Branding for Higher Education

Branding for Higher Education

The Higher Ed Landscape

It’s no secret that higher education enrollment is down. While hardest hit are for-profit institutions and community colleges, overall enrollment was down year over year for the past several years. And while the National Center for Education Statistics projects enrollment to grow by some 2.3 million by 2026, that’s a long way off and a slow climb for most institutions. Now, more than ever, informed, targeted marketing and business branding techniques are critical to schools’ success in attracting and enrolling top student prospects.

To the average person, the higher education market in the United States would probably be considered to be competitive. To us, as marketers, it is crystal clear that it is actually one of the most competitive markets and sectors there is. There can be dozens of colleges within a few hours – or even a few miles – of each other. Some venerable, some upstarts, some niche, some state; hundreds of thousands of students are all making the first and biggest decision of their lives. Marketing for student recruitment is about helping one person make the most important decision of their lives; for alumni relations and development, it is about engagement, connection, and belonging to a tribe.

Today more money is being spent on marketing, but universities are not using marketing to truly differentiate themselves. In 2015, Gallup found that a survey of more than 50 higher education institutions showed that, no matter their size, they shared striking similarities in the way they marketed themselves. When you can’t tell one school from the other that means prospects can’t tell one school from another; and that makes it hard for prospects to make a decision about a school – never mind the right decision.

That doesn’t mean you need to throw more money at marketing your school, it may be that you simply need to use the money you have more wisely. All of the flashy and expensive television ads in the world can’t beat the ROI of digital ads (pay per click), or the reach of social media. When it comes to marketing your school, there are a few important areas to which you should dedicate your attention. One of the big ones is branding.

What is a Brand?

What is a Brand?

A modern brand, as defined by the American Marketing Association, is a “name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller’s good or service as distinct from those of other sellers.” But, it’s a little more than that. A brand is a name, term, design or symbol, but in addition to that it’s the customer experience, the company’s reputation, what it stands for, and what it represents. It is what the world sees, and a reflection of your strategy.  When it comes to branding, a university is no different than a company. In fact, the truth is there may be no sector where a well-articulated brand matters more than in the higher education sector.

The brand is the face of the organization — it provides a guidepost and set of standards to be able to measure how you communicate — not just “ads” but speeches, events, electronic communications, the look and feel of your branches, etc. It is not a “fake,” manufactured thing or something you simply conjure up because it sounds good — the brand articulation should be a focused representation of the DNA of your business — both who you are and who you want to be.

Your university brand is a promise; a culture; an ideal; it’s tangible and intangible. As m5’s Senior VP of Strategy & Branding Michael Pickard puts it, “A smart brand provides a shortcut: it allows people to quickly associate you with positive things. And finally, it should permeate beyond ‘ads’ — to HR, events, everything!”

College Football

First Steps

The purpose of your brand identity is to:

  • Simplify the communications process
  • Act as a mnemonic: a shortcut for your stakeholders
  • Explain what your organization is and does
  • Imbue brand attributes where possible

The first part of the brand strategy process with any new client is discovery. Discovery is where a marketer learns what the university’s goals and expectations are, the depth of resources and any constraints. Discovery is the foundation of the development of the brand strategy, its where an agency should take the time to get to know – and understand – the school, both through individuals and through the organization. Discovery consists of thorough reviews of your previous campaigns and plans, in addition to in-depth interviews with key stakeholders. Differences between what you think your school is and what others think your school is may come to light. At the end of the day, your brand is what others see, think and feel about your school. Your job is to either to run with that, or do the work to change the perception.

Our job as an agency is to find what differentiates you from the competition, and if that’s not immediately apparent, then finding what Pickard calls “nuggets of awesomeness” – spectacular niche, tactical reasons why some people in the right demography and geography and lifestyle would and could see you as their top choice for a very unexpected reason. Everyone can’t be a Harvard, nor should they want to be. Everybody isn’t a fit for Harvard, but they just might be a fit for you. Your brand will make them aware of it.

Bikes at University

Why Brand Matters

Prospective students are beset on all sides by messages from higher education: television, social media, the internet, and direct mail, just to name a few. Ways to get your message out are more plentiful than ever, and everyone is making use of those avenues, making the higher education space very noisy. Without a unique brand and a great value proposition, you will get lost in the noise and your ideal prospects may never hear your message. It’s a challenging time and maintaining or increasing applications can be difficult. Brand is what is going to set you apart from everyone else, especially in a competitive environment.

Most people probably think that well-defined and powerful brands belong primarily in sectors like retail, technology, and sports. The truth is there may be no sector more important for a well-articulated brand than higher education. A 17-year-old is making a one-time, high-price decision, probably for the first time in their life. In the absence of thoughtful brands, the decision could be fraught with risk. But when the student, and typically also the parents, can clearly understand not just the rational parts of the university (like the location, the program offerings, the faculty members, the residences), but also the emotional parts (the philosophy, the “vibe,” the culture, and the personality), then they can make a much more informed decision. So it is actually incumbent on higher education institutions to articulate their brands in a way that can give students a sense of what to expect: There is a certain covenant, or promise, that your brand, and any good brand, should aspire to. It’s part of the relationship with the student.

What makes things more difficult is that the benefits of a college education can be somewhat less tangible, than say, buying a new car. How do you make higher education as a product more tangible to prospective students?

Your unique attributes are what makes your university or college stand apart from all of the others. The quality of education, the faculty, the culture, the alumni, the activities – these are the tangibles that create an intangible: your why, and that is what brings students to your school.

