Product Brand or Service Brand? The Higher Ed Hybrid

Why higher education brands are blends of both, and what that means for how they should be executed.

By: Christopher Huebner
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Question: Is a college or university more like a soda or a bank? 

Answer: both.

That’s because a soda is a product, a bank is a service, and colleges and universities are both products and services. And as strange as it is to say, when it comes to higher education branding, there is not a predominant brand strategy framework that accounts for this reality. 

That hybrid offering can make defining a brand difficult, but as competition increases and the stakes get higher, the need for institutions to define and refine their brands is increasingly critical. Consequently, understanding the exact nature of the function they serve to students – the product-service hybrid – is essential.

The Higher Education Brand: A Product and a Service

What makes higher education marketing especially interesting is that the brands sit squarely in the middle of the spectrum of product and service. As Peter Dunn argued in “Brand New Brand Thinking,” this spectrum makes the job of the modern brand manager – be they the chief marketing officer, VP of marketing, their respective departments and personnel, etc. – more difficult as layers of service experiences are created. For higher education, the mix of service and product experiences across the customer journey – amplified by COVID – has caused higher ed brands to simultaneously expand and flatten, creating an amalgamation of digital, physical, and service touchpoints.

Flattened, in the sense that as departments, colleges and programs have built up marketing capabilities outside of a centralized marketing department, touchpoints and potential service experiences have increased, leaving numerous points of entry, and potential disconnects for prospective students. Higher ed brands have also become extended as these precisely where interactions take place have evolved beyond traditional touchpoints. COVID accelerated the desire for recruitment activities to extend beyond physical experiences (i.e. college fairs and open houses), yet how these digital experiences affect the decision-making process is relatively unknown.

What this means is that higher ed brands aren’t simply judged by the product benefit – the usual lens through which college search is viewed. In the case of higher ed, that product is the lasting benefit that the institution’s degree conveys in terms of both knowledge and especially career opportunity. But in many ways, the prospective student journey is defined by the varied and diverse service experiences leading up to any sort of product evaluation – students can’t truly or fully assess the product’s performance until after they’ve graduated. Instead, students spend roughly four to six years in a service experience as they progress as prospective students toward becoming a student, and then the experience they have as enrolled students.

Read more: Why College Presidents Are Now Chief Marketers 

So it’s clear that not only does higher education incorporate both service and product frameworks, and that’s why it is critical that brand managers must understand each framework, and that certain aspects of both are required to strengthen the marketing of institutions of higher education.

Defining Product Brands and Service Brands

We will outline how higher ed institutions function both as a hybrid of a product brand and a service brand, but first let’s define what each of those means.

What is a Product Brand?

A product brand is defined by its associations related to a specific product that comprise a function or group of functions, and are judged by elements like quality, packaging, and price. Coca-Cola is an example of a well-known product brand. 

How is Higher Education a Product Brand? 

As a product brand, an institution’s value is judged by:

  • Benefit: The benefit of a degree once completed.
  • Price: both real and relative to the expected outcome
  • End User: Typically, this is the student. The student is the end user of the product itself, but the student (body) also becomes part of the brand’s identity, as judged by prospective students.

What is a Service Brand?

A service brand is defined by an intangible service offering, deriving its value from the service environment, the service employees, and the overall service experience. BB&T would be an example of a service brand. 

How is Higher Education a Service Brand? 

As a service brand, an institution’s value is judged by:

  • Behavior: At points of service, performance of employees and the service environment and experience becomes the product.
  • Response: The perceived response to prospective student inquiries, as well as the perceived experience, by prospective students, of current students; and also, that responsiveness as perceived by the current students themselves. 
  • Price: The service experience evaluated against the perceived cost.
  • End User: Student use of the higher ed service has traditionally had low visibility, but student experiences are communicated through word-of-mouth to, friends, family or community – increasingly and particularly via social media, these days.

