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Editor’s Note
: With global expansion of distance learning programs, name recognition becomes part of the quality judgment in selecting courses and programs. To what extent the traditional program perception of its online programs, and vice versa, is a question for research at Northern Arizona University.

Branding Options for Distance Learning Programs: Managing the Effect on University Image

Nita Paden, Roxanne Stell


Although university goals for adding distance learning programs vary, decisions about development and marketing of the programs can have an impact on traditional on campus programs and influence overall perceptions of the university. As universities develop distance programs, it is important that (a) there is a clear understanding of the university’s brand image and the elements contributing to that image; (b) the university ensures that the distance program maintains/improves the image of the university; or (c) the university makes a decision to develop a separate identity/brand for the distance program that will stand on its own merit and not harm the university’s image if it malfunctions or fails. This paper explores issues relating to the application of branding strategies to distance learning programs.

Keywords: distance learning programs, university image, brand image, branding strategy, higher education marketing


An organization’s image plays an important role in buying behavior and retention decisions (Nguyen and LeBlanc, 2001). For academic institutions where the product is predominantly intangible, that image has an even more critical role in a student’s and often their parents, decision to “purchase” the institution’s programs. While there are numerous issues that must be addressed when deciding how to proceed with the addition of distance learning programs (Levy 2003), one that is often overlooked is the effect the new programs will have on the existing image of the university. This is an important aspect of the marketing of a university since academic reputation and the desire to attend a university have been shown to be highly correlated (Conard and Conard 2001).

Although university goals for adding distance learning programs vary, decisions about development and marketing of the programs can have an impact on traditional on-campus programs and influence overall perceptions of the university. In many cases, strategies for adding the distance learning format to a university’s on campus programs do not appear to be well planned, as evidenced by the number of unsuccessful and problematic deliveries of online programs and cyber universities (Conhaim 2003; Boser 2003; Hafner 2002; Wright 1999). The transition from traditional programs to online courses and programs takes considerable adjustments for faculty and students (Carroll-Barefield,, 2005). Additionally, there are often significant differences between the student’s perceived need and the availability of distance learning services (Raphael, 2006). There are also differences in the degree of collaboration that occur among faculty and administrators at all levels as the programs are implemented (Schauer, et. al, 2005). Consequently, as participants in a distance learning program have experiences with various aspects of the program (e.g. technology, faculty, advisors, etc.), perceptions (either positive or negative) are formed and may be projected to the university as a whole.

As universities develop distance programs, it is important that (a) there is a clear understanding of the university’s brand image and the elements contributing to that image; (b) the university ensures that the distance program maintains/improves the image of the university; or (c) the university makes a decision to develop a separate identity/brand for the distance program that will stand on its own merit and not harm the university’s image if it malfunctions or fails. This paper explores issues relating to the application of branding strategies to distance learning programs.

Brand Name and Image Formation

The value of a brand is often based on the extent to which the brand has name awareness, perceived quality and strong brand associations (Armstrong and Kotler 2003).

In an academic environment, the name of the institution is its brand and should represent the university’s unique personality or image (Parameswaran and Glowacka 1995). For example some universities are viewed as the place to receive a solid education, to get connected with prominent people, or a friendly campus. It is the university’s image that creates a way for the institution to differentiate and communicate its programs and the educational experience that students will receive compared to those offered at other universities. In turn, the university image can assist a prospective student in identifying which university will best meet his/her educational needs. The brand image also serves as an implicit promise that a service provider, in this case the university, will perform consistently up to customer expectations over time (Beckwith 1997). Since the student cannot fully experience the educational process prior to making a decision to attend the university, he/she must rely on the university’s brand name and corresponding image (reputation) as a promise of future satisfaction.

The image of a university develops over time in a series of encounters experienced by students and other constituents. These encounters can occur at any point and include planned and unplanned communication messages from a variety of sources, as well as experiences with university employees and/or the service process. In the context of a traditional university such encounters could include a network of interactions the student has with the university staff, faculty, students and facilities. For example, the initial formation of the university image can occur when a prospective student hears positive word-of-mouth from peers and other influential individuals or has a pleasant campus visit. This initial positive impression may make the individual more likely to consider that university as a possible choice. Subsequent positive encounters with the university, such as recruiting brochures, phone calls, e-mails or other information sources can further strengthen the positive image and provide a direct return (e.g. increased enrollment) to the university, or an indirect return through positive word-of-mouth communication regarding the institution (Dawes and Brown 2002). Since a distance learning student may never be physically on campus, his/her university encounters may involve interactions with technology or exchanges between student and on-line materials, online student and student interaction, or online instructor and student interaction (Scagnoli 2005). Universities that make an effort to build relationships with students through these types of encounters can benefit in terms of recruitment of new students and student retention (Shaik, 2005).

