Institutions of higher education are facing an increasingly competitive environment in which they must find ways to differentiate their institution and tell their story. A decade ago, few universities thought strategically about their brand. Now, as the market for academic talent, funding, and recognition heats up, the need has become acute. Universities recognize the necessity of building appreciation for what makes them unique. Yet while some universities may be regarded as “great” brands, most aren’t. And it may be because of the ways in which higher education approaches branding.
What attributes or descriptors do you hope students will think of first when they hear your school name, or sum up their experiences as alumni?
Whether you’re re-tooling or starting from scratch, researching and developing your student personas is a key part of branding for schools. Insights into preferences, aspirations, and concerns will help you narrow down which of your own strengths to highlight most, and which “character” elements you may need to work on improving. Plus, polling or interviewing students will reveal any prevalent misconceptions about your brand – perceptions you’ll strive to subvert and re-shape with your promotional campaigns.
Without this knowledge, you’re really just taking a shot in the dark, allowing your branding decisions to be guided by speculation and generalisations – which will result in a bland or unappealing identity, unlikely to stand up against more strategically defined competitors. Institutes want their brand identity to set them apart, to reflect their strengths, values, and mission as a place of learning. In order to avoid generic or misguided messaging, the marketing team (and other key stakeholders) must first clearly define their institution’s positive attributes, and crucially, how those align with their target audiences’ aspirations, challenges, and educational preferences.
Over time and with consistent effort, the attributes you’re emphasising become synonymous with your name – they communicate your true purpose as an institution of learning.
When your audience knows exactly what your school stands for, and feels that this mission aligns with their own goals and values, you’re well on your way to building trust and loyalty.
Avoid inconsistent representations of your brand by developing a style guide that provides clear guidance on your logo, colours, font, positioning, website header and footer design, and imagery – and an image bank that includes all of the approved photography and video that can be used across your school’s marketing channels.
For good examples of clear and consistent branding, look at large, renowned institutions such as the Symbiosis International University, whose iconic logo and distinctive red colour scheme are universally familiar to people both inside and outside academia Whether you’re a primary school, language program, university, or career college, your institution does not exist in a vacuum. You’re part of a broader community, and for many students, your surrounding environment plays a part in their enrollment decision.
Many millennials, for example, want to know how the college they’re considering contributes to local philanthropic organisations. Other prospective students and parents associate credibility with a long and illustrious school history – they prioritise schools that have been around for the last 50-100 years (or more), and consider longevity a hallmark of success.
It’s important to consider how context influences the perception of – or adds value to – your school brand.
It can be highly instructive to examine how your main competitors are presenting themselves in the market, and which elements they’re emphasising to make emotional connections with current and potential students. Taking the time to look critically at your competitors’ messaging can offer you fresh insights into your own evolving brand identity – helping you distill the most memorable, unique, and emotionally stirring impression of all