Brands of nonsense

That’s the title of a piece of mine the Chronicle of Higher Education ran a little while ago. It’s paywalled but they have graciously given me permission to republish it here.

A little while ago, the University of Warwick was in the news for all the wrong reasons. Its longstanding legal firm, SGH Martineau, put up a blog post suggesting that universities should take action against “insubordinate” academics with “outspoken opinions.” The firm stressed the importance of making an example of offenders whose academic work was “brilliant,” lest other employees become tempted to emulate them.

Unfortunately for Warwick, this suggestion was made at precisely the time the university was seeking to remove an insubordinate professor, whose alleged offenses included “sighing” and “irony during job interviews”, though it appears his real offense was criticism of the British government’s higher-education policy.

The law firm’s post was couched in terms of the possibility of damage to the university’s “brand.” Universities have always been rightly concerned about their reputations. But the conversion in recent years to the language of branding has reached a fever pitch. Of course, in Warwick’s case, both the proposal to muzzle academics and the marketing-speak used to justify it did enough damage to offset, for some time, the efforts of its entire central-administration communications team, which employs almost 30 people, not to mention similar personnel in various schools and departments.

In Australia, Monash University proudly announced this year that it was the first organization in the world to acquire a “brand” top-level domain name—that is, an Internet address ending in “.monash” rather than the previous “monash.edu.au.” This trivial change cost $180,000, plus an annual fee of $25,000, and is part of the university’s expensively maintained “brand identity policy.”

In America, the University of Pennsylvania was an early adopter of this approach. In 2002 the Pennsylvania Gazette celebrated its centenary with a history titled “Building Penn’s Brand.” What might Penn’s most eminent sociologist, Erving Goffman (author of The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life), have made of this adoption of the language of image and “brand”?

Many American universities now have branding policies, and some affirm an unqualified commitment to the associated marketing ideology. The University of Florida, for example states on its website:

“The importance of having a clear, recognizable brand can never be overstated. It defines us, separates us and communicates our relevance and value. It is especially important in an environment as vast and decentralized as the University of Florida. Thousands of messages leave the university every day, and each represents an opportunity to enhance—or fragment—our image. By maintaining consistent standards, we capitalize on the enormous volume of communications we generate and we present an image to the world of a multifaceted, but unified, institution.”

That statement summarizes all the key points of the ideology of branding. First there is the emphasis on image without any reference to an underlying reality. Second there is the assumption that the university should be viewed as a corporate institution rather than as a community. Third there is the desire to subordinate the efforts of individual scholars in research, extension, and community engagement to the enhancement of the corporate image. And finally there is the emphasis on distinctiveness and separateness. The University of Florida does not want to seem part of a global community of higher education, but rather as a competitor in a crowded marketplace.

Before considering this process further, we need some context. The authority on the history of the corporation and of brands is Alfred D. Chandler, whose books Strategy and Structure: Chapters in the History of the American Industrial Enterprise (MIT Press, 1962), The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business (Harvard University Press, 1977), and Scale and Scope: The Dynamics of Industrial Capitalism (Harvard University Press, 1990) are the definitive studies of the rise of the managerial corporation.

Chandler emphasizes the emergence of packaged and branded goods. Until the late 19th century, products like foodstuffs were sold in bulk by wholesalers, then measured out by retailers to individual customers. At every stage there were opportunities to increase profits by passing off a cheaper alternative for the good being sold. Shopkeepers’ reputations were the primary warranty. In the increasingly urban and mobile environment of the late 19th century, reputation, never a fully effective seal of quality, became even less so.

Branded products provided a solution. Now it was possible for consumers to repeatedly buy the same brand of product at various stores. The brand was a guarantee of consistent quality, not because of the trustworthiness of the corporation (of which the buyers would typically know nothing), but because its value depended on consistency and quality.

Consistency was the more important of the two. A low-quality product, provided that it was consistently adequate and appropriately priced, could benefit just as much from a brand as a higher-quality, more expensive alternative could. Indeed, the wealthy were the last to embrace branded products, instead patronizing bespoke tailors and personal providers of food and other services long after the middle and working classes were used to doing their shopping at Macy’s and A&P.

