The University Branding Game – Traps and Pitfalls

Nordic universities are renewing their brands. However, a lot of things can go wrong when traditional academic organisations enter the field of marketing and branding. This is clearly shown in the example of Tampere University, which has an important lesson to teach us in a time when Nordic universities are more and more often entering the branding game to appeal to aspiring students, employees and partners.

The visual profile and core idea of Tampere University’s brand was launched in Spring 2018. A new brand identity was needed, as a new university was established by merging two universities. The former University of Tampere and Tampere University of Technology became Tampere University. The new Tampere University also became the main owner of the Tampere University of Applied Sciences.

The new logo depicted a human face, or a simple “T” symbol. The tagline of the brand is “Human potential unlimited”. They were strongly criticised by university staff, students and external people, for their similarity to corporate logos, such as LG.

Researcher Juha Raipola says that the main problem of the new brand was that it estranged humanists and social scientists. From their point of view, the new brand, adoring enlightenment humanism, did not advance research at the university.

– The tagline “Human potential unlimited” represents the university as an organisation offering only solutions. This blocks the critical ideal knowledge, truth and sophistication from the brand values.

From scandals to community development

In the beginning of 2020, the brand and communication means of Tampere University were being publicly debated. As a result, the university ended the employment of director of communications and brand, Camilla Lindfors.

In January, director of innovation Taru Pilvi gave an interview for the trade newspaper Kauppalehti in which she pointed out that the university needs “future finders – people that set fires of enthusiasm to the interdisciplinary interfaces”. After this, a recruitment advertisement for a communication specialist, announced by Tampere University, called for a person “with superpowers”. The interview and the advertisement were considered inconvenient for an academic organisation, because of pointless rhetoric. 

As if this had not been enough, the local student association had published a caricature picture of the Tampere University logo. In February, Tampere University’s brand department asked the student association to delete the picture. Instead, the association published the request on their Facebook page, which led to a new debate and even more caricature pictures made by other users.  

The caricature debate resulted in university employees and students demanding a change to the branding, and a petition related to the issue was signed by over 500 people in less than a week. The core idea was to stop protecting the brand from critical usage, to make the university develop the inoperative homepage, and to use distinct rhetoric.

President of Tampere University Mari Walls acknowledges that the university must be ready to discuss their brand identity.

– It is clear that during the first years of activity, our culture is still being comprised. Our organisation is very wide and diverse, and it collects the research and education of health, technology and social sciences, including both the university and university of applied sciences. We have developed the communications related to research and education, but it is important to strengthen it even more, Walls says.

Walls also says that in the process of change, it is important that the university can offer channels for internal communication and discussion, because topics arising should be examined together.

This is why a new direction was taken: recently, the university launched a survey for its staff as part of a community development of the brand.

– I don’t even believe that it is possible to be determined from above. In the very end, brand is always created in mental images that are connected to the university, says Juha Raipola.

– For a scientific organisation, it is important that the image sent out matches the research accomplished at the university. That’s why the brand visions given from above can be considered even dangerous development. Scientific research requires criticality and diversity, whereas brand communication tries to overlay critical voices in the name of the common image. 

The most common colour is blue

Tampere University’s pitfalls are not completely foreign to Nordic universities, in which branding has become commonplace. A brand renewal process does not always depart from the universal and traditional academic values, as they might not appear as particularly appealing to students. Neither is it easy to distinguish from others by pointing to academic values that all university organisations are basically supporting.

The diagram below collects the most frequently used brand colours at Nordic universities and public university colleges – 84 organisations in total. The main colour was identified if possible. The diagram shows that the most Nordic universities currently rely on the colour blue; one third of the universities selected blue. Red is the next popular alternative, followed by black.

The brand colours of public universities and public university colleges in the Nordic countries (N=84).

Indeed, the colour blue has been adopted by many of the big Nordic universities such as Stockholm University and the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, but also smaller universities such as University of Stavanger in Norway or Aarhus University in Denmark. Blue is typically associated with stability, harmony, and trust, producing a calming effect. The opposite effect may be pursued by switching to shriller colours such as yellow, orange or purple. For example, Tampere University left the traditional blue and switched to purple.

Södertorn University selected the colour yellow. The new brand was accepted very well outside the university, but the employees did not embrace the brand easily, according to Communications Officer Jenny Tirén Berg

–  I think it is very common, especially in an academic environment, that critical resistance occurs. From external people’s point of view, I would say that the brand is popular, and we have won awards for campaigns after renewing the brand, says Tirén Berg. 

How universities think of their brands


“We create knowledge for the world”

Brand launched: 2016

Head of communications Bo T. Andersen at Aalborg University, Denmark:  “The current brand established a clear identity for the university, which set a direction for the organisation as a whole and enabled external parties to understand Aalborg’s identity. Our main value is knowledge. Our message is: Aalborg University creates knowledge for the world, not only for us. We want to contribute to the development of Danish and international society. We stand for collaboration and innovation. An external consultant assisted the university, and the reception of the brand was overall positive.”

“A professional and sustainable platform”

Brand launched: from 2018 onwards

Senior advisor Asta Øvsthus Kristiansen at the Oslo Metropolitan University (OsloMet), Norway: “The visual profile should awaken the right associations, be relevant for the main target groups, and work well in all channels, including in a digital form. We have to focus on building a solid and strong brand, and that is very important especially in the beginning when you want to establish the brand and knowledge about the university. We wanted to use the opportunity to develop a professional and sustainable platform with broad acceptance in our main target groups. The brand was launched step-by-step in 2018. We cooperated with an advertising agency and a design company when creating a new brand. From the very beginning, there were many opinions and critics on the name, both externally and internally. We also got our share of critics as we launched our logo. The students were overall pleased with the name and used their creativity in different ways.”

“Tradition, humanism, quality and local heritage”

No brand revision recently

Graphic designer Kristina Edgren at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden: “The old logotype from 1950 was modified and simplified in 2004, and the change was made in-house. In 2014, the university modified the rules for visual identity. The idea was to unify the brand identity concerning the use of logo, templates and typefaces. The keywords of the brand are tradition, humanism, quality and local heritage, and the old-fashioned logo resonates with the core idea.”

“Warmth, curiosity, authenticity and open-mindedness”

Brand launched: 2015

Communications Officer Jenny Tirén Berg at Södertorn University, Sweden: “The brand, with yellow colour in the focus, was created in cooperation with the university’s PR agency.  The keywords of the brand are warmth, curiosity, authenticity and an open-minded approach. The brand is based on a tagline, for which a loose translation is ‘We see the world through different eyes’. Our message is that we examine the alternatives before accepting commonly held beliefs, and we examine problems and issues through perhaps unconventional areas of research. I think that Södertorn’s new brand was accepted very well outside the university, but the employees did not embrace the brand easily. I think it is very common, especially in an academic environment, that critical resistance occurs. From external people’s point of view, I would say that the brand is popular, and we have won awards for campaigns after renewing the brand.”