So, while it quickly becomes clear that higher education is an amalgamation of both product and service brand frameworks, there’s an argument to be made that higher ed brands are built from the service experiences that are most often at or beyond the farthest reaches of what “centralized” brand managers can control. From the many academic program microsites to on-campus events, these interactions and service experiences are impactful drivers of meaning and differentiation. Brand managers should – at minimum – have an understanding of how these service interactions shape the perception of their institution of higher education and have a stake in anchoring the experience to brand strategy. 

Like top-performing service brands, value is added across the spectrum of these “in-the-trenches” moments, or as Chip and Dan Heath argue in “The Power of Moments,” from the “pit” to the “peak.” In their book, the authors offer a compelling metaphor for how brand managers can effectively align their brand strategy across either framework. The “pit” being a way to think about higher ed brands as a service brand and the “peak,” as a way to think about higher ed brands as product brands.

From the Pit: Brand Perceptions Build Brands

Brands are built by creating a network of emotions, knowledge and memories. Together, these elements form one’s sense or meaning of a brand. That web of perception is built around complex interactions as users experience a brand: active involvement, conscious evaluation, actions, and word-of-mouth messaging.

The more connections that are created, the more-interwoven the network becomes, and the more meaning and more affecting personal experiences become. As Herz and Brunk argued

“An individual’s brand knowledge and prior experiences with a brand largely influences his/her attitudes and behaviors in the marketplace, making brand memories a key driver for brand equity.”

Herz and Brunk’s work is supported by similar studies that show is that memories of events are strong predictors of brand affinity. Memory, itself, has two components: semantic memories and episodic memories. When it comes to brands, consumers hold both types, but episodic memories have more influence over our perceptions. 

A chart with 8 columns and 2 rows that maps out how memories create brand experiences and recall for users.
(Table from Herz and Brunk, 2017)

While episodic memories are more difficult to shape, the ability for higher education brand managers to influence the outcome of impactful interactions enables a better opportunity for building key associations and differentiation. This places a tremendous need for the many service experiences to align across each touchpoint and leverage these powerful brand building opportunities. 

To the Peak: Building the Empire

As with most brand communications, messaging is often stored as semantic cognitive brand knowledge. These are mostly facts, benefits, and brand identity elements communicated through brand advertising. In categories where repeat purchasing is more likely, most brand users hold episodic memories. While prospective students aren’t necessarily able to be frequent purchasers of a higher ed brand, they are more likely frequently experiencing the service offerings of higher ed brands throughout the college search process.  

This presents an enormous opportunity for higher education brand managers to consider not only how the service interactions can build positive brand perceptions, but also how brand advertising can reinforce and maintain those brand perceptions over the customer journey – we’ll call this the “moveable middle,” those users who might be persuaded by future advertising. This is taken directly from the playbook of a product brand, in which marketing and communications – primarily through advertising and public relations – are used to connect the product’s benefit to the brand. 

Thus, higher education brand managers must have the ability to play a central role in defining the branding outcomes of each “pit” moment and establish how those will be built to align with the brand strategy – those ”peak” moments. 

Managing the New Realities

In “Decoding Advertisements,” Judith Williamson wrote that the role of advertising is to build “empires of the mind.” The more brand managers can influence brand interactions from the ground up, the stronger the institutional empire becomes. And as delivery channels proliferate and parody and competition in the higher ed market increase, higher ed brands that can translate what it’s students experience into marketable brand outcomes – aka, those that purposefully merge the service brand and product brand frameworks – will successfully develop true points of differentiation and lay the foundation for delivering the many promises they make to students.

Christopher Huebner

Christopher Huebner

Christopher Huebner is a digital strategist at Up&Up, a higher education branding and marketing agency, and he has also worked client-side in higher ed. His writing has been published in Journal of Education Advancement & Marketing, Journal of Digital and Social Media, and the Journal of Marketing Communications for Higher Education – and in Volt.

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