The great marketing discovery of the 20th century, pioneered by the advertising titan J. Walter Thompson, was that brands could do much more than guarantee a consistent level of objective quality. With the right advertising, a brand could come to embody connotations of all kinds, unrelated to the qualities of the product to which it was attached. Femininity or masculinity, luxury or solid good sense, excitement or security—all of these and more are part of “image.”

A third form of brand value arises when there are strong forces for customer “loyalty,” amounting, in some cases, to “lock-in.” For example, anyone who wants to use computers of designs descended from the IBM PC has little choice but to buy Microsoft operating systems like Windows.

And now we come to what may be the most striking feature of branding in higher education. Universities are corporate bodies, but they predate commercial corporations by many centuries. Long before the advent of packaged and branded goods, universities were certifying the quality of their students through the awarding of degrees.

Many criticisms of corporate branding apply equally to university degrees, and much of the voluminous literature on “credentialism” could be translated into the language of branding. The aim of degrees is, after all, to certify quality in the sense that a student has completed a course of study and acquired the associated knowledge and reasoning skills. And, as with brands that involve monopoly power, many degrees gain value from the fact that they are required for entry to particular professions. On the other hand, and with notable exceptions like the M.B.A., there has been little consistent effort to promote “brand image” to potential employers. Like a 19th-century brand, the degree has, in large part, gained its value from graduates rather than vice versa.

The rise of corporate-style branding has gone hand in hand with the devaluation of degrees through grade inflation. Grades in the A range have become the norm at leading universities. Reports that Princeton might roll back attempts to cap the proportion of A’s at 35 percent cite administrators’ fears that the policy discourages potential applicants and students’ complaints that it hurts their chances of getting jobs, fellowships, or spots in graduate or professional schools.

The “brand value” or “brand equity” of a company can be estimated as the intangible capital, beyond the company’s actual earnings, that may arise, as Chandler suggests, in three ways:

* The company is known to produce goods and services of a higher quality than competitors of similar cost (or similar quality at lower cost). Remember? That’s the 19th-century notion of brand.

* The brand reflects intangible attributes, through advertising, in the minds of consumers. That’s the early 20th century notion.

* A brand’s component products work best together or with those made by partner brands. That’s the late-20th-century lock-in notion.

It is appropriate, therefore, that the world’s most valuable brand is Apple, because it hits the trifecta. It is widely perceived as the highest-quality and most consistently innovative maker of computing devices. Its products carry a cachet of sophistication emphasized by the famous “I’m a Mac … and I’m a PC” ads. And (except for a brief period in the 1990s when Macintosh “clones” were marketed on a small scale) anyone who wants to use Apple operating systems has to buy an Apple device, and vice versa.

How do those concepts apply to universities and, in particular, to undergraduate education, which remains the core business of most of these institutions?

The 19th-century notion of quality is established in the minds of students, parents, and just about everybody else. In fact, it is so well established that rankings of leading universities have barely changed since the hierarchy was established, in the second half of the 19th century. A blog post by the sociologist Kieran Healy on Crooked Timber compares a ranking produced in 1911 with the most recent U.S. News rankings and finds a close correlation (except that elite private universities, as a group, have improved their status relative to state flagships).

In that sense, then, university brands are strong. But brand relativities that endure regardless of the competence of university leaders, the vagaries of scholars and departments, and the efforts of marketing departments are not really of much interest.

None of this is to say that there are no differences in quality among those captured by these very stable rankings. At any given time, the quality of departments in any university will vary widely. Some will be making great strides in teaching and research. Others will be riven by internal divisions, or wedded to outdated and discredited approaches to pedagogy and research methodology. But there is no way to discover such things from branding exercises at the university level.

