Branding is a powerful mechanism, and it’s not just for global enterprises. It’s equally as important for higher education institutions — especially in the current environment.

Today’s prospective college students are digitally savvy and passionate about seeking out organizations that align with their beliefs. And with an increasingly competitive landscape in higher ed, college branding becomes even more essential and even more deserving of a purposeful rethinking that will position your institution to stand out to the right crowd.

We spoke with Tanya Pankratz, Associate Vice President – Marketing at Collegis Education, to understand its importance and learn what it takes for institutions to establish and maintain a strong brand across platforms.

How can schools establish a strong brand?

It’s clear that college branding is crucial, but how can institutions improve in this area? Start with these basic tips.

1. Build your brand from the bottom up

A strong brand’s roots run deep through the organization. Start with a mission statement that outlines the foundational values of your brand. Once this is established, embed that statement within the culture of the institution to serve as a guiding principle for all actions and decisions.

The foundational elements of a strong university brand include a mission statement and a concise set of values, which guide multiple facets of the business, from strategic business decisions to hiring decisions to where and how to advertise.

Tanya Pankratz

2. Focus on the right people in the audience

To make a meaningful impression, it’s important to focus your efforts toward your ideal target student. With a clearly articulated mission and vision, you can cater your messages and actions to those who resonate with your brand. This will result in more qualified leads.

Being clear in what you have to offer and aligning that with the needs of a carefully targeted audience will help build a qualified pool of prospects, not simply a large pool of prospects.

Tanya Pankratz

3. Rely on audience data, not assumptions

Once you’ve defined your ideal audience, it’s time to compile as much information as you can to understand their questions, concerns, obstacles, influences and interests. Piecing together this data will help you construct a sophisticated buyer journey that can help direct your messaging at various touchpoints.

Schools need a full understanding of their audience’s decision-making process and their needs along the way,” Pankratz points out. “To gain that understanding, it’s important to routinely survey these groups to then build out documents such as audience personas and prospect journey maps.

4. Take note of the competition

Assessing the actions of competitor institutions is a great exercise in brand messaging, according to Pankratz

In order to remain unique and relevant to your audience, consider conducting routine audits of the market competition for how they are representing themselves through their messaging, overall experience and product offering.

When reviewing each competitor, note the following:

  • What values are they portraying?
  • What actions do they take to show those values?
  • What kind of experience do they offer?

5. Maintain a single source of truth

Once you have established your brand, ensure it is consistently executed across all touchpoints and platforms. Inconsistent experiences or conflicting messages undermine the strength of the brand.

“To maintain consistency, it’s important to have a single source of truth that brings together all the components that help to build an institution’s brand. A brand standards guide should be leveraged to keep everyone within an institution representing the institution in the same way.”

So, what’s included in a brand standards guide? This document should have clearly defined rules and standards on the following:

  • Fonts
  • Colors
  • Logo usage
  • Copy tone
  • Value proposition statements
  • Audience information
  • Messaging maps
  • Image styles
  • Brand personas

The guide should also include justification on why elements are relevant to the university’s mission and values as well as document the variety of factors that impact brand perception.

Higher Education Branding FAQs

Why branding for colleges?

In higher education, branding is more than just a school mascot and team colors. A school’s brand represents its identity, strategy and experience both online and on campus. All of this adds up to how individuals perceive the institution.

Brand is the sum of all the experiences an individual has with an organization. Brand helps students decide if your school is the right fit.

What makes a college brand strong?

College branding can’t be limited to tangible materials, such as brochures, campus posters or school apparel. It needs to encompass every experience or interaction, both physical and digital, such as:

  • Discussions with faculty or staff
  • Interactions with the website
  • Visits to a physical location
  • Printed pieces seen or received
  • Messages heard on the radio or TV

Why is college branding so critical?

University branding has never been more important. Competition is stronger than ever and schools need clear differentiation to succeed.

“I like to quote hospitality disruptor Airbnb: ‘Build something 100 people love, not something 1 million people kind of like.’” Pankratz explains.

College enrollment has been on a downward trend for the past decade, but not for all schools: The top five Mega Universities are actually growing enrollment. And their strategy is putting pressure on the rest of the market to rethink how they differentiate themselves.

Mega Universities have widened their focus by broadening their target audiences and program offerings as well as emphasizing flexibility, affordability, career outcomes and quality. On top of that, they have the marketing advantages of being nationally known, having the budget to monopolize paid media, and securing large deals with corporations.

How do most colleges successfully compete with Mega Universities?

To counter the Mega University competition, schools should approach the market as major brands do, by:

  • Segmenting the market
  • Choosing specific target audiences
  • Developing a clear and differentiated positioning
  • Offering the right programs for your targets that emphasize relevant factors like flexibility and cost
  • Pricing based on business goals and market dynamics; discounting with specific goals in mind
  • Determining the right mix of organic channels and performance-based channels

To compete with the Mega Universities, especially in attracting adult learners, schools will need to build and defend their brand in their own backyard. Our experience working with dozens of partners to launch and grow online programs continues to show that a sizable portion of your online enrollment will reside within 50 miles of your institution. Therefore, the best brand defense arises from the ability to speak directly to your right-fit students, cutting through the competitive clutter with precise targeting, relevant messaging and organic marketing channels.

Rethinking your institution’s brand

College branding is at the core of an institution’s success. Today’s prospective students expect it. And the competitive landscape demands it.

Use these higher education branding tips to ensure your marketing efforts are as effective as possible and gain a competitive edge on every touchpoint, platform and experience.

For more advice about college branding, read our related article, “Differentiation vs. Value Proposition: How to Level Up Your Higher Education Messaging.”

Or let our experts help you establish a strong, differentiated brand across all platforms.

Author: Collegis Education staff

Collegis is passionate about education and driven by the technology that keeps institutions moving forward.