As a university develops distance learning programs, thought should be given to the effect the new programs will have on the current image of the university, and how that image will be formed. Traditional programs that are delivered on campus have contributed to the existing university image. As a university begins to deliver classes or entire programs online, the marketing and delivery of the classes can result in many new types of encounters and change how the university is perceived. How distance programs are branded and managed will create expectations that can affect the image and reputation of the university as a whole.

Branding Options for Distance Learning Programs

As a university develops distance learning courses or programs, a decision should be made as to whether the program should carry the name of the university (brand extension strategy), or if the university would be better served by creating a separate name/identity for the distance learning program through individual brand strategy. For a university, acceptance of an online distance learning program can be accelerated if the university enjoys a high level of name awareness, strong positive brand associations and acceptance of the campus based programs. However, simply attaching the university’s name to the distance learning programs does not insure its success and, in fact, may not be the best approach. Universities should consider the implications and risks when selecting alternative branding strategies.

Brand Extension Strategy

With a brand extension strategy, the university would use the same name for the newly introduced product (i.e. the distance learning program). Since the university name would be attached to the distance programs, the university would hope to increase interest and enrollment in the programs by building on the existing reputation of the university.        Using a brand extension adds to the university offering by making the educational programs accessible in a different format. Using an online format to add courses or distance programs can be the university’s attempt to (1) offer convenience for students who are unable to attend campus classes or for various reasons cannot attend classes as scheduled; (2) provide a different experience for on campus students; or (3) attract students who aren’t receptive to the traditional educational format. Regardless of the university’s motivation, with a brand extension strategy the distance learning programs use the existing university name. By doing so, potential student’s are more likely to recognize the university’s name and transfer its’ established image (reputation) to the new distance learning program. The initial and ongoing interactions the student has with the online courses and/or distance program can also have an impact (either positive or negative) on the university’s current image.

Individual Brand Strategy

An alternative strategy is to create a separate brand name for the distance learning program. Companies often use an individual branding strategy when products vary in terms of the way the customer uses the product, or when the new product targets a different consumer segment. Within a university setting, distance education students and on-campus students may have very different needs or goals and thus, each may focus on different choice criteria for their decision. There may also be different types of students (segments) within the distance learning market. For example, within the non-traditional women’s segment, there could be degree-seeking and non-degree seeking as well as sub-segments of these women with very different needs (Shank, Winchell and Myers, 2001) Significant differences in gender, age, employment status, motivation and risk taking propensity have been found between distance and non-distance learners (Latanich, Nonis and Hudson, 2001). Distance learning students may be looking for convenience and flexibility, while students interested in on-campus programs are looking for new experiences including campus life and interactions with a community of students (Andrews-O’Hara 2006). With distance learning programs, the university should determine if the programs offered are significantly different and/or are targeting segments of student with significantly different needs.

When universities adopt an individual branding strategy for distance learning programs, a separate identity is created which will have little or no effect on the existing university’s image. Creating an individual brand could provide the potential for reaching many different segments of students and result in increased growth for the university (Mohammed, Fisher, Jaworski and Cahill 2002). This strategy also reduces the risk of damaging the on campus university image should any of the separate distance programs fail or not live up to the quality standards of the university (e.g. technological infrastructure or faculty expertise is not adequate).

Table 1
University Image and the Branding Decision
Brand Extension Strategy
Individual Brand Strategy
  • Use distance learning program to support current university image

  • Strengthen university image

       *add value

       *build  reputation

  • Create  consistency across programs

  • Transfer university image and associations to distance learning program

  • Avoid damage to existing university image

  • Establish specialization in distance learning

  • Build brand to attract new segments

  • Avoid transfer of negative perceptions about existing university image to distance learning program

When the university has a well defined, positive brand image one of the goals in branding a distance program should be to support that image and add to the positive perceptions of the university’s established image. The distance learning program may be welcomed by various constituents and help to support the positive image enjoyed by the university. The addition of distance learning programs can add value and strengthen the university’s positioning in the market by offering additional options for prospective students. The use of brand extension strategy allows the university to attach the distance program to the current university brand and position the university to meet the needs of the broader community. For some universities there may be variation in the perception of the university image across segments (Karrh 2000) and brand extension could be used to create more consistency in expectations by bringing the two programs together under one brand. An additional goal of the university’s strategy in branding a distance program when the university has a positive brand image should be to transfer the positive associations of the university to the distance program. When brand extension is introduced individuals often transfer what they know (brand associations about the original brand) to the new product. Brand extension strategy will benefit the distance program in this situation because students, parents and other constituents (e.g. community at large, legislators) will transfer their perceptions (brand associations) about the university to the new program. These brand associations create expectations for the consumer. Consequently, if a university has a reputation for friendly, caring faculty and staff, or small class sizes with high levels of faculty-student interaction, then students are likely to initially transfer these associations and corresponding expectations to the distance learning programs or courses.

