Purpose: The rapid adoption of social media has resulted in a fundamental shift in the way communication and collaboration take place. While social media is recognized as an important marketing communication tool, it has become overlooked how social media marketing activities (user-generated and firm-generated content) influence brand equity creation in the higher education sector. Drawing from social identity theory, this study identifies how higher education institutions develop customer-based brand equity using social media marketing and social brand engagement, taking cross-comparison between high and low subjective norms. Design/methodology/approach: A survey was used to collect data from a sample of 936 undergraduates of private higher education institutions in Sri Lanka and Vietnam. These data were gathered using purposive sampling, and in testing the hypothesis and structure among the variables, structural equation modeling was used to determine the relationship between the study variables. Findings: For the conceptual framework, the authors found that the structural equation model complies with the empirical data. The structural equation model shows that social brand engagement mediates the relationship between user-generated content, firm-generated content and brand equity. Further, the subjective norms were found to moderate the relationship between user-generated content, firm-generated content and social brand engagement, highlighting that the lower the subjective norms the higher the influence on social brand engagement as students receive low pressure and influence from external parties. Research limitations/implications: The study was conducted at private higher education institutes in Sri Lanka and Vietnam. Future research could benefit from the perceptions of undergraduates in public higher education institutes. Future researchers could widen the diversity of service settings in the sample and replicate this investigation to discover if the results are consistent across the whole services sector. Originality/value: The current research contributes to the services marketing and branding literature in the higher education context. The paper presents the crucial elements in building brand equity for higher education institutes to fill the existing gaps in higher education branding literature. The findings of the current study provide strategies to improve the higher education sector.