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Trying to Recruit Students to Your College? Brand 'the Experience'

Colleges need to do more than offer great programs to attract students these days. Their marketing and brandingneeds to tell potential students that they’re buying into a great “experience” – especially with today’s hefty price tags. Here’s how colleges can brand themselves to attract the talent they need to keep their doors open.

Just like many other businesses, colleges and universities need to innovate to stay relevant. And as tuition rises considerably and schools receive less government money and state support, higher education marketers need to hone in on their target student and donor population – to keep the doors open, and students coming through them.

So, there has been a notable spike in interest in branding – or rebranding - in higher education. Colleges are under pressure and they are competing against each other for student talent so they can boost enrollment, endowments and donations.

But the opportunity to receive a quality education isn’t just the only thing students are looking for. Students, families, alumnae and even faculty are seeking a “sense of place” and a “memorable experience” when deciding where to go to school or where to work.

Higher education institutions need to rely on great branding to attract its audience, inspire enrollment and expand fundraising efforts. But many branding efforts in college all too often entail spending a lot of time, effort, and resources on activities that simply don’t work. And they’re realizing they need to change it up.

In fact, of the 76 percent of higher education marketing leaders who have conducted a brand strategy project at their institutions, according to recent research, 73 percent of them have done it in the past five years.

So then, what branding does work for higher ed?

Today’s successful higher ed branding strategies require more than traditional advertising, marketing or identity development. You need to create a branded environment - an on-site experience that uphold's your college or university's reputation. A branded environment - which exists in the mind of the consumer - builds upon the values and essence of the institution to amplify its unique qualities, features and benefits. A brand is the perception which determines what consumers think they know about your organization—driving an emotional reaction. You need your audience to believe in what you stand for, and then you need to cultivate that relationship.

clemson-university-website.pngClemson students claim they "bleed orange" - thanks to their university mascot, the Tigers. The designers of the university's website carried over that branding by including elements like a bright orange banner, an orange scroll bar, and other orange accents. The tiger's eyes in the header is a great branding touch.

Many colleges and universities have hired marketing professionals from the corporate world and invested significant time and money to create strong higher education brands. However, there is evidence that higher ed does not have to spend significant amounts of money to be effective. Unsurprisingly, the most successful strategies are heavily centered on the use of technology.

Here are some of the key branding and marketing strategies being utilized by colleges and universities today:

1. Responsive website design: An effective and intuitive website can be thought of as the “ultimate brand statement” for your institution. Your website design needs to be interactive and easy to navigate. Take a hard look at your website’s elements and layouts; streamline and highlight great content, use visuals such as slideshows and video, and include prominent “call to action” buttons [i.e. “Call now for a tour!” or “Download our brochure” etc]. Be consist in the look and feel of your website and all other marketing materials created by your institution so the branding works on every outward-facing medium.

Interested in learning more about higher education marketing? Click here to read Higher Education Marketing Strategies & Trends for 2017.

2. Search engine optimization: By optimizing the website content that is most important to the attracting students, your website will have a chance to rank higher in search engines. Writing blogs and other content about specific college programs that are a big draw for students can also go a long way towards a higher rank. This is increasingly important for institutions that offer niche programs. When students enter a phrase into Google, Bing or Yahoo, the time you spent to apply SEO principles to your content will really pay off in visits to your site. But make sure the content amplifies your brand consistent message, and the digital ad campaigns you decide to launch need to echo that messaging, as well.

Download: 17 SEO Myths You Need to Stop Believing Right Now


3. Mobile outreach: If it’s your job to help market your employer college and you’re not targeting audiences on mobile devices, your missing out – big time – on a large population. You have to optimize content for mobile devices and you have to be found where that audience lives. And, it means your website needs to be accessible, uncluttered, and easy to navigate on a small screen. So, invest in your mobile presence, and ensure that any digital advertising you do also targets the mobile audience. On the course side, increasing a school’s mobile presence incudes creating mobile-responsive versions of websites and other content, and making a greater amount of course content mobile.

Still wondering just how worth it investing in mobile is? Consider these stats:

  • 43% of all college-aged students report “using their mobile devices for all of their web browsing;”
  • Of that group highlighted above, 68% have “looked at a college website on a mobile device.”
  • Two-thirds of students indicate that they would be willing to receive a text message from a prospective college. (Hello, mobile as a communication strategy!)    

4. Creative outreach efforts: Although college branding efforts should include some traditional marketing and branding strategies, such as open house events and sponsored visits for students, colleges have had to think of creative outreach efforts to make themselves stand out among their competition. This is particularly true as technology evolves and today’s target college student faces a wide variety of higher education options. Try a more personal appeal to catch the attention of prospective students - and their parents - such as:

  • Placing QR codes (to interact with smartphones) in public places
  • Crowdsourcing photos and videos to share campus events
  • Creating unique advertising videos that students are readily willing to, and want to, share
  • Creating three-dimensional displays for college fairs or other events (branded environments, point-of-purchase displays, etc.

Pomono.pngPomono College in Claremont, California takes full advantage of its location and lifestyle – in a word, relaxed. Newsweek ranked it the second most desirable small school in the country.

But don’t forget the importance of good ole’ fashioned face-to-face interaction. Get the students to your campus, then have a heart-to-heart with them about what they’re looking for in a school, and convince them through your great branding that they can find that desired experience at your school.

How to do Higher Ed Branding Right

While planning any strategy for branding higher education institutions, keep in mind a few key things:

  • Branding requires “patient and rigorous effort,” and relies heavily on timing. A successful college or university brand depends on consistency in purpose and messaging over time. You may be facing some distinct challenges in creating an appealing college branding environment. Overcoming a negative image may be one of them. Mitigating these challenges will take some time. You also need to have a solid understanding of your audience – and this may take some research. Effectively personalizing your message for any targeted audience segment will also require time and effort on your part, but will absolutely be worth it.
  • Branding for higher education institutions is all about the unique promise to the students and their families, the faculty and the surrounding community. This promise is the sum of the institution’s attributes including their name, history, reputation and environment. A college’s brand perception lives through how an institution plans, creates and delivers on the target audience’s expectations, impressions and experiences.

Screen Shot 2017-05-11 at 9.13.01 AM-1.png

Founded in 1824, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in Troy, NY, takes pride in its tagline, “Why not change the world”, the result of a successful rebranding initiative that brought the nation’s oldest technological research institute renewed recognition and helped launch its largest funding drive ever.

  • Keep promises, particularly when it comes to the quality of the education provided. Commit relentlessly to quality education and them communicate that quality by constantly underpinning by facts, data, and irrefutable evidence. Demonstrate your quality education and strengthen your brand.
  • Ensure that all departments and ambassadors of your college are speaking with the same voice - communications department, recruiting, professors, students and governing authorities. Consistency across all brand vehicles is absolutely critical to maximize brand recognition and impact.
  • Utilize a variety of platforms and methods maximize the growth of your college’s brand. This includes mobilizing current and former students to be brand ambassadors; maximizing merchandising potential such as branded clothing and apparel, gifts and athletic items. Grow your brand by connecting with students where they spend the most time – on social media – and encourage engagement so you instill a sense of loyalty and a bond between college and student. When students feel their college understands them and is making an effort to “hang with the cool kids,” it will make a huge difference in their perception of their school.

How will you step up your game with branding your higher education institution? What are the values and experiences that you can build your brand on? Make branding higher education a reality for your institution. Contact us, we’d love to help!


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