• Issue #55

Research: Why do we talk about Branding in Higher Education? And will Isomorphism doom us all?

A Midjourney-generated illustration of a person looking into swirling world of ambiguous business and marketing shapes and artifacts.

Since the pandemic, many institutions have been in a state of anxiety. Is a recession on its way or not? Is the enrollment cliff hitting? How are changing narratives about the value of education impacting enrollment?

Higher education marketing and communications professionals feel this anxiety as organizational pressure to promote our little hearts out. And the strategy we’re most familiar with, the one we all talk about, is differentiation. We need to build our brand recognition through inherent uniqueness. We need to stand out.

Bravery has talked about issues in branding institutions of higher education, often via episodes of Appendix B. Joel and I have discussed why differentiation is particularly challenging in higher education and why institutions should consider brand parity tactics (the opposite of differentiation) as well.

But, one thing we haven’t talked about - at least not explicitly - is isomorphism.

Iso-what now?

Isomorphism is a term stolen from algebra. It’s a fancy word to describe one-to-one correspondence between sets. In sociology, it came to represent a similarity of the processes or structure of one organization to those of another. And it can come about due to similar constraints in the environment or through imitation.

When sociologists talk about isomorphism, they’re not worried about brand differentiation. They’re worried about innovation. If every organization looks like every other organization in a sector, then how do any of those organizations break through the repetition and try out unique models of operation?

A Scientific Approach

In 2021, study authors Broucker, De Wit, and Mampaey took a scientific approach to this question of higher education isomorphism in terms of branding. They sought to resolve the contradiction in higher education branding: if so many studies point to isomorphism, is brand differentiation real and possible? Why are there contradictory results in the literature now?

Broucker, De Wit, and Mampaey used three grand discourses as their organizing framework, drawn from Alvesson and Karreman’s (2000) varieties of discourse model. When an institution is communicating, it embodies discourses that signal the guiding principles behind higher education policy decision-making:

  • Professional Bureaucracy Discourse, where higher education institutions are understood as ivory towers, home to academic freedom and a bundled set of research practices and ethics.
  • New Public Management Discourse, where higher education is understood as a semi-public resource in a quasi-market, with responsibilities to use funds in optimized ways to increase efficiency and efficacy.
  • Public Value Discourse, where higher education is understood as a manufacturer of social benefits and that these benefits should be maximized.

Differentiation in this model would require at a bare minimum, a commitment to one of these grand discourses. However, our authors theorized that when communicating to a broad audience of stakeholders, institutions aim for a practice of strategic ambiguity.

What they mean by this is that institutions benefit from not coming across as too strongly in one discourse at the expense of the values represented by other discourses. For example, they want to present public value, but not at the expense of new public management, and certainly not to the extent that they might lose currency in the professional bureaucracy discourse. These three discourses hold institutional communication in an iron triangle.

Iron triangles get their name because they are incredibly hard to remove once they’re instantiated because, in some sense, each point is necessary.

Here’s my best take on an illustration for this iron triangle:

A triangle chart. The top point is Public Value. The bottom right is New Public Management. The bottom left is Professional Bureaucracy. Along the inner sides labeled Beneft we have, Left: Quality Innovation, right: Resource Integrity, and bottom: Protection of Process Integrity.

So, what did Broucker, De Wit, and Mampaey find? After launching three case studies (for three universities in the same university system), and performing discourse analysis at multiple organizational levels, they saw institutional communications to be very isomorphic, setting out to satisfy multiple competing values.

However, as they moved deeper into the organizations with more specific audiences for each communication, they found that communications were able to differentiate to a greater extent. Still, typically, even when messaging was more differentiated, it drew upon two of the discourses rather than all three.

There are a few implications we could draw from this study.

  1. Differentiation is hamstrung by strategic ambiguity. Universities need to please many stakeholders. And this causes them to represent competing values in balance with one another.
  2. However, differentiation is possible as the communications become more specific and speak to more specific audiences.

Ultimately, I want to stress the importance of recognizing that differentiation is one tool in a brand manager’s toolset and that different strategies are designed to attend to different problems. If all you ever use is a hammer (differentiation), every problem looks like a nail.

I also want to mention, as talked about in Appendix B recently, that when we talk about differentiation, we’re often inadvertently mixing in ideas about brand personality. And, there are different goals and strategies associated with communicating the personalities of our brands.

At least on the point of isomorphism, know that you can differentiate your communications as you get more specific to the product and the audience.

References: Broucker, B., De Wit, K., & Mampaey, J. (2021). Brand communication of higher education institutions: a call for multichannel communication analysis in higher education branding research. Higher Education Policy, 34, 928-948.