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The Importance of Brand-Building in Higher Education

April 28, 2022

As marketers, we are voracious consumers of all manner of marketing. We are naturally curious observers of human behavior, pop culture, disruptive innovation, sociopolitical trends, and a whole lot more. Thinking about how goods, services, and ideas are packaged and sold keeps us up at night. That and binge-watching “Criminal Minds.” But I digress.

Recruitment, Admission, Enrollment, Summer Melt, Repeat

When it comes to the insanely competitive higher education marketing environment, we have a few observations that we’d like to share. In 2022, there may be no greater irony than that of the desperate college applicant, sending out 20+ college applications to “hedge their bets,” only to be the target of an avalanche of college marketing, flooding their email and mailbox, essentially saying “pick me!” 

After two years of dramatic changes in the admissions environment, no one is more acutely aware of the need to differentiate than admissions officers. This April, I had the opportunity to attend Junior Visit Day at a selective, liberal arts college with my daughter. The dean of admissions opened the program with an anecdote about his recent meeting with several peer institution admissions officers. At this meeting, each participant was asked to give a three-minute elevator pitch on what makes their institution unique. After three presentations, they abandoned the exercise: everyone was saying the same thing.

Protecting Yield Through Brand-Building

A central challenge that institutions face each admissions cycle is that of hitting their “yield,” or the number of accepted students who ultimately choose to enroll at an institution. Achieving the targeted yield is the cornerstone of any institution’s stability. If too many students say yes, the institution must scramble to holistically support them; too few, and the university is faced with a financial shortfall that has far-reaching consequences. In either case, their brand’s reputation is on the line.

So how do colleges and universities mitigate this threat? What can they do to hit their yield sweet spot? The answer is simple, but effectively implementing a solution has proved to be anything but.

Colleges and universities are brands.

Some are such larger-than-life brands that their marketing machine merely needs to “not screw things up”; essentially the institution thrives off the brand equity “royalties” that have built over decades. Whether through prime-time collegiate athletic programs, top academic results, breakthrough research, or storied alumni, these institutions’ brand reputations have helped insulate them from the very real challenges of yield – and even scandal. Even so, they are savvy enough to know that maintaining strict adherence to the brand standards and message platform is critical for their continued success.

On the other hand, the broader landscape of colleges and universities across the United States must work hard to push their brand to occupy “share of mind” in the customer. This is where the plot thickens. A handful of institutions in this camp recognize themselves as a “brand” and strategically leverage their points of difference to grow awareness and equity. They consistently lean into a brand promise or feature that they can authentically own. They create a brand narrative around this singular notion – and execute it with discipline, year-over-year. 

The X Factor

Sadly, the rest are chasing the elusive X factor that represents their point of difference. Faced with a neutral-to-diminished yield, college admissions and marketing teams panic and enter a vicious cycle of reactive, desperate tactics to shore up anemic enrollments. In this scenario, they follow an “everything but the kitchen sink” approach to recruitment messaging; these are the same institutions which often find themselves on the short end of the yield equation once enrollment deposits are being made.

These are the institutions who mistakenly set forth a robust menu of facts, figures, and features as a substitute for a compelling pièce de résistance. Job or grad school placement rates, study abroad percentages, research opportunities for freshmen, DEI initiatives, numbers of majors, clubs, and varsity-level sports, are some of the recurring proof points intended to entice prospects. And while these and many other features are important details of the brand story, they are merely table stakes to a greater, aspirational claim.

Making the Donuts

So how can colleges and universities create a brand that is worth leveraging? How can you avoid diluting your brand and instead, hone in on what truly makes you special?

First, you must resist the temptation to broaden your appeal. In the words of Socrates, “know thyself.” Being true to the essence of one’s brand means it will not appeal to everyone, and that’s ok. Narrowing your appeal is counterintuitive, but by identifying your true target market, you will likely achieve greater yield. Matchmaking during an admissions cycle is important to achieve a college’s projected yield; and importantly, a strong match or “fit” of student and institution aids in the freshman-year retention rate, another critical metric that potential applicants evaluate during the application cycle.

Second, you must identify what is truly special about your offering and use a wide-angle lens to do it. Maybe it’s not an NCAA championship basketball team; maybe your mascot isn’t tattooed on people the world over, but every place has its shiny object, and the trick is to tell the world about it in an arresting, consistent manner. Find out from your most important constituents – current students, alumni, faculty and staff, peer institutions – what they perceive as your unique point of difference. Once you’ve built consensus around your brand’s essence, create a creative way to package this truth and express it to prospective students. 

Third, you must consistently deliver on the brand promise, the message platform, the tone, and the creative articulation of the brand. If these elements change as the institution’s marketing and admissions staff changes, or because of other external