Whereas a decade or two ago, few universities would likely have considered themselves a “brand”, today it is generally accepted that branding is an institutional imperative. As education has become an increasingly crowded marketplace, effective branding can help your school stand out, inspiring your community and attracting prospective applicants with a concise and compelling expression of identity.
And yet, branding remains a much maligned and misunderstood term in education circles, often confused with short-term promotional campaigns. What these administrators don’t understand is that it shouldn’t be about selling something but rather about being something and then communicating those core strengths and values.
Photo by Baim Hanif on Unsplash
Successful branding therefore begins with a profound understanding of what your school is and its unique niche compared to competitors. The next challenge is to articulate these differentiating qualities in a way that positions the school apart from the crowd.
The tricky part is that as most institutions have adopted supposed best practices in education marketing, the result has been largely interchangeable taglines, logos and promotional imagery – what some observers have called “a sea of sameness.”
To get on the right track, here are some best practices as recommended by international branding experts.
1. Understand what branding is and isn’t
A brand is much more than a catchy slogan and consistent colour scheme. Brands should organically spring from within the organisation’s culture and be driven by its community, focusing energies of present stakeholders, attracting new audiences and generally guiding institutional strategy.
Your brand is your identity, your promise, your big idea that’s intended to form an emotional connection with prospective students. Ideally, it integrates your vision and values accurately, resonates as credible and inspiring with your community, is competitively distinct, and is potentially enduring in the long-term.
2. Consult with your community to better understand your niche
Arriving at a distinct and meaningful university brand should begin with in-depth discussions about what your school represents and how its programmes, reputation, location and other competitive strengths position it in the marketplace. This is best accomplished in collaboration with your community – faculty, students, alumni – to support more authentic conclusions.
This consultation process can help identify common themes in attributes associated with your university and unexpected differentiators that can be leveraged. Combining this with thorough market research and competitive analysis could determine that there is an under-served market that can be effectively targeted.
3. Celebrate your fundamental truth and prove it
As you develop your branding statements and key messaging, be wary of overused higher education buzzwords and hollow claims of excellence. Brand positioning is often about owning a particular word that is likely to stick in the minds of your prospects.
Do you have a reputation for greatness in a specific discipline, teaching approach, campus environment or student happiness? The best branding claims ring true from the beginning, becoming memorable because they speak to authentic institutional strengths and satisfy a unique market need.
They’re also meant to be aspirational – reflecting a better version of yourself with which you can then align future strategic development.
4. Test your assumptions and reinforce through actions
There are several examples of rebranding initiatives that were sabotaged by a school’s community. Keep in mind that students, alumni and faculty have a lot invested in their university’s reputation and won’t hesitate to have their voices heard if they dislike your branding direction.
Therefore, its only prudent to invite collaboration throughout the process to mitigate resistance, testing your assumptions and giving your community the opportunity to feel invested in the project. Then why not unveil your new identity with a flashy ceremony, videos and other promotions that demonstrate your school is a great place to study?
Choose a consistent visual identity, vocabulary and maybe even font type that are sufficiently flexible to function well across a wide variety of online and offline channels. Once your branding has been accepted, ensure it is implemented across all marketing channels and continuously reinforced in all interactions with stakeholders.
With all leadership, faculty and staff committed to the new vision, your brand position can guide future development and promotions for years to come.
Patrick Quinn is a content writer of Great Place to Study, a global auditing and intelligence firm that classifies and recognises institutes on the basis of student engagement