Building a Higher Education Brand: An Intimate Look at Today’s Challenges & Opportunities

April 11, 2018  |  BVK


We spent the last year speaking with many marketers in higher education to gain their candid perspective on marketing their institution’s brand, including their biggest challenges and future plans. Our conversations covered a spectrum of schools—big and small, public and private. This wasn’t a formal survey. These lengthy conversations were conducted over the phone and in face-to-face meetings. We collected what we heard and organized our findings to discover that three key challenges consistently emerged.

The Decentralized Marketing Model
A common frustration with many we spoke with (no matter the size of the institution) was trying to work within a decentralized marketing organization. A surprisingly large number of schools subscribe to this model and it’s creating problems.

The fact is, too many departments have their hands touching the brand: for example, Academics, Admissions, Athletics and Alumni and Advancement are all telling their own version of the brand story. Sadly, that story is different depending on the department telling it. And this is resulting in a watered-down, fractured and often confusing brand message. Messaging aside, a decentralized model creates and empowers silos and often the college or university marketing department has no idea what other departments are saying to prospects or the world at large.

But perhaps the biggest issue surrounding a decentralized model is the inefficiencies it creates with respect to marketing spend. Instead of concentrating already stretched financial resources under one area that can make the greatest impact, dollars are allocated across multiple departments, often to the same audiences, instead of creating synergies where it’s needed most.

The Declining In-State Student Population
Many schools we spoke with have developed and refined a marketing machine for in-state student recruitment and they spoke proudly of these efforts. Unfortunately, as many of these marketers were aware, student populations are shrinking in many states. They were much less confident when describing their out-of-state or international recruitment efforts and expressed concern about stretching marketing dollars even further for these initiatives. As student populations shrink in many states, more and more schools will be forced to go out-of-state and out-of-country to make up the difference.

Some schools are already aggressively working this game plan. Southern New Hampshire was a school that actively took its message over state lines to draw students and it is working. More recently, the University of Alabama has turbo-charged its out-of-state efforts and has emerged as a national player. The fact is, with the decrease in high school-aged population in the Midwest and Northeast, schools will need to cast their enrollment net further if they’re going to fill their classrooms.

Lack of Brand Messaging Consistency
Our conversations always ended with this question: Tell us what is your greatest marketing challenge?

The answer we consistently received was the need for a more consistent brand message. Part of the issue stems from the decentralized model many are working under (see point 1). But a decentralized model isn’t the only issue. Many schools have a difficult time articulating the “reason why” their school stands apart from others beyond a list of features and facts such as:

The list goes on.

All are important. The issue, however, is that every college has its list of “bragging” points. Unfortunately, in the hyper-competitive space that higher education has become, this list may not be unique and is not enough to engage prospective students in today’s market.

So, Where Do We Go From Here?
One: Marketing throughout higher education is changing, but the pace of this change is not where it needs to be—especially when it comes to the overall organizational structure.

The decentralized model many schools are working under needs to be reconsidered. A more centralized approach will provide marketing departments the ability to better control and manage the brand voice and message. It will allow them to react faster to changing situations. And most importantly, it will help pool financial resources under one roof, thereby providing the buying power to direct the dollars toward efforts that could make a big impact for the institution versus watering down efforts by sprinkling dollars across multiple divisions. (Easier said than done, we know.)

Two: More and more schools are going to need to expand their geographic reach to pull in more students. To do this efficiently and effectively, schools must use data analytics to map out and target potential students. It will also require schools to drop media channels that just aren’t as cost-effective as others. Facebook ads can do a better job compared to direct mail and yet too many higher ed marketers still rely on tactics like direct mail to drive results. There are better ways.

Three: The most important thing schools can do to help in the long term is to elevate their brand message. In addition to the list of facts and figures, schools need to develop their message to connect on a more emotional level.

Here’s an example from a totally different category: soap. Dove soap was an early market leader because it had an extremely powerful message: made with ¼ cup cleansing/moisturizing cream. That was a distinct product difference and for years it became the winning brand message. Then the world changed.

Today, there’s a seemingly infinite number of soaps for all different skin types. Walk through any Walmart and the amount of options is staggering. Go online and the options explode. In this kind of space, a simple product message isn’t enough. So, what the Dove brand team did was change the game.

Instead of focusing on features, they repositioned the brand to focus on emotion. More specifically the beauty of women…all women. This paradigm shift has transformed the brand and made it culturally relevant once again. Now, if connecting on an emotional level can be done with soap. It can certainly be done within higher education. And there are signs within higher education that this different way of thinking is catching on.

For starters, at the AMA Higher Education Symposium over the past three years, there have been more and more conversations and discussions on the importance of higher education brands beyond just the facts and figures. Two, there is a growing body of research demonstrating that most of our decisions are emotionally based and validated with rational data. Finally, closer to home, here at BVK, we are seeing validation of our values-based positioning approach with our clients throughout higher education.

Click here to see our work for TCU that won Best of Show in the 2017 Higher Education Marketing Awards.

So, if you haven’t already, now is the time to act! We believe it is far better to act now and have a fighting chance to not just survive but to thrive in the years ahead. To learn more about BVK’s value-based brand approach, click here.


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