Apr 22, 2021

For the country’s higher education institutions (HEIs), staying afloat these days has become more challenging due to tough competition.

In 2020, data from the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) showed there were already 2,396 HEIs, including satellite facilities of State Universities and Colleges (SUC), from which 3.4 million students could choose from. Of the 2,396 HEIs, 913 are public and 1,729 are private institutions.

Competition is further heightened by an increased pressure on private HEIs brought about by the free tuition for SUCs and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on higher education. Some 750 basic education institutions closed in 2020, according to the Department of Education. While attrition has not been as bad for HEIs, the continuing challenges make all institutions vulnerable.

“Schools need to be more focused and clearly positioned based on their strengths,” said Matec Villanueva, founding director of Ateneo de Manila University’s (ADMU) University Marketing and Communications Office (UMCO). ADMU recently reconfigured its University Communications and Public Relations Office (UCPRO) to create UMCO, which has begun to revisit and strengthen branding practice across ADMU’s many schools and offices. Branding is now a key topic in ADMU’s planning sessions on university leadership and it is now an area of focus for the University’s newly formed Advancement Committee of school and industry experts.

“Branding is an effective and systematic way to rise above competition. It is also a strategic move to showcase what separates an institution from the rest, and a means to forge meaningful and long lasting relationships with stakeholders both in the local and international scenes,” Villanueva explained.

Branding, however, a term associated with big business, is often frowned upon in HEIs because it is associated with commercialization and industrialization of education. In this special feature, ANTENA sat down with Villanueva, advertising and marketing expert with 35 years of experience and former chief executive officer of Publicis Manila, for a more in-depth discussion on institutional branding and why HEIs need it. Also present during the interview was ADMU’s UMCO branding and creative services head Ali Figueroa, brand designer and creative strategist for several famous brands and companies.

ANTENA: Please explain what branding is, and why it is sometimes seen as unfit for the education sector. However, some HEIs have embraced it. Why is this so?

AF: A common view of branding is that it is all about superficial things—image, logos, packaging, and slogans. For many, it is merely a particularly popular and trendy business catchphrase. These are not consistent with local beliefs about education which is generally viewed as noble. However, branding is not about commercialization, per se, but about identity and connection.

MV: Understood correctly, and used properly, branding is a powerful tool, not only for businesses, but for individuals and for institutions like colleges and universities.

ANTENA: How is branding relevant to educational institutions? How would you explain this to HEI administrators?

MV:  I would tell them this: Your school brand is your school identity and your school’s relationship with its students, employees, and the public. It is not just who you say you are. It is who people believe you are. When you look only at yourself, and avoid branding, you may be hindered from examining and possibly improving these vital areas.

AF: Also, even as “noble institutions,” HEIs require a living relationship with a community of economic stakeholders to survive and thrive. Branding provides concrete measures that may help ensure the availability of resources and the support of a market.

ANTENA: Given these concerns, what then is your advice to HEI administrators?

AF: They need to understand that branding efforts support, and do not necessarily contradict our idealistic views of education. Branding efforts are invaluable for sustaining and growing our schools. If, in discussions inside your institutions, you find that the term “branding” still encounters resistance, you may choose less polarizing synonyms such as “identity,” “image,” and “reputation.” What is important is the focus on identity and on connections that branding brings.

ANTENA: What should HEI administrators who want to turn to branding prepare or be ready for?

MV: In addition to the misconceptions about branding, another barrier is the perceived cost and effort required to brand. Because  branding is associated with advertising and media, many assume that branding is expensive—a specialized service that requires an expensive agency, and that involves huge effort. While brand design and brand campaigns can and often do consume significant resources, this need not be the case. Your institution’s brand is all about your institution’s story and identity. This is something you may begin to work on internally, with your existing people. In fact, this is how we decided to begin the effort in Ateneo de Manila, given our current context and resources. Done this way, we believe there is a better foundation for establishing a brand that is unique, and intimately aligned with the core of a school, and in touch with daily operations.

In closing, Ali Figueroa reminded HEI administrators that all efforts on branding, whether internal or external or whether small or big, must be implemented with care and great mindfulness. “Done poorly, branding risks becoming merely decorative, or even worse, a misleading façade,” he said.

Ateneo de Manila University is a partner of ANTENA, a capacity building cooperation project co-funded by the Erasmus + program of the European Commission. Other partners are Benguet State University, Central Luzon State University, De La Salle University, Mindanao State University-Iligan Institute of Technology, Polytechnic University of the Philippines, Saint Louis University, University of the Philippines, the University of San Carlos, Xavier University–Ateneo de Cagayan, and the Commission on Higher Education.