When a person buys a pack of gum that is “wrong” for them, they solve their problem by buying a different kind of gum. The wrong mobile device: They get used to it or upgrade or maybe complain about it on Twitter. The wrong car: They trade it in, or maybe suck it up and feel disappointed until the payments have been made, and eventually buy a new one. However, the person who chooses a school that is just completely “wrong” for them – may end up on a personal, academic, career, or life path that just doesn’t help them reach their potential. A well-articulated brand is a powerful tool to match up the right people to the right kind of university.

Your institution already has a brand: It’s what people think of your school when they hear the name. No matter what you think your brand is, what really matters is what consumers think your brand is. Your job is to reconcile the two. And that is what’s going to pull your higher education institution ahead the others.

University Study Hall

The Brand Plan

But don’t worry about what other institutions are doing; think about what your school needs to do. After all, Harvard is great, but you don’t want to be another Harvard; you want to be the only you there is.

Chances are some work will need to be done to figure out who you are. You’ll need to take a hard look at what you’re doing and what you’re going to do. You’ll have to figure out what makes you different, and whether there are things you need to do to make your school even more different. You will need a brand plan.

Through consultation, review, interviews, and analysis, you’ll need to identify what makes your school what it is, then summarize that into six short, easy-to-understand ideas:

  1. Brand Architecture: The relationship between your main brand and any sub-brands, supporting brands and programs that you have. Your university; schools within the university; programs within the schools; classes within the programs; and support programs and activities.
  2. Brand Vision: A tangible statement about where you are and where you want to be based on the university’s objectives.
  3. Brand Positioning: There are dozens of definitions floating around, but to put it simply, it’s what makes you better and different.
  4. Brand Pillars: Brand pillars are definitive, factual pieces of proof that support why your brand positioning is true.
  5. Brand Personality: Your personality is a snapshot of how your brand behaves, its tone, its voice, and who it would be if it were a person.
  6. Brand Promise: The promise is a distilled statement of what your brand will always deliver – what it will be famous for.

That’s the brand strategy, but you also have to look at the outward expression of your brand as the world sees it. That should be a reflection of your strategy, and it is critical. It consists of the four basic elements of how you communicate:

  • Corporate Identity: Corporate ID refers to your name, logo, and slogan, and how they work together. It’s not just any one of those elements — it is their relative balance, their uniqueness, how they underscore your story, the relative weight of each, and what your corporate ID, in total, says about you.
  • Tone: Your tone is the type of language you use, and how you want to make people feel when they visit you, deal with you, and read or experience your promotional materials.
  • Visual Elements: Your visual elements include your color palette, photographic style, fonts, etc., that become the signature of how you communicate.
  • Concept: The creative concept is the big creative idea that you become associated with, that engages your audiences, and is remembered.
University Library

The Brand Position

The litmus test for a solid brand position consists of the following:

  1. Available: Your position is one that no one else is saying. In crowded and competitive markets such as the education market, you cannot be saying the same thing as a competitor. If the recommended position is not available, it needs to be re-evaluated.
  2. Deliverable: Your position has to be true to who you are. If you present yourself in a false or dubious manner, people will figure it out quickly. If the recommended position is not deliverable, then you have to back up; truth is a critical element of positioning.
  3. Salient: Perhaps most important, your brand position has to be relevant to your audiences. If the recommended position is not salient, then people will not be attracted to you, they will not connect with you, they will not switch to you.
  4. Interesting: Your position has to be delivered in an EXCITING way. Even with a B2B, if the recommended position is not interesting, people will forget you. As the great David Ogilvy once said, “You cannot bore people into liking you.”

So, to sum it up let’s go back to cattle for a moment. In her “Small Business Survival” blog, Becky McCray sums branding up this way: “Here’s the lesson: It’s not the brand that makes the bull valuable. It’s [the breeder’s] reputation that makes the bull valuable. The brand is just a way of showing it.”

Beyond the Brand

The brand is an important way of identifying and differentiating your school, but there’s more to success than just the brand. There’s social media, email marketing, digital ads, and more, all using the brand as a basis. What ties all of those tactics together to grow leads and admissions is your website. Without an optimized and robust website, one of three things will happen:

  1. No one will find you;
  2. People will find you, but they’ll have trouble finding what they want and will leave immediately;
  3. People will find you, but they won’t find any valuable information on your site, and they’ll leave.

None of those scenarios is ideal. You want people to stay on your site, look through the pages, and get useful information – and you want them to come back. That will help them learn more about your university so they can make the informed decision to apply and attend.

Consider this: According to HubSpot, in 2014, 97% of high school seniors said a college or university’s website was the best place to find the most reliable information about that particular school; 89% of parents also said they relied on a website for quality information.

Your website, is part of your brand; it’s a representation of who you are and what you offer. Make sure the site:

  • Is welcoming
  • Makes the school appear credible
  • Provides truthful information
  • Highlights faculty and administration as professionals
  • Clearly outlines programs and courses
  • Has a consistent layout and structure
  • Is easy to navigate
  • Is well-written (speak directly to your audience)
  • Doesn’t have typos and grammatical errors.

And be sure to offer helpful content, such as ebooks, white papers, financial calculators, videos, a blog, and links to social media. Give prospective students everything they need to know to make an informed to decision to apply, and eventually attend.

University Graduation

If you have any questions or would like to talk to us about branding for higher education, simply fill out the form below and we will be in touch shortly.