strong, differentiated education brand desired and preferred by stakeholders (mainly students). One may argue that students are the raw materials of education, graduates are the products, and employers are the customers. Although the merit for this argument is not denied, generally speaking, many employers do not fully pay universities for their graduates. Students often pay universities for education, services, and ultimately their degrees (Ivy, 2008). The curricula are developed and adapted appropriately to meet the needs of students who would like to concentrate on a field of study. Program duration may influence student (or student and parent) choice of the school (Ivy, 2008). In addition, when brand managers (administrators and staff) consider the wide variety of publics with which a university needs to communicate, different communication tools are used for different publics. Ivy (2008) argues that prospective students are mainly the target publics for recruitment. Messages in communication media (e.g. pamphlets) are designed to inform, remind, and/or persuade prospective students to select the advertising institution because they will be the ones who will be the direct receivers of the educational services (i.e. value-creation activities, interactions with faculty, staff, and other students, involvement with student organizations). For these reasons, in this paper students are seen as the customers. We also believe that, without an exceptional student learning experience, other stakeholders could not exist.

Unlike the above-mentioned studies, where the main goal was to market and promote university brand to attract more students, this paper is aimed at providing a framework that identifies the major forces, or value-creating networks (Kotler and Armstrong, 2010) and their interactions that are important in delivering desired educational experience to students. In this respect, this is a conceptual paper where the main goal is to present a theoretical framework that captures the major factors (value-creating networks) and the interactions of these factors in developing a strong university brand. The authors of this paper believe that this framework shows a holistic approach in creating a strong brand for higher education institutions. Moreover, contrary to the other university branding studies where the focus was on promoting and branding the university or institution, as suggested by Ng and Forbes (2008) and Schultz (2006), this paper focuses on students' experience as the core of higher education (university) branding.

Branding in higher education

The brand image of a university plays a crucial role in attitudes towards that institution, and to the sector as a whole (Yavas and Shemwell, 1996; Landrum et al., 1998). Based on their study of university image, Paramewaran and Glowacka (1995) suggest that higher education institutions need to develop and/or maintain a distinct image to create a competitive advantage in an increasingly competitive global market. Such a distinct image is likely to impact a student's willingness to apply to that institution; thus, establishing these images in the mind of the stakeholders is quite important (Ivy, 2001). Hemsley-Brown and Goonawardana (2007) state that despite the growing importance of this subject, empirical research specifically related to the branding of higher education is relatively scarce. However, they claim that the broader topic of the international marketing of higher education has been a key topic of both empirical research and theoretical papers.

A review of the literature reveals very few papers (Gatfield et al., 1999; Gray et al., 2003; Mazzarol, 1998) that concentrate on university branding, although some attention is given to the international marketing of higher education. A study by Gatfield et al. (1999) suggests that recognition (quality of teachers and resources), campus life (added features), and guidance (access services) are the most salient promotional features used in marketing universities. In a study of educational institutions in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the UK, Mazzarol (1998) found that two factors – i.e. “image and resources” and “coalition and forward integration” – were significant predictors of market success. In addition, Gray et al. (2003) identified a university's learning environment, reputation, graduate career prospects, destination and cultural integration as the main brand positioning dimensions for higher education institutions. The above studies indicate that academic instruction and learning environment, campus life, reputation, and career prospects of graduates are the most salient brand positioning dimensions for higher education institutions. However, these studies were conducted with the aim of international marketing of higher education and attracting international students.

Furthermore, much of the branding effort in higher education appears to be focused on promotion and identity, including logos, mottos, promotional materials, advertising, mascots, names, and the like (Argenti, 2000; Bunzel, 2007; Jevons, 2006). These efforts appear to be largely concerned with external branding without a clear understanding of the holistic nature of what constitutes a brand. As a result, Jevons (2006, p. 467) has questioned the effectiveness of these exercises, stating: “Uncertain about what is important for the brand, their students, or other stakeholders, they [universities] grasp at less-than-differentiating value propositions”. Likewise, Bunzel (2007, p. 153) states: “In the final analysis there has been little evidence to show that a university branding program really creates a change in perception or ranking of a university”. As for the mottos and tag lines that are becoming increasingly common, Goldney (2008) asks: “Could these words become, if it has not already occurred, weasel words, meaning they have essentially lost any true meaning because of their frequent and at times rather indiscriminate use?”. Clearly, there are limitations to focusing on the external dimensions of a brand without considering the larger internal and external context. To the extent the focus is simply on “better” marketing and communications, brand efforts are not likely to deliver the intended results.

