Truths in Higher Education Branding
You want to stand out. Your college or university is simply different than the others. Yes, they boast about a beautiful campus and low student/faculty ratio. But at the bottom of your heart, you know that you can deliver on more than they ever could.
Now, you just have to prove it. And therein lies the rub.
Higher education is different from any other industry. Where most businesses vie for customers against a few core competitors, colleges have to contend with more than 4,000 other universities in the United States alone. And that's before we even get into the options high school grads and working professionals have that don't include further education.
Standing apart, in other words, is easier said than done. Add to that the fact that you are likely using the same kind of talking points as your competition, and you enter a serious problem: how can you build a brand that helps your institution stand apart from your competition?
That journey is long and perilous. After years of eschewing the concepts, university presidents, leadership, and boards are finally coming around to the idea that marketing is crucial to maintain and increase enrollment as well as alumni engagement. But even the best marketing efforts aren't successful if you're not organized around a few central truths that make your university unique: your brand. As you embark on a journey to find that brand, keep these 6 essential truths in mind.
1) Your Branding Process Has to Start With Comprehensive Research
Many higher ed administrators make the mistake of assuming that deep down, they know their brand. In reality, they don't tend to realize that it's not about what they believe, but what their audience thinks of them. After all, the American Marketing Association defines a brand as
a customer experience represented by a collection of images and ideas... Brand recognition and other reactions are created by the accumulation of experiences with the specific product or service, both directly relating to its use, and through the influence of advertising, design, and media commentary.
That's why every branding process has to start with research. You have to find out, as comprehensively as possible, how your audiences (internal and external) currently perceive your university. Qualitative and quantitative research has to thoroughly explain these perceptions. Good or bad, that's your brand.
2) You Have to Know Your Competition (Direct and Indirect)
No brand exists in isolation. Instead, you have to understand just what other messages your audience is exposed to on a daily basis. Sure, that includes your direct competition, other colleges in your main draw area. But don't stop there. Instead, consider the totality of other brands, regardless of industry, vying for your audience's attention.
A formalized competitive analysis has to be part of your research process. If the first point above helps you define you, this one adds the context to it. Combined, both give you what you really need to really start on the branding process.
3) A University Brand is Who You Are, Not Who You Want to Be
This is an important, and often overlooked part. Your research may show perceptions that are less than favorable. Potential students might consider you a party school with less-than-favorable academics. The natural instinct is to change that message, broadcasting your prowess for the world to hear.
The problems start when these messages don't match up with reality. Remember that your brand, as defined above, consists of experiences and perceptions rather than intentions. Yes, you have to find your strongest points as an institution, and build your messaging strategy around that. But as soon as you start to communicate messages you wish to be true, that effort can fall apart when the communicated truths aren't lived on a daily basis by your campus community.
4) If You Don't Stand Apart, You Might As Well Start Over
A core part of the branding process in any industry is positioning, or the effort to occupy a place in your audience's mind that makes you stand out from every competitor in and outside of your industry. In higher education, that can be difficult. Consider how much you lean on the following talking points:
- A beautiful, picturesque campus
- Majors for every interest
- 100s of student organizations
- Personalized attention
- Great outcomes (with 97% of students successful within one year of graduation!)
In isolation, these are great points. The problem is that all of your competitors are highlighting the exact same thing. Your goal in the branding process should not be to find better ways to say them, but to find the messages that actually make you unique in your draw areas. Yes, that's difficult. But if you cannot get there, your brand will have little impact in the minds of your audiences.
5) Branding Can Be Measured (But It's Not Through Applications)
One reason that universities have stayed away from branding efforts for years: a lack of measurability. Your president or VP of Administration likely won't allocate an already tight budget on something if you have no idea whether that initiative is actually working or not. Worse, branding efforts that fail to generate increased applications within the first year are often shuttered without a second thought.
Here's the good news: you can actually measure the impact of your conscious attention to the university brand. Repeating perception surveys like the above at regular intervals helps you understand how perceptions shift based on your messaging strategy.
Yes, over time, that will impact anything from your applications to your advancement fundraising efforts. It's just not as immediate as some in the cabinet may prefer.
6) Your Digital Marketing Strategy is More Effective With a Brand in Place
Are you currently engaging in higher education marketing efforts that include paid advertising? That's a great start. Advertising anything from open houses to college guides can certainly increase attention and awareness among your prospective students. But here's a final truth: it can be so much more effective with a brand in place.
In this scenario, the brand becomes the overarching platform that guides all of your messaging. It ties together your website, digital advertising, admissions viewbook, and more. It turns your entire marketing into a consistent effort that communicates the same message, amplifying its effectiveness as a result.
It truly does start with the brand. Fortunately, that brand is not as abstract as it might seem at first. Once you have it in place, you can build a digital marketing strategy that elevates your university and allows you to achieve and surpass your marketing and enrollment goals.
If you want to learn more about branding for schools and how to position your institution, lets talk!