Brand Architecture in Higher Ed


Brand Architecture in Higher Ed

Sep 03, 2014By mStoner Staff

Talk of brand architecture in higher ed usually centers around logos. But the issue goes much deeper than the visual representation of the brand. It starts with the fundamental question of whether you are part of a brand stable or a stable of brands.

Brand Stable? Or Stable of Brands?

In a brand stable, the company is the parent brand (master brand) and the individual product lines are the sub-brands. Auto manufacturers consistently use a brand stable approach. In this case, the auto company is the master brand, and the auto makes are the sub-brands. For example, Ford is the master brand and Taurus is the sub-brand.

The brand stable approach can accommodate sub-sub brands as well. Again, using the auto manufacturers as an example, the model is the sub-sub brand. (Ford is the master brand; Taurus is the sub-brand; SEL is the sub-sub brand.) The sub-brands rely on the equity of the master brand to add awareness and credibility.

In a stable of brands, on the other hand, the parent company name is invisible to consumers, and each product line has its own separate brand identity.

Procter & Gamble (P&G) has a stable of brands. Pantene is its own brand, as is Swiffer, and Crest. The P&G name is known to investors, but the typical consumer doesn’t associate the individual brands with P&G.

The stable of brands approach is generally used for companies competing in multiple categories, where having an equity in one category doesn’t help (or can even hurt) the equity in another category. Again, using P&G as an example, the Crest equity in oral care doesn’t help Swiffer (yuck).

There is no one right approach that works for every organization; however, each alternative has strengths and weaknesses. In a brand stable, the sub-brands benefit from the halo effect of the master brand; as a result, the investment required to build the brand portfolio will likely be lower. But the downside is that damage to the master brand can also have a negative effect on the sub-brands as well. In a stable of brands, the sub-brands have more flexibility in branding, as they’re not bound by the rules of the master brand; however, this approach will likely require more investment, because the individual brands don’t have the advantage of a strong master brand to provide it equity.

Defining the Portfolio Structure in a Brand Stable

In an organization with a brand stable, the portfolio structure determines the relationship between the parent brand and the sub-brands. There are three main portfolio structure options:

  1. Parent brand dominant — this strategy is generally used when the master brand has more equity than the sub-brands. This strategy allows the organization to continue to build the equity of the master brand, while using the master brand to build the equity of the sub-brands (for example Crest White Strips, Crest Pro Health).
  2. Shared — in this strategy, the master brand and sub-brands have equal weight in the brand architecture (for example, Campbell’s Healthy Choice).

Often, the distinctions between master brand dominant and shared are subtle.

  1. Endorser — in this strategy, the master brand is used as a “seal of support” for the sub-brands. This strategy is used when the sub-brands have more equity than the master brand and uses the sub-brand equity to help build the master brand. In some cases, the master brand is an overt endorser (for example, Polo by Ralph Lauren). But in other cases, the brand is endorsed via a consistent brand “stamp” used across all communications (for example, each Nabisco product has “Nabisco” stamped on the package).

Organizations often mix portfolio structures within a brand. This is not bad, as long as the portfolio structures are used in a way that maximizes the equity of the master brand and the sub-brands. For example, Marriott uses a combination of master brand dominant (Marriott Residence Inn) and endorser (Springhill Suites by Marriott) across different sub-brands.

So What About Brand Architecture in Higher Education?

Most higher education institutions use a brand stable approach, with the master brand playing some role in the architecture. (The exception to this rule is usually found within for-profit institutions like Career Education Corp., which may use a stable of brands approach.)

While the three main brand architecture strategies are all used in higher education, they are often used in combination, particularly if the institution has named schools/colleges. Very rarely is only one architecture strategy used across the entire institution; however, usually there is one predominant strategy with exceptions to the rule.

(Note that these are not necessarily good examples of brand architecture. Most of the institutions listed here do not use a consistent visual identity system across the institution.)

1. Master brand dominant — this strategy is generally used when the master brand has more equity than the sub-brand. This strategy allows the institution to continue to build the equity of the master brand, and also use the master brand equity to the benefit of the schools/colleges.

Examples of the master brand dominant strategy:

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(Note that when we are evaluating the types of brand architecture used in higher ed institutions, we are evaluating them based on their logos, since very few institutions have developed a strategic brand architecture based on a portfolio analysis.)

2. Shared — in this strategy, the master brand and sub-brands have equal weight in the brand architecture.

Examples of the shared strategy:

Boston University:

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Harvard Business School:

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3. Endorser — in this strategy, the master brand is used as a “seal of support” for the sub-brands. This is used when the sub-brands have more equity and the institution wants to continue to build the equity of the sub-brands.

Example of the endorser strategy:

University at Albany:

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Where to Start?

A brand architecture project can be a scary and complicated undertaking, but being intentional about the way you’re presenting your brand  can help you present a clearer and more consistent brand message to your key audiences. To start the conversation on your campus, gather all of the brand logos currently being used across the institution. Categorize them by strategy, to determine whether your primary strategy is master brand dominant, shared, or endorser.  You can then develop a market research strategy to better understand your brand equities, and if you’re using the best strategy, or combination of strategies, to make sure you’re leveraging your brand in the most effective way.


Higher education branding doesn’t have to be difficult. By understanding the unique dynamics — and the potential pitfalls that can arise – you can create a process that ensures that you get buy-in for a compelling brand positioning that will capture the unique story of your institution.

Want to learn more? We recently published a white paper that explores the specific challenges of higher education branding and gives you strategies for clearing the most common hurdles.