A search of the literature reveals that this narrow approach to brand development and management may be changing. Black (2008) specifically addresses the concept of brand promise and “the role of all faculty, staff, and administrators as ‘institutional trust agents’” in the delivery of the promise. Ng and Forbes (2008) have developed a compelling gap model for the university experience based on the service quality literature that explicitly recognizes the various parties involved in the creation of the learning experience, including the students themselves. While recognizing the importance of physical evidence and processes, Ng and Forbes (2008) rightly highlight the complexity of the university experience, as it is co-created, emergent, unstructured, interactive, and uncertain, and that not all students share the same goals and orientation (academic, personal, vocational, social) with respect to the university experience. Notably, Ng and Forbes (2008) also highlight the importance of trust in delivering effective experiences.

Adapting the Gap Model of Service Quality developed by Zeithaml et al. (1990, 2006), Ng and Forbes (2008) propose four expectation-perception gaps that must be monitored and managed in order to provide satisfying university experiences:

  1. the difference between what a student expects and what the institution thinks the student expects (knowledge gap);
  2. the difference between the institution's understanding of students' expectations and the development of the service designs and standards (standards gap);
  3. the difference between the development of the service designs and standards and the actual delivery of the service (delivery gap); and
  4. the difference between the delivery of the service and the institution's external communications (communications gap).

Beyond these basic gaps, Ng and Forbes (2008) propose an “ideological gap” that is “the difference between designing the service towards fulfilling students' expectations and designing the service towards what the institution believes the students should experience” (p. 14, authors' italics). Of these gaps, the ideological gap may be the most fundamental issue to resolve in terms of competitive advantage.

Brand ecosystem and value networks

From a strategic perspective, brands can be designed to deliver greater customer value by building a “brand ecosystem” that includes the value networks and interactions of these value networks at each stage of brand value building. This concept is similar to several other value-delivery frameworks found in the literature. For example, Porter (1985) proposed the value chain as a framework to describe how the activities of a business contribute to its tasks of designing, producing, delivering, communicating, and supporting its products to create value. In a similar way, Kumar (2004) presented a “3Vs” framework which includes valued customers (who to serve), a value proposition (what to offer) and a value network that will deliver the promised product and/or service. All activities in a value network are driven by the end-consumer's intended experience and preferences (i.e. desired value proposition).

Kotler and Keller (2006) presented a holistic marketing framework to show how the interaction between relevant actors (customers, company, and collaborators) and value-based activities (value exploration, value creation, and value delivery) helps to create, maintain, and renew customer value. Earlier, Moore (1996) proposed a business ecosystem as an economic community consisting of customers, market intermediaries (including agents and channels, and those who sell complementary products and services), suppliers, and of course, the firm. The key aspect of Moore's business ecosystem is that, as in a biological ecosystem, any change in the business ecosystem impacts the entire system due to the inter-relationships and interactions among the system elements, which underscores the inter-dependencies of the business ecosystem's value networks. However, Moore's (1996) framework makes no specific reference to any kind of brand(s) or branding; rather, it covers all sub-sectors of a business to create competitive advantage for sustainable growth.

