by Kim Faulkner & Galen Mendez 6 September 2018

Lessons Learnt in Branding Educational Institutions.

Although many institutions of higher learning recognise that reputation is inextricably linked to their institutional brands and in turn, that these have a direct co-relation to admissions and quality of faculty and students, alumni and fund-raising, many still approach it in a siloed and department/ school driven manner.

The top global universities have a pedigree that has enabled them to flourish despite seismic changes to the higher education landscape and the increasingly wide array of competitors and consumer choice.

What makes them stand apart, and indeed what newer entrants to university league tables have taken on board, is that building and sustaining reputation is a series of strategic choices which need to be made for the university as a whole - and not at a unit level.

Here are a few key points to consider when looking at a university brand:

  1. Institutional positioning should be driven by strategy, so consumer research should focus on "what could be" and not primarily on "what is".

  2. Frame issues so that your future is differentiated, actionable and authentic 


1. Institutional positioning should be driven by strategy, so stakeholder research should evaluate "what could be" and not primarily on "what is".

That is merely to say that the research weightage for Institutional brand audits should not focus primarily on measuring where the brand currently stands, but rather evaluating positioning options for the brand based on management strategy.

When used as a starting point, consumer research can often result in directions that support the lowest common denominator; unless carefully managed by an experienced partner, this can result in a narrowed scope for distinctiveness, differentiation and even personality.

As Sampoerna Academy and Sampoerna University looked at how a relative late-comer offering a US education could enter and succeed in a competitive and fragmented local market, the approach was to create a clear and simple brand proposition - based on market and national policy needs, built on the back of existing credibility derived from the Sampoerna Foundation. 

However, the university could not be positioned as a CSR endeavour by a philanthropic foundation, but a credible and accredited academy and institute of higher learning in its own right.

SSS Hero

Instead of leading with and using research as a canvas audit to find direction, research was used as a strategic tool to evaluate and fine-tune brand-focused decisions - leading to a compelling proposition nuanced to meet student and partner needs. 

Learn more


As universities today strive to provide richer experiences for their students; break new ground in research and play a more impactful role in society, the ability to raise funds and unlock capital becomes critical. Capital campaigns are a critical component of our tertiary institutions, but the need for a university to raise funds is poorly understood by stakeholders both external and oftentimes internal.

SMU Imagine Better Campaign

More than communicating a need to raise funds, SMU was looking for a way to inspire stakeholders to rally together and embrace the need to raise funds - effectively enlisting audiences as co-conspirators and activists. Activiste worked with SMU to articulate its fund raising aspirations into an easy to understand, idea that was representative of the university's desire to bring positive impact to its communities and stakeholders.

 SMU Imgaine Better Co Creation

Again, Activiste leveraged primary research as a strategic and co-creative tool that galvanised stakeholders and struck a chord with key alumni and student segments. The result is a capital campaign that has been embraced by faculty, staff and alumni leaders alike; equally important, the campaign acts as a reinforcing message of what SMU is capable of, and is a strong signal of intent for the future. 

Learn more


Kim has over 30 years of branding, marketing and design experience in Asia and has lectured and written extensively on the subject of branding, strategy development, marketing and design across the region.

Galen revels in the conspiratorial nature of discovering identity, the afterglow of collaborative creativity and the intangible click of people getting it. He also speaks in the third person.