Key branding efforts focus on intangibles. In this respect, university branding has been an embarrassing failure both by the industrial standards of the advertising sector and by the intellectual standards that universities are supposed to uphold. For example, virtually every Australian university has adopted (replacing the Latinate motto that used to adorn its crest) a branding slogan: “Know more. Do more.” “Where brilliant begins”. Good luck trying to match a particular slogan with its respective university. (Disclosure: I am, perhaps, bitter that my own proposed branding slogan—”UQ, a university not a brand”—did not find favor with my institution’s marketing department.)

Finally there is the question of lock-in. A university degree is a required ticket for entry to many professions, and where state-level licensing applies, the range of choices may be limited. At the top end, access to various elite jobs is confined largely to the products of Ivy League and similarly elite institutions. That is a form of lock-in that adds to “brand value,” but in a socially unproductive way.

Branding, as applied to higher education, is nonsense. Colleges are disparate communities of scholars (both teachers and students) whose collective identity is largely a fiction, handy during football season but of little relevance to the actual business of teaching and research. The suggestion that a common letterhead and slogan can “present an image to the world of a multifaceted, but unified, institution” is comforting to university managers but bears no correspondence to reality.

The idea of universities as corporate owners of brands is directly at odds with what John Henry Newman called “the Idea of a University.” To be sure, that idea is the subject of contestation and debate, but in all its forms it embodies the ideal of advancing knowledge through free discussion rather than burnishing the image of a corporation. In the end, brands and universities belong to different worlds.

John Quiggin is a fellow in economics at the University of Queensland, in Australia; a columnist for The Australian Financial Review; a blogger for Crooked Timber; and the author of Zombie Economics: How Dead Ideas Still Walk Among Us (Princeton University Press, 2010).

56 thoughts on “Brands of nonsense

  1. “If we looked at the public/private benefits gained from Tertiary education the public proportion from our students, because they become upwardly mobile from an often low educational base, is pretty high.”

    I’ve never once worked at a university where any of the management even thought about benefits to society or the student. I remember once sitting in a faculty meeting and some guy from the CSIRO had just joined and clearly wasn’t used to universities (you probably understand this!). He stuck his hand up and asked our VC at the time (Ian Young, who is now of course the head of the Go8), if anyone had thought about the type of skills and courses that were needed in the Australian economy. Ian Young’s response (and I give him a big tick for honesty here) was that “he had never even thought about it”. I imagine he still hasn’t.

  2. @conrad

    That is the capitalist model of education. Unrestricted numbers of demand driven places, driving students into debt, hoping for a job in an economy with no vision. e.g. teaching. Should be pretty easy to work out how many (and what sort of) teachers we will need in the future, regardless of the state of the world economy.

    “Unemployment among teaching graduates, particularly primary ones, is likely to get worse. Since the uncapping of university places in 2012, more students have been accepted into education courses.” SMH 29.08.2013

  3. Revelations over at New Matilda about corruption investigations into the private education provider “Vocation”. victorian-rorts-reveal-danger-university-deregulation

    Vocation’s profits were in large part driven by a ruthless model of supplier squeeze, in which public subsidies for training were booked as revenue, with courses delivered for less than the subsidy by training subcontractors in a process known as auspicing. As a result, Vocation could grow its bottom line without the need to invest in costly classrooms, libraries and teachers.

  4. @plaasmatron

    WRT teaching graduates, I can confirm that OUA accepts into their teaching course students who cannot possibly pass, and that their graduates have a terrible reputation. I know someone who teaches there who wrote an unofficial reference for one of her students that effectively said, “despite graduating from OUA, is actually a very good teacher”.

    And as for Vocation, why would they not do it? Vocation take the trouble to go through the accreditation process, and then subcontract out the actual teaching – and makes lots of money. Is there any working for-profit educational institution in Australia? Private schools don’t run for profit.

    The only way I can conceive of for-profit education working is if there is external student assessment, and the education providers are paid a “success fee” if their students pass. But in todays world there is buckleys chance of that happening.

  5. OUA accepts anyone — there are no entry requirements — that’s their official policy (hence “Open”).

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