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Although many dimensions of customer-based brand equity have been offered in the literature, the main focus was on commercial businesses rather than higher education. Thus, the conceptualization of customer-based brand equity in the current study is based on the commonly proposed dimensions of brand equity: brand awareness, associations and loyalty. Brand awareness is the ability for a consumer to recognize and recall a brand. Within the context of the current study, brand awareness is the ability of the students to recognize and recall the brand following the rebranding exercise. Brand associations have been defined as the strength of the brand in a consumer’s memory that manifests in the form of meanings that consumers ascribe to the brand. Here, the term ‘brand associations’ refers to the ability of the students to ascribe meanings to the brand following the rebranding exercise. Brand loyalty refers to the attachment that a customer has to a brand. In the current study, brand loyalty refers to the tendency of the students to be attached to the brand, following a rebranding exercise. The conceptualization of brand equity in the current study is similar to the study by Teh and Salleh who argued that when Keller ’s conceptualization of brand equity is merged with Aaker ’s, three dimensions are produced, namely brand loyalty, brand awareness and perceived quality.
There is a general consensus among scholars that branding is as important in educational institutions as it is in commercial businesses. Branding provides an institution identity and differentiates it from other competitors.
Specifically, a strong brand increases an institution’s ability to compete for the best students, gain alumni membership and support and financial support from donors (Judson, et al., 2009). From the students’ view point, branding serves as a promise to meet their expectations and facilitates decisions relating to the selection of which institution to attend. Branding is also more critical for higher education institutions, since education as a product is experiential, intangible and its perceived value is difficult to assess prior to consumption.
A growing number of published studies have demonstrated the remarkable application of branding in institutions of higher education. In a study based on South African business schools, competence emerged as the most communicated brand personality dimensions in the schools’ websites while sophistication was the least communicated. An investigation of brand strength, favorability and uniqueness on brand equity in Malaysia revealed that the effects of brand strength and favorability on brand equity were higher in private institutions while brand uniqueness was a strong predictor of brand equity for public institutions. Sharaai and Areni found that business schools associated with highly-ranked, prestigious universities such as Manchester Business School, Harvard Business School, and Stanford Graduate School of Business portrayed the university brand either solely or in conjunction with a less prominent school brand. However, business schools associated with less prestigious universities or not associated with any university featured their school brand. In the case of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in United States, the administration of the website, marketing of the program and positioning of the corporate brand were significantly addressed in the process of managing the institution brand. Melewar and Akel, noted that the reputation of being an innovative and radical institution was not captured in the University of Warwick’s corporate visual identity and there was lack of consistency across departments.
Numerous challenges in the educational environment have increased the emphasis placed on branding of institutions of higher education. In particular, the decline of students’ enrolment, increased competition, and decreases in government funding have forced institutions of higher education to exploit marketing strategies for achieving competitive advantage and ensuring customer satisfaction. The dynamics of globalization such as privatization, diversification, decentralization, and internationalization of education have also fuelled competitiveness in higher education institutions. Consequently, success in the educational marketing environment depends on the ability of an institution to recruit and retain the best students, faculty and staff and to provide students with challenging and quality education that will enable them to pursue productive careers). Institutions also need to build and maintain widespread public and legislative support, and keep a loyal and close connection with alumni and donors. To achieve this, it is imperative for higher education institutions to create a consistent, powerful brand identity that provides them with a competitive advantage.
However, the concept of branding as applied to education institutions is different from branding in the commercial sector. In particular, it is about who the university is and what it stands for rather than what a particular product offers to the market place. Argenti cautioned that conventional branding techniques alone are not suitable in the education market because of the greater scrutiny from customers and internal resistance from non-business oriented faculties. Similarly, internal factors such as lack of understanding of branding, variance in the roles of executives in brand management, lack of acceptance of branding concepts by non-business faculties, sub-brands being emphasized by faculties, and lack of a clear brand principle limit the application of branding in educational institutions. Furthermore, institutions of higher education have been criticized for lacking relevance as a majority of graduates fail to secure employment and rarely exhibit entrepreneurial skills by initiating their own business ventures after completing their studies. There is also a growing concern that scarce financial resources are diverted to branding programs as opposed to teaching and research activities. These challenges provide credence for investigating how students perceive educational institution brands as it will signal whether the intended purpose of meeting the needs of the primary consumers through branding is achieved.