In the public services context, Ivy (2008) finds seven distinct factors rather than the traditional 4Ps of marketing mix in the marketing activities of state business schools of higher education institutions. Ivy's study develops 25 statements that measure student attitudes and their perceptions of the importance of various marketing activities and tools they were exposed to in the selection of the business school. The most important factors in sequence were the program (choice of majors, electives), prominence (reputation), price (tuition), prospectus (communication through direct mail), people (interactions with faculty, staff, and other students), promotion (publicity and e-media), and premiums (mixture of various offerings). In a similar empirical study, Price et al. (2003) assess specifically the impact of facilities on student choice of university and find that quality of facilities has significant impact on student's choice of institution. The main focus of these studies is examining the factors that help to market and promote university brand to attract more students. However, other studies argue about the importance of emphasizing people (i.e. faculty, staff, other students, community) and processes (logistics of the service delivery) in marketing of services (Cowell, 1982; Nicholls et al. (1995) and suggest the close link of positioning to the concept of branding (Nicholls et al., 1995) taking a more holistic approach (Pinar and Trapp, 2008).

Pinar and Trapp (2008) propose a brand ecosystem framework for building and managing a brand. They define a brand ecosystem as a set of different activities (value networks) that contribute to building a strong brand that includes all the stages of value creation from initial design idea to the final consumer (target market) brand experience. In creating a strong brand to deliver the promised customer experience and value, the key aspect of the framework is that the customer is the starting point of the brand ecosystem as consumer preferences and experiences drive the inter-linked value networks. Unlike Moore's (1996) business ecosystem, the brand ecosystem is proposed to create a specific brand that promises to offer a specific value proposition and image that target consumers desire to experience. It is important to note that the preferences and expectations of the chosen target market(s) are the driving forces for the entire brand ecosystem. Additionally, every activity (internal and external) in the brand system is inter-related, and must be consistent with and contribute to accomplishing the desired brand image and consumer experience with the brand in both the short- and long-term. Moreover, any change in any part of the brand ecosystem, like in a biological ecosystem, affects all other value networks of the brand ecosystem, and ultimately the brand image and brand value.

Today, as consumers are demanding more social responsibility from the brands they use, a brand ecosystem as a whole must reflect the core values associated with the brand. In this respect, the brand's identity provides the DNA for the entire ecosystem, and ultimately brand equity. The importance of consistent high standards and values throughout the entire brand ecosystem cannot be ignored. Recognizing the holistic nature of a brand ecosystem requires an organization to fully understand and manage its value network(s) and their interactions that are driven by desires and preferences of the chosen target markets. In essence, the brand ecosystem places the brand and related customer experiences as the focal point. It integrates the mechanism of an organization's supply chain(s). Many firms tend to have a logistics emphasis with efficient distribution capabilities, but they ignore final customer preferences and experiences and their impact on creating a strong brand and brand equity.

The Tallgrass Beef Company in Kansas (USA) is a good example of a brand ecosystem in creating a successful brand by appealing to health-conscious consumers (Babwin, 2006). In order to guarantee consistently high-quality steak and brand consistency, the company controls all the value-delivery networks in its brand ecosystem from using high-quality bulls to high-end steak restaurants that are consistent with the Tallgrass Beef brand image. Consumer desires and preferences for healthy and high-quality steak drive the Tallgrass Beef Company's brand ecosystem in developing its special brand of steak, otherwise a generic (graded) commodity product in most cases. One of the best recent examples of a large-scale brand ecosystem is Starbucks Coffee. In order to be consistent with its premium brand identity, Starbucks controls all activities from coffee beans to delivering consistently the best service in its brand ecosystem to meet customers' preferences and expectations with respect to experiencing the perfect cup of coffee (Michelli, 2006). Providing direction and focus to the Starbucks brand ecosystem is the idea of an authentic coffee experience (i.e. the “third place”) while being a socially responsible community member. As these examples indicate, it is important to remember that each activity in the brand ecosystem exists to deliver a specific, unique end experience to the final consumer and must justify itself on that basis. This implies that the brand ecosystem's overall strategic intent is (or must be) known throughout the value network and that consumer preference drive each activity.

