When you think of a brand, your mind likely envisions large entities like Microsoft®, Nike® or Coca Cola®. These corporations have deep-rooted branding elements that make them easily identifiable to consumers. People know who they are, what they sell and what they stand for.
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.
We spoke with Tanya Pankratz, Senior Director of Brand and Creative Strategy of Collegis Education, to understand its importance and learn what it takes for institutions to establish and maintain a strong brand across platforms.
What is college branding, anyway?
In the simplest terms, branding is a marketing tactic that involves creating a name, symbol or design that distinguishes something from its competitors. But it extends far beyond that. 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 offline. All of this adds up to how individuals perceive the institution. Because of these intricacies, it cannot be dictated entirely by the marketing department.
“An institution’s brand cannot be controlled. But it can be influenced,” Pankratz says. University branding must be reinforced through every stage – at every touchpoint students have with your school.
“Brand is the sum of all the experiences an individual has with an organization, which then helps them determine relevancy,” Pankratz adds.
College branding isn’t limited to tangible materials, such as brochures, campus posters or school apparel. It also consists of 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
As you can see, there’s a lot that goes into establishing and maintaining a strong brand for your institution.
An institution’s brand cannot be controlled. But it can be influenced. Brand is the sum of all the experiences an individual has with an organization, which then helps them determine relevancy.Tanya Pankratz - Senior Director of Brand and Creative Strategy
Why is branding so critical in higher ed?
University branding has never been more important. Consider the following factors that make it so vital:
Today’s students care about brands
Generation Z students are digital natives. They have grown up surrounded by technology, which influences the way they interact with the world. They don’t take things at face-value; they’re willing to do a little extra research to seek out companies and brands that align with their beliefs.
“This generation has grown up with answers to any of their questions right at their fingertips,” Pankratz says. “They are more willing to spend their money with companies that reflect their own personal values.”
More time is being invested in the research process
As mentioned above, Gen Z is used to putting time into research in order to make an informed decision. This is especially the case for an investment as significant as higher education. The college decision process is more intricate than ever, with multiple stages along a prospective student’s journey.
A strong brand helps ensure one cohesive message is being shared across all mediums.
“The multitude of methods prospects can discover information about an institution makes owned media, such as websites, social media channels and blogs, a critical resource for institutions,” Pankratz says. “The consistency in branding across all touchpoints becomes a vital part of establishing distinction and relevancy to today’s prospective students.”
The consistency in branding across all touchpoints becomes a vital part of establishing distinction and relevancy to today’s prospective students.Tanya Pankratz - Senior Director of Brand and Creative Strategy
Competition is stronger than ever
College enrollment has been on a downward trend for the past decade, and the pandemic has only exacerbated this situation further. With more schools vying for fewer students, college branding is essential for institutions to make an impression.
“Across most demographics, the undergraduate market is shrinking, which creates an even more competitive landscape,” Pankratz explains. “Coupled with the negative sentiments around the rising cost of tuition and the undercurrent of opinions that a post-secondary education is no longer necessary for career success, the available prospects are fewer and harder to convince.”
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. It starts with a mission statement, which outlines the brand’s foundational values. Once this is established, it’s embedded within the culture of the institution and serves 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,” Pankratz explains.
2. Focus on the right people in the audience
In order 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,” Pankratz says.
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 in order 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,” Pankratz recommends.
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:
- 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 and documentation on the many aspects impacting brand perception.
Invest in 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.”