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Why a Higher Ed Marketing Brand Begins as an Organization-Wide Culture

In years past, the idea of developing a college brand and actively marketing that brand was almost unheard of.

According to Inside Higher Ed, it wasn’t until about the mid-’90s to early 2000s that colleges and universities began attracting the attention of ad agencies and started to take a hard look at competing schools, as well as the competing brands under their own roofs. Different departments and programs at the same school were showcasing themselves to the world in a variety of ways, and it soon became clear that a house of brands was simply not cutting it when it came to attracting students. Thus, the concept of a unified brand among higher ed institutions was born.

Not only that, but the non-traditional student was emerging around this time as well. Online programs began cropping up at schools, and students of all ages, backgrounds, and abilities began enrolling. According to the Babson Survey Research Group’s 13th annual survey of higher education, taken in 2015, one in four students now takes at least one distance education course. This totals 28 percent of the college student population and equates to more than 5.8 million students overall.

With numbers like that, it’s clear why colleges and universities need to invest in branding their schools and touting their individual niches. Put simply, the higher ed marketing landscape has changed.

So how can you get everyone on board with this collective effort? Is there a way to connect faculty, students, alumni, and, essentially, everyone associated with your school with this new concept of a “brand?” When a college or university operates with a universal approach to advocating its finer points, a new type of culture is born, and the snowball begins to roll.

Turning Your Brand Into a Culture

Step 1: Develop your niche

Every school has one, and it’s up to your marketing team to figure out what it is.

Many schools center their branding on their college’s values, story, or history. Your university might place a lot of value on preserving the environment, or it may have a long history of influential leaders who have graduated from a variety of its programs. If there’s something that makes your university stand out from the crowd, you want to be sure to communicate that. Whether it’s the awesome study abroad programs your college offers, its religious affinities, or the fabulous mathematics department, you want to move that feature to the forefront of your marketing.

It’s also important to make sure your mission statement, vision statement, and marketing language are clear, so others can use them as needed. Communicate these messages regularly to current faculty and students, so if the situation arises, they have a natural way to explain the concept of your school’s brand to others.

Finally, remember it’s important to make sure your visual branding is on point and stimulating. Don’t skimp here—hire the job out to an agency if necessary. It’s imperative that the branding is cohesive and works for all departments across the board. Otherwise, you might end up with certain programs taking control of their own marketing, and a house of brands can easily get out of control.

Step 2: Gain alignment across the institution

While it may at first seem challenging to shift your school’s culture to one that promotes the college’s brand, it’s possible. Give it time and effort and you’ll see results. Think evolution instead of revolution—especially if you’re dealing with an institution that’s been around for a while and is rather set in its ways.

As you launch your new branding initiative, make sure to communicate the meaning and reasoning behind what you’re doing. Why is it important for your brand to drive your culture? Why do you need everyone’s help? The more your school’s community can understand the purpose and value behind your proposition, the more likely they will be to get involved.

It’s also important to provide a variety of opportunities for faculty, staff, and students to get involved. Offer the chance to attend admissions events, or provide easy ways for those connected with the college to share videos or stories about the university on social media. Whatever you do, make sure it’s easy, optional, and well-explained, so your reasoning, as well as your branding, rings loud and clear as a bell.

Step 3: Celebrate success together

At the end of the day, you want to make sure this process is enjoyable and useful. If you can make your branding and marketing efforts attractive and interactive, you’ll get more buy-in from your organization as a whole, as well as from potential students.

Celebrate those who are doing a great job at extolling the school’s brand.

Celebrate those who are doing a great job at extolling the school’s brand. Is there a professor who consistently promotes his department to prospective students? Give him a shout-out in staff meetings or via social media. Not only will this communicate an example of how other faculty and students can get involved, but the extra praise could serve as a motivator for them as well. Be wary of providing monetary or promotional prizes when getting your community involved. You want to create a culture around marketing the school’s brand—not a conditioned response.

Unity equates to momentum. When everyone’s in it together, you’ll easily get that rolling-snowball effect and more will want to get involved.

In It Together

The word culture is defined as the manifestations of human intellectual achievement and social institutions regarded collectively, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. There’s something powerful about a culture, and getting your school’s culture in the mindset and habit of promoting the college’s brand can transform your enrollment and create a long-lasting heritage of advocacy.

With this new demand for brand in higher education, it’s clear that some of the success or failure of colleges and universities rests on the abilities of higher ed marketing teams to develop a clear and differentiated brand identity.

Picture of Lauren Elrick
Lauren Elrick
As Minnesota-based freelance writer and editor, crafting emotion, instilling visuals, and giving the reader an awareness of brand and story is Lauren's goal. She's always liked absorbing voice and casting influence, and it’s her goal to do the world's stories justice. Whatever it is that needs to be said, she wants to be the one to say it.