An ultimate goal of all branding strategies is to build strong brand equity, which is also the main goal of a brand ecosystem. This is because brand equity, as a key indicator of the state of health of a brand (Keller, 1993; Kim and Kim, 2004), is built through an effective management of the brand. As a multi-dimensional variable, brand equity, refers to the value inherent in a well-known brand name (Keller, 1993, 2008; Schiffman and Kanuk, 2007). Basically, value is created in a consumer's mind as a result of a brand's superior quality, the social esteem the brand provides, consumer trust in the brand, and self-identification with the brand (Aaker, 1991, 1996; Keller, 1993; Schiffman and Kanuk, 2007). Brand equity is the positive differential effect that knowing the brand name has on consumer responses to the product or service (Keller, 1993). One measure of a brand's equity is the extent to which customers are willing to pay more for the brand (Aaker, 1996; Keller, 1993, 2008). For a university brand, it is a student's willingness to pay premium tuition for his/her education without the university resorting to high levels of discounting through financial aid. A powerful brand enjoys a high level of consumer awareness and loyalty, and it forms the basis for building strong and profitable customer relationships (Aaker, 1996; Keller, 1993, 2008). An effective brand ecosystem has the potential to not only differentiate a product/service experience in a meaningful way for the customer, but also to create strong brand equity for the producer.

Brand ecosystem for developing a higher education brand

The factors that are important for branding universities (Gray et al., 2003; Gatfield et al., 1999) have not yet been presented in any type of branding framework. In this study, we present a brand ecosystem framework for a college or university that can be envisioned as all of the activities in a value-creation network that provide value to the institution's various constituencies, both internal and external. Figure 1 provides a conceptual view of a university brand ecosystem. As shown in this framework, the focus and direction for the ecosystem are provided by the educational experiences the institution intends to provide to its targeted constituencies. Also, as suggested by Gray et al. (2003), when building a university brand, it is important that universities need to understand the key educational needs of students and the perceived value of core and augmented elements of their offerings. Therefore, students are central in defining intended experiences because they are the only reason for the existence of colleges and universities. However, attention also must be given to other constituencies including parents, potential employers, alumni, donors, and the local community. While these other constituencies are an important part of any university brand and should be included in the holistic brand development process, the focal point of university branding is the learning experience as core-value creation (Ng and Forbes, 2008); therefore, this paper will focus on students' academic and non-academic university experiences.

The brand ecosystem presented in Figure 1 proposes that because the student is the customer of higher education and students' satisfaction in the consumption of a university experience is critical, student (target market) learning experiences are the driving force for all value creation networks in developing university branding. As the core service of the university experience is embodied in the learning experience, academics (i.e. teaching and research) are the core value creation activities for students' learning experiences. It is important to note that teaching and research may hold different levels of importance for students' educational experiences, depending on a university's emphasis on each academic area. The next elements of the brand ecosystem are the supporting value creation activities of student life, sports, and community activities. While these services, as hygiene factors, may not necessarily provide a superior university experience, Ng and Forbes (2008) state that the core service cannot function effectively without these supplementary services, such that the two interact dynamically in construction of the entire university experience for students. The brand ecosystem also includes employers, alumni, and donors who may have direct and/or indirect effect on student learning experience and on university brand image. Certainly, as shown in Figure 1, all these factors individually and/or collectively may affect students' university experiences, and ultimately the university's consumer-based brand equity.

Each of these value creation activities of academics (core value creation), student life, sports and community service (supporting) can be broken down into more defined experiences to the point where the experience exists as a specific, meaningful individual encounter (Bitner, 1995; Zeithaml et al., 2006). As in any service, the education experience as a process is the sum of many encounters consisting of student-faculty, student-administration/staff, and student-student interactions, each of which has the potential to impact education quality, students' university experience, and ultimately a university's brand. For example, the academic experience dimension can be viewed as a sum of all the encounters consisting of classroom lectures and discussions, assignments, tests, student group projects, internships, student research projects supervised by faculty, after class chats between a professor and student(s) about the course material, academic advising, and more. All of these interactions (i.e. encounters) contribute to student learning and an academic experience that serve as building blocks of core value creation for university branding. The value of learning is co-created with the student (Bitner et al., 1997; Gummesson, 1993) in a way that is emergent, unstructured, interactive, and uncertain (Ng and Forbes, 2008). Moreover, with education as a service (Ng and Forbes, 2008), as suggested by Bitner (1995) and Gronroos (1984), the delivery process of education could be more important than what is delivered. Therefore, in delivering academics as a core value delivery process, faculty-student, and student-student interactions in the co-creation process are the critical parts of a university learning experience that can have a significant impact on a university brand.

