Purpose: The purpose of this paper is to explore the interrelationship of branding practices and legitimacy-building of commercial degree program franchising within transnational higher education (TNHE). It aims to understand how commercial franchisees’ branding practices employ discursive and symbolic strategies for building legitimacy, and how these practices impact both organizational development and stakeholder perception. Design/methodology/approach: This qualitative study uses document and visual content analysis, supported by discourse analysis, as the methods in analyzing commercial franchisees’ branding practices of their franchised programs. The sample of the study consists of five commercial franchisees offering primarily Western MBA programs in the United Arab Emirates. The data were obtained through franchisees’ websites, marketing materials, student prospectuses, visiting campuses and their marketing events, and through interviews with franchise managers. Findings: The findings of this study indicate that growing a sustainable brand for a commercial franchisee requires successful building of its legitimacy in the host country. Legitimacy in such arrangement however involves two paradoxes: the “self-promoter’s paradox” where the franchisees often engage in legitimacy-building practices that decrease their legitimacy, and the “legitimacy-borrowing paradox” that happens when the commercial franchisee initially borrows its legitimacy from the franchised program, but simultaneously this borrowing of legitimacy prevents it from becoming a fully legitimate higher education institution. Originality/value: This study contributes to the research on management of TNHE by exploring the branding practices of franchised programs, which so far has been a neglected area in research. Furthermore, interconnections of legitimacy-building and branding practices are underrepresented within the broader higher education research. © 2018, Emerald Publishing Limited.