However if the distance program is unable to deliver the same expanse or quality of courses/programs or cannot hire instructors with the same qualities as offered at the main campus, then the potential for inconsistent images and unmet expectations increases. In this situation, the university must choose a branding strategy that will avoid further damage to the existing image. When the administration believes that inclusion of a distance program is necessary to meet student needs and/or improve the university image, then creating a separate brand (i.e. individual brand strategy) would be the better choice of the branding strategies. That brand could be developed and promoted to stand alone, thus avoiding negative feelings or confusion associated with the existing university brand. Additionally, the individual branding strategy can be very effective if prospective students are convinced through the university’s promotional strategy that the new brand represents specialization in distance learning. If unique segments of distance learning students are identified, the brand can be developed to appeal to the targeted segments. The distance learning brand will then be associated with a program that meets the students’ specific needs. If the existing university has a negative image, then using an individual branding strategy will help reduce the transfer of any negative perceptions to the distance learning program. Of course, it may be wise for the university to focus their attention on improving the image of the main campus before allocating resources to a distance learning program.

Table 2
Benefits of Brand Extension Strategy
Brand Extension Strategy
Individual Brand Strategy
  • Reduced risk perceptions

  • Reduced marketing costs

  • Increased student retention

  • Reduced switching/

  • Cannibalization

  • Reduced cost of failed program

Reducing Risk Perceptions

When assessing risk, consumers try to determine any negative outcomes that might result from selecting a particular product/service and the likelihood that those outcomes will actually happen. There are several perceived risks consumers might associate with a purchase, such as financial risk (i.e. money will be lost or wasted), performance risk (i.e. the service won’t live up to expectations) or even social risk (i.e. there will be ridicule from others). Generally, these risks are diminished as the person learns more about the service. With educational services, as the customer becomes more familiar and knowledgeable about the brand (university), confidence increases giving the customer a higher comfort level in selecting that university. Additionally, choosing a known brand helps individuals explain their actions to themselves and others. If the person’s reference group is familiar with the university and its reputation, it may also indicate to others that the individual has made a quality decision and therefore gained something of value. For example, students attending a university known for offering quality, accredited degree programs believe they will have more successful job placement or receive higher paying jobs upon graduation.

A brand extension strategy is generally best for reassuring students and parents if the university enjoys a positive brand image or if the brand is at least familiar to them. Individuals become familiar with the university name in many ways. Familiarity may occur because they reside in the same area or region where the university is located, they know of someone who has attended the university, or from the university’s participation in athletic conferences. Even if an individual lacks personal experience with the university, the more familiar the name and reputation, the more comfortable (less perceived risk) he/she will be in their selection. This is particularly true when the university enjoys a positive image. The prospective student will be reassured by the name and reputation of the distance learning program and may view it as more legitimate than a program offered from an unknown university.

Reducing Administrative/Marketing Costs

Universities often pursue distance learning programs in an attempt to gain economies of scale and continue to struggle with a strategy to gain those economies of scale while ensuring quality programs (Ketterer and Marsh, 2006). University administrators should consider both long and short term costs as they introduce distance learning programs. In addition to the costs of launching and promoting the program, the potential costs of lost and dissatisfied students, as well as damage to the reputation of the university should the program fail or not live up to expectations need to be analyzed relative to the potential benefits of the program.

In the short run, using a brand extension strategy is likely to be more cost efficient. Using the university’s name on the distance learning program allows the university to market both the campus program and the distance program together. This will result in economies of scale when recruiting and promoting. In the short run, brand extension strategy generally provides a lower cost and lower risk for introducing products (Armstrong and Kotler 2002). However, as previously stated, long term costs should also be considered.

Increasing Student Retention

An additional cost that should be considered is the cost of reaching and retaining students. Keeping current customers may cost less than attracting new ones and lost revenues occur when students, who because of various life circumstances, are not retained. Retention occurs when a student has ongoing enrollment and it is generally viewed as positive. However, identifying the reasons students do, or do not, return continues to be a concern to universities. (McKenzie, Ozkan and Layton, 2006; Nash, 2005).  Poor or insufficient communication, technical problems, poor course design and inadequate training for faculty have been identified as possible reasons for low retention rates with distance learners (McKenzie, Ozkan and Layton 2006; Muirhead and Betz, 2002).

