brand positioning in higher education

What is a brand?

“Brand is the promise, the big idea, the expectations that reside in each customer’s mind about a product, service or company.  Branding is about making an emotional connection.”  (Alina Wheeler, Designing Brand Identity

Take a moment and visualize the college or university you attended. What three adjectives or emotions immediately come to mind when you think of your alma mater?

I did this exercise, thinking of the institution where I completed my undergraduate degree, and right away these descriptors surfaced:

  1. Welcoming/non-intimidating
  2. Challenging
  3. Flexible and “alternative”

Then, I asked a fellow alum which attributes he associates with the university because I wondered if he might offer a similar response. He immediately said:

  1. Supportive
  2. Fulfilling
  3. Full of opportunities but underrated

Next, I decided to ask two people who had not attended the school, to get a sense of whether their responses differed from our “insider” perspectives. My first volunteer said:

  1. Underrated (a kind of underdog, as compared to big-ticket alternatives in the same city)
  2. Good programs
  3. Vibrant and diverse

And my second volunteer reported:

  1. Progressive
  2. Non-traditional
  3. Welcoming

Now clearly, this little experiment was far from scientific, but it did reveal some compelling consistencies in how the university is perceived from both the inside and the outside. Across all four responses, we can see a clear identity emerging – one that centers on progressiveness, diversity, and student support.

It would seem that my alma mater has done an effective job of weaving together an intentional, emotionally evocative brand. Which of course, begs the question: How is your school perceived by current and prospective students?

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?

If you’re still grappling with refining your school’s identity or hoping to re-brand and re-position yourself in the marketplace,  consider these five steps to cultivate a unique and impactful school brand.

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1. Understand How Branding for Higher Education Can Inspire (and Repel) Prospective Students

If you want your school’s brand to evoke positive associations with a particular group (or groups) of students, it makes sense to first nail down what those personas look for most in an educational institution – and what turns them off.

Whether you’re re-tooling or starting from scratch, researching and developing your student personas is a key part of branding for higher education institutions. Insights into preferences, motivations, 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 generalizations. This will result in a bland or unappealing identity, unlikely to stand up against more strategically defined competitors.

2. Align Your School’s Brand Identity with Your Audience’s Preferences

Schools 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 audience’s motivations, challenges, concerns and educational preferences.

You could start by making a list of your school’s 5-10 top attributes, and clarify how each one speaks to your audience’s goals and needs. These are the key messages you will use to guide every aspect of your marketing, working toward consistently targeted campaigns that both reflect your unique culture as a school, and the specific characteristics of your audience. Over time and with consistent effort, the attributes you’re emphasizing 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.

branding for schools

Take the Academy of Learning Career College (AOLCC) for example. When I think of AOLCC, the words “future-oriented,” “supportive,” and “transformative” come to mind. And this doesn’t happen by accident. The marketing team has worked hard to communicate key messages around personalized learning, opportunity, and being an agent for positive change in the lives of students.

In fact, AOLCC has placed student career transformation and opportunity at the heart of its school branding, emphasizing the flexibility and support that its programs offer to students throughout its website. The website’s pages are full of information about why choosing AOLCC is a worthwhile investment in one’s future, associating the school’s brand further with career growth and student success. AOLCC understands that these themes will motivate its target audience and generate trust in the brand.

school branding

AOLCC’s website reinforces this ethos, featuring keywords that illustrate how students will be able to achieve their goals by training for a career they’ll love at AOLCC. The website also emphasizes the accessibility and affordability of the school’s programs, representing its commitment to providing students with the support they need to complete their training.

higher education branding

And with the use of a leaf in its logo, AOLCC continues to echo the “growth” that its institution represents for the careers of its students, highlighting its commitment to helping students to make a positive change in their lives. 

branding and web design

All of these elements combine to communicate a clear and impactful brand – one in which AOLCC becomes synonymous with career growth, transformative opportunity, and a commitment to helping students to succeed, whatever their current situation may be.

3. Ensure Consistent Brand Elements Across all Marketing Channels

Inconsistency in the use of logos, image and video quality, “about” descriptions, and even slogans is a significant branding challenge for many schools. An inconsistency might look like a change in colour scheme from one page of a school’s website to another, or even the use of a different font. Ensuring prospective students find consistent representations of your brand during their online search is important for building a sense of familiarity, dependability, and trust. 

There are several reasons brand inconsistencies happen. For example, when several different people are responsible for managing social media accounts, producing print materials, or updating the website, it’s easy for brand elements to become muddled. Or when a school has numerous campuses, with different marketing staff at each location, each branch can end up producing its own variant of the institutional brand.

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 University of Michigan, whose iconic logo and distinctive blue and yellow colour scheme are universally familiar to people both inside and outside academia.

The school’s well-defined brand is fully integrated into all aspects of its promotional materials, making it instantly recognizable and authoritative for prospective students.

school branding examples

4. Incorporate Your Community & History into Your School’s Branding

Whether you’re a K-12 school, language school, 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 organizations. Other prospective students and parents associate credibility with a long and illustrious school history – they prioritize 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.

Take, for example, John Cabot University, an American university in Rome.  A big part of their brand identity is immersion in the surrounding community of Rome. Much of the courses and programs it offers focus on getting students integrated within the city of Rome, whether they’re learning about the city’s history, participating in community service initiatives around Rome or experiencing cultural events or simply exploring the city with a certain goal in mind. 

This messaging is clearly and consistently communicated on their website, from the design of the school logo to the images and narratives that tell the brand story. For example, the images used throughout the website are consistent in the representation both of Rome itself and of JCU students within the city of Rome. As you can see here, the image on the school’s homepage features the Colosseum, a famous attraction in the heart of Rome.

branding for higher education

Additionally, if we take a closer look at the wordmark, we can also see a nod to ancient Roman culture. Alongside its name and slogan, its emblem features Latin phrases, the language used in the Roman Empire, and classic imagery.

college branding

The university understands that for its prospective students, the fact that JCU is an American university in Rome is what makes the institution unique, leading it to emphasize the Roman community within which it is situated in each aspect of its branding. 

Consider how your school’s environment, relationship to the broader community, and history influence its perception, and how you might weave these elements into your brand story to connect with your target audience and differentiate yourself from the competition.

5. Look Critically at the Brand Identity of Your Competitors

Your competitors can also be a great place to look for examples of higher education branding. After all, you offer similar programs and are competing for similar target audiences. It can be highly instructive to examine how your main competitors are presenting themselves in the market, and which elements they’re emphasizing to make emotional connections with current and potential students.

digital branding in higher ed

Is your top competitor highlighting career opportunities (like AOLCC does) to establish itself as the college best suited to support tentative mature students and newcomers to Canada?

Has your top competitor woven community involvement into its brand identity, connecting with your audience’s desire to associate with altruistic institutions that give back and do good?

Is a competing school doing a particularly effective job of associating its brand with cutting-edge technology – which you know will resonate strongly with your particular audience and program offerings?

Or, is a competing institution doing a great job of recruiting a specific audience you’ve had trouble adding to your school population, such as international students or young millennials? How have they adapted their brand strategy to appeal to this demographic?

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.

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*Editor’s note: This blog was originally published on 20th July 2016 but has been updated to reflect current trends