Intense competition places new emphasis on branding

Higher education is the most complex, expensive intangible most people will ever purchase, and the “purchase decision” is therefore powerfully influenced by brand reputation.

Academica Group whitepaper, “Classifying Universities: Institutional Brands from the Market’s Perspective

The recent Forbes article, “College Brands: The Tipping Point,” contains a fairly ominous message for American colleges: get your branding right or face extinction. The article explains that given the changes in the higher education landscape and the pressures students are facing, those colleges with effective branding stand a better chance of surviving.

Specifically, the Forbes article cites declining affordability as well as more elusive benefits (of getting a degree) as reasons colleges are “between a rock and a rock,’ saying, “The cost of a traditional four-year residential degree has finally hit the pain point for many families” at the same time that “many newly minted grads have been forced to move back to their parents’ homes or accept low-paying jobs that [don’t] utilise their education.”

The result is that families and students will be looking very hard at the cost-benefit ratio of their study choice, and that more specific, short-term certificates may be gaining traction relative to full degrees.

In all, what colleges are facing is a prospective student audience that is growing more:

  • Price-sensitive;
  • Interested in “proof” that their study choice will lead to a good job and income;
  • Aware of alternative course delivery options (e.g., online, distance, blended, MOOC);
  • Possibly geographically remote (in the case of out-of-state or international students).

A changed branding environment

More than ever, good branding is not the sum of clever copywriting and design.

As we have previously written, institutional branding is first and foremost about strategy and then making strategy live and breathe in the world among an institution’s target audiences. For more on this, please see the following articles:

The strategy part of things involves the hard but rewarding work of looking at the strengths, challenges, and opportunities of the institution to develop a clear and compelling competitive advantage for target markets (which must be very well defined and understood).

After this, a tagline will be developed to help communicate this advantage – but it is by no means a core achievement upon which everything can rest. So many taglines are currently circulating, and even the best ones cannot stand for an institution.

Good copy and design are integral elements of branding, but only to support the main work, which is:

All institutional representatives – not just the marketing team but also professors, staff, and students – knowing what the brand promise and identity is and actively manifesting and proving that brand at every possible chance.

The proof is in the… stats

One great example of a brand proving itself is Babson College in Massachusetts, whose branding is highlighted in another Forbes article, “How to Make a College an Irresistible Brand”:

“The Boston higher education market and has successfully differentiated itself. With only 1,956 students, Babson could easily disappear in the galaxy of Boston schools, but its all-business image and focus on entrepreneurship has set it apart. Babson offers an accelerated business programme for students who want a fast track to a career. The fact that 96% of Babson grads successfully enter the job market or graduate school within the first six months after commencement – when 53.6% of all bachelor’s degree holders under 25 are jobless or underemployed – certainly supports that philosophy.”

Those stats are going to stand out more than Babson’s tagline ever could, and the college knows it: they supply a page of fast facts aimed to soothe the soul of even the most uncertain student prospect, starting with this one: “Babson has been ranked No. 1 in entrepreneurship education by U.S. News & World Report for the past 19 years.” Talk about a college making the most of the price-sensitive and proof-demanding student characteristics we mentioned earlier.

Know your brand’s foundation

The article also underlines another extremely important point: it’s not too late to develop a strong brand.

Next in the spotlight is Middlebury College in New England, which recently decided to make its strong language programmes the focus of its branding, having found that other focal points weren’t working. Here are the results of that decision:

“Today, Middlebury is not just the gold standard in languages and study abroad; its reach also extends far beyond its rural Vermont base to its schools abroad in more than 40 universities in 15 countries, as well as to the West Coast’s Monterey Institute of International Studies, with which it became affiliated in 2005. Over the course of this strategic branding, Middlebury’s applicant pool has increased immensely, from about 5,000 applicants in 2000 to 8,500 in 2011.”

Making a brand come alive

Another excellent example of a college taking its brand and tagline and proving it is Columbia College in Chicago.

The arts and media-based college’s tagline is great for its target audience – “For creatives. By creatives.” – but it really lives when you watch the I Am Columbia video. Accomplished artists, Hollywood actors, and musicians close out the video by emphatically declaring, “I Am Columbia,” which basically translates to prospective students as “education that leads to success.”

Branding counts all over the world

While the examples mentioned in this article are American, the content is globally applicable.

Around the world, students are becoming more and more aware of brands, more selective in their choices, and more influenced by online social networks (i.e., word-of-mouth). A glossy brochure won’t cut it anymore.

Despite the increasing realm of marketing platforms institutions must now consider, however, there are some ways in which simplicity is still the first rule of thumb:

  • Be focused (i.e., in defining the brand, in narrowing target markets, and in communicating one promise relentlessly while compellingly);
  • Be real and authentic, since students will detect falseness a mile away;
  • Remember to really support those best placed to spread your brand message – i.e., online marketers, international education agents, alumni, current students – with everything they need;
  • Deliver on the brand promise. Nothing will work long-term if not.

There are lots of good examples of college and university branding out there. Add yours in the comments below.



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