A related issue is the return of students for a second degree or continuing education. Distance learning programs are ideally suited for maintaining relationships with former students who need additional skills or higher level degrees. Brand extension strategy is appropriate for addressing the potential for retaining students via a distance program when those students are already familiar with the university. Offering distance, web based courses provides an opportunity to reach both of these groups and a distance learning program that is closely aligned with the on campus program allows students to continue with the university even though life circumstances prevent them from returning to campus.

Reducing Customer Switching/Cannibalization

One concern with adding a new product is current customers switching from the company’s existing product to the new product resulting in cannibalization of sales for the original product (Lehman and Winer 1994). For example when the distance program is added, some students, if permitted, will switch to that format from the traditional on campus delivery of classes. A related issue is whether or not a university should allow students who live on or near the campus to enroll in distance format classes when an on campus section of the class is offered. In this case, the web based class could cannibalize the campus class. While offering on campus students the online alternatives provides convenience and possibly higher satisfaction, students off campus whom the university is trying to attract will be unable to enroll in the class if seats are taken by the on campus students. Should this occur the distance learning program will not increase enrollments and negative perceptions are likely when off campus students are unable to enroll in these courses. Additionally, the needs of residential students can be very different from the needs of distance learning students (Meyer, 2004).

Switching may be less likely to happen if the university chooses to apply an individual branding strategy because the program will have a separate image and students will not view classes delivered in a distance format as substitutes for the experience that they receive from the traditionally delivered classes. The problem of switching is more likely to occur when the university introduces the distance program using brand extension strategy. Using the same brand may imply that courses and programs can be used interchangeably. It is critical for the university to determine whether or not students targeted for the distance program represent a different segment from those enrolled in the residential programs (Magjuka and Shi, 2005).

Reducing Cost of Failed Program

An individual brand strategy for the distance learning program may provide less risk to the university should the distance program have problems. Initially, it is expensive in terms of time and money to develop a strong brand for an online product (Mohammed, Fisher, Jaworski and Cahill 2002). However, while the costs to promote and create an identity for the program will likely be higher than with the brand extension strategy, if the program is not successful, the damage to the university’s image will be lessened.


Increased demand for educational opportunities other than traditional on campus formats is creating an interest in the creation and/or expansion of distance learning programs. The demand for distance programs is driven by a number of factors. These include a growing trend in lifelong learning, corporate interest in online training (Conhaim 2003), as well as, a changing society where many non-traditional students may be place bound and unable to attend campus classes for a variety of reasons. Universities that consider the distance format a means of increasing enrollments and possibly a more cost effective form of higher education than traditional campus based methods (Daniel 1996; Richardson, Morgan and Woodley 1999) are increasingly interested in developing distance programs. Additionally, universities are recognizing that distance learning programs may be necessary to compete with other educational institutions, both public and private.

Those universities experiencing declining enrollments or attempting to expand their markets may find the addition of distance learning programs very appealing. While there has been considerable discussion of this topic it is still not clear how these off campus education programs influence the overall university image. Thus, universities should be careful not to create unrealistic expectations for both traditional and distance programs. Some studies suggest that students in distance education environments are less satisfied with the course than are students in traditional environments (Ponzurick, Russo and Logar 2000). This implies that the benefits that students expected were not met.

Additionally, if the university chooses to attach its name to the “new” product (i.e. distance learning courses/programs) it must find ways to offer the same positive qualities in order to maintain a consistent image. While the addition of a distance learning program can add enrollments and possibly higher visibility of the university name, administrators should recognize that the movement away from campus based delivery can also alter the existing image of the university.


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About the Authors:

Nita Paden, Ph.D. (University of North Texas) is a Professor of Marketing at Northern Arizona University. Her primary research interests are in the areas of retailing, distribution channel relationships, higher education marketing and consumer behavior.  Her research has been published in Journal of Consumer Marketing, Journal of Customer Service in Marketing and Management, Marketing Education Review, Journal of Marketing Channels and numerous national and regional conference proceedings.
Contact:, 928-523-7376.

Roxanne Stell, Ph.D. (Oklahoma State University) is a Professor of Marketing at Northern Arizona University.  Her primary research interests are in the areas of consumer behavior, marketing education, and services marketing. Her research has been published in the Journal of Services Marketing, Journal of Consumer Marketing, Marketing Education Review, Journal of Customer Service in Marketing and Management, Journal of Professional Services Marketing,  Journal of Internet Commerce, Case Research Journal, Journal of Marketing Channels, Journal of Health Care Marketing Channels and numerous regional and national conference proceedings.
Contact:, 928-523-7404.

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