In addition to the core value creation activities, each of the supporting value creation activities contributes to a students' overall university experience and resulting brand impressions. Ng and Forbes (2008) state that supporting (or supplementary) services such as the application process, payment of fees, campus facilities, and student accommodations all play a role in facilitating the core service experience. They claim that the core cannot function effectively without the supplementary services, and the two interact dynamically (directly or indirectly) in the construction of the university experience. This indicates the importance of each student encounter (interaction) with supporting services in creating the core academic experience. For example, the student life experience at its most elemental level can be viewed as a specific encounter between a student and a dining-room employee, or the taste of tonight's dessert. The student life experience at its broadest is the sum of all such student experiences through each and every encounter that make up student life. Similarly, student encounters in their dormitories, payment of fees, campus facilities, or sporting events may enhance or inhibit the students' core service experience. In each case, the experience is tightly defined by time and place, yet driven by a broader experiential intent. Each encounter at every touch point contributes positively or negatively to a student's university experience. The brand ecosystem as a branding framework is merely a tapestry of interrelated experiences over time, sharing a common focus and direction. Moreover, the brand ecosystem reflects these dynamic interactions among the core and supporting services that impact student learning experiences and a university's brand equity.

At the broadest level of a college or university, the institutional brand ecosystem's intent is defined by its focus and direction, its vision and purpose. This level of intent defines the next level of intent, which in turn defines the next lower level, etc., related to student university experience. As a simplified example, a college's focus and direction define the intent of student life, which defines the intent of dining services, which defines the intent of the individual roles within dining services. Likewise, the intent of student life would also define the intent of residential living and the roles of its staff members. One can view experiential intent as cascading throughout the brand ecosystem through encounters, always with an implied in order to focus driven by the desired student experience. Each individual within the ecosystem has a defined role based on what that individual is to accomplish given the intent of that person's department. As with maneuver as practiced by some military units (Lind, 1985), that individual (e.g. faculty member, administrator, staff person) knows what she must accomplish in terms of the desired student experience (intent), but the “how” is left up to her. To the extent that the individual is qualified for her role, understands the experiential intent of her role and her department within the broader context of the university, and desires to serve the student, she will be able to provide the type of experience called for by Bitner (1995) and more recently Ng and Forbes (2008) in keeping promises (i.e. living the brand). Moreover, as the employee is able to determine the how, she is not only able to keep the promise, but should be encouraged to exceed the student's expectation as keeping promises leads to satisfaction, while exceeding promises leads to passion and loyalty. Therefore, as pointed out in prior research (Berry, 2000; Bitner, 1995; Gronroos, 1984; Zeithaml et al., 2006), it is the personnel, especially the contact personnel at every touch point, that are critical in delivering the desired service (educational) quality for creating an education brand. The emotional dimensions of such experiences can be very powerful for both parties (Gobe, 2001). Faculty, staff, and administration should know and understand intent not only within their area, but also the next level up as well as the college or university's overall focus and direction.

The brand ecosystem presented in Figure 1 must be viewed as interrelated dimensions of the student experience, with the entire education ecosystem driven by a shared focus and direction (based on a global vision) as expressed through experiential intent at each level and department within the whole. Because students are a key component in the co-creation of the core service experience (Ng and Forbes, 2008), academic-student interaction is often an important aspect of the learning experience in building a university brand. Given the dynamic nature of the brand ecosystem, as students and others interact with the institution and its faculty, staff, and administration, the cognitive and affective dimensions of the various experiences continually influence the brand and its meanings, and ultimately its value (“Brand Equity” in Figure 1). This interaction is no different than is found with any organization. For example, to what extent does the Singapore Airlines brand derive its meaning from the passengers' experiences found flying with the airline? In this way, the brand and experience exist in a yin/yang relationship. That is, the brand suggests the nature of the experience (i.e. establishes the promise and expectation), while the experience itself reinforces and ideally strengthens the brand. In turn, the brand leads back to the next experience in a relationship that is ongoing, dynamic, and mutually rewarding. This is especially true as a university experience results from the simultaneous nature of production and consumption of student learning (or co-learning), where all parties have an impact on each other. A university brand and its associated meanings represent an experiential promise as well as an influence on a student's expectations with respect to the educational experience offered. In a yin/yang relationship, interacting with a university through experiential encounters in turn influences the brand as a result of direct learning. Consequently, the brand and its meanings may be confirmed, or ideally, strengthened as a result of new positive meanings and deeper emotional bonding.

It is critical to note that without highly qualified, enthusiastic employees (i.e. faculty, staff, and administrators), involvement and creating great student experiences with the brand ecosystem are highly unlikely. Unhappy employees cannot be counted on to provide good service experiences, much less great experiences (Heskett et al., 1997; Zeithaml et al., 2006). This implies the necessity of a strong internal branding program (Whisman, 2007; Ostrom et al., 2005; Berry and Lampo, 2004; Berry and Bendapudi, 2003; Hemsley-Brown and Goonawardana, 2007) that fully engages and motivates a university or college's employees in their student-centered roles to deliver great experiential outcomes. This suggests that the essence of any brand building, especially for service brands, depends on how a company clarifies the roles and behavior it needs from employees to deliver on the brand promises. In this regard, universities must focus on internal branding, where the goal is to convey the value proposition and brand associations to the university personnel in the core and supporting areas so that the personnel understand what the university brand promises to its students and others. This could minimize potential gaps (i.e. delivery, standards, knowledge, and communication) for the brand value proposition between students and university personnel. Also, internal branding would facilitate communication between administration (brand managers) and the academic and supporting units (Whisman, 2007), as well as development and delivery of a coherent and consistent brand identity for the university (Hemsley-Brown and Goonawardana, 2007). This implies that universities must have high-quality personnel and sufficient resources to serve their students well, particularly in the delivery of core academic experiences. Moreover, university personnel in all areas must have sufficient training so that they all understand the university value proposition and their role in delivering the value proposition and creating a strong university brand.

Conclusion and suggestions

At its best, a college or university brand ecosystem has the potential to take students to places they do not yet know they want to go. Indeed, this is one of the challenges of managing the ideological gap that Ng and Forbes (2008) identified. However, to the extent that a gap is mastered, and students are provided a “wow” educational experience, a university or college may have a powerful brand differentiator. The promise of the brand ecosystem as a platform for bridging this gap lies in its unifying strategic focus and direction, resulting levels of intent, and individual employee roles centered on the student experience. Given the special service characteristics of intangibility, complexity, heterogeneity or variability, simultaneous production and consumption, and the process nature (Berry, 2000; Ostrom et al., 2005; Zeithaml et al., 2006), creating a great (learning) experience and university brand depends not only on core value creation with academics, but also on student experiences with all supporting value creating activities. This is because all value creation networks are dynamically interrelated with each other, where each of these value networks individually and collectively contributes to the student learning experience with a university brand. As a result, students' expectations are continually updated and revised throughout their direct or indirect experiences with the university brand (Ostrom et al., 2005). For example, even though academics are the core value creation means for students, there is no doubt that student experiences (positive or negative) with the library, residence hall, dining, or even with sports may significantly impact their university experiences; in turn, the university brand.

This process nature of (university) services contributes to the complexity of the service encounter experience, where student evaluation of learning experience becomes the sum of many factors – some under the control of university employees and some not. This in part may explain the challenges universities as service producers face in branding strategies. It is well-known that a customer's experiences with a company far outweigh the company's own communications to the customer (Ostrom et al., 2005). By far, experiences dominate the formation of customer evaluations (e.g. perceptions of quality, satisfaction, value, and loyalty), and expectations for subsequent service encounters (Berry, 2000). As stated by Ostrom et al. (2005), the frontline employee is the brand for the customer; it is the employees who deliver the service, which conveys the brand to the customer. Berry (2000) and Berry and Bendapudi (2003) point out that because the frontline (or contact) employees embrace the majority of a customer's impressions, marketing the brand to employees, or internal branding, is critical. This suggests that all personnel (administrators, faculty, and staff) need to understand their importance in delivering desired student learning experiences. The brand ecosystem framework we proposed shows the dynamic interrelationships among the value creation elements in developing university branding. The implication is that in order to create the exceptional multidimensional student learning experience that universities promise, universities must coordinate all of the activities of the value delivery networks of their brand ecosystem through internal branding. Finally, the brand ecosystem offered in this paper provides a holistic approach to developing a university brand by focusing on the core-value creation of academics, as well as all supporting areas in delivering a superior learning experience for students.

Although this paper focused on the primary elements of the university brand ecosystem (i.e. core and supporting activities), the complete ecosystem would also include alumni, donors, and potential employers as presented in Figure 1. While not having as direct a daily impact on the student experience, these external constituencies have the potential to add significant value to the brand ecosystem. The specific companies and organizations that recruit on campus is one example. Indeed, having particular recruiters on campus may be a powerful attraction for potential students, and thus, reflect an important aspect of a university's brand ecosystem. In addition to attracting potential students, specific recruiting companies could serve as an important stimulator for students' academic success which could indirectly impact the university learning experience of students in a significant way. Moreover, the opportunity arises for these organizations to contribute to other dimensions of the student experience (e.g. class guest speaker, student group sponsor, etc.) that add additional value to the total educational experience. Integrating alumni more fully into core and supporting value proposition activities is another example of strengthening a university brand ecosystem. It is also important to remember that parents of students are an important part of a university's brand ecosystem, particularly as influencers and interpreters of the experiences their children are having on campus. We accept the fact that potential employers, alumni, donors, and parents are significant contributors of university experience; therefore, they should be included in the university brand ecosystem as a part of holistic university branding strategy.

Future research

This paper presented a conceptual framework that presents the major value-delivery networks and their interactions in creating university band. Based on a university branding literature (Ng and Forbes, 2008; Schultz, 2006), we present academics as the core of university branding and supporting areas in a brand ecosystem framework in order to create a strong university brand and brand equity. The next step is to operationalize the model elements to measure and test effects of each of the brand ecosystem elements identified in the model on university brand equity. Following the consumer-based brand equity and its dimensions (Keller, 1993, 2008; Aaker, 1991, 1996), future studies could measure overall university brand equity, and each of the brand equity dimensions of brand association, perceived quality, and brand loyalty. Specifically, we recommend development of a scale to measure brand equity, and brand association related to core and supporting areas of student learning and educational experience, perceived quality of the academics and supporting areas of library, student life, sports, community, and brand loyalty. Also, the prior empirical research, albeit limited, presented in this paper could help in identifying some of the factors important for building a strong university brand that could be used in empirically resting the model.

Given that simultaneous of production and consumption, and process nature of education as service (Berry, 2000; Ostrom et al., 2005; Zeithaml et al., 2006), the effects of brand equity dimensions could be empirically tested with structural equation modeling (SEM). This is also reflected by our brand ecosystem framework, where core and supporting elements of the education experience are presented as ongoing interactions, indicating that student expectations are continually updated and revised through direct and indirect experiences with university brand (Ostrom et al., 2005). As suggested by Carbone (2004), the consumer experience with brand is not an additive model; rather, it is multiplicative. This further indicates the importance of the interactions of each of the brand ecosystem on university brand value. Therefore, we feel that the impacts of the factors presented in the brand ecosystem are best captured by SEM. The results of such an empirical study could help university administration in developing a strong university brand.

ImageFigure 1University brand ecosystem
Figure 1University brand ecosystem

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Corresponding author

Musa Pinar can be contacted at: musa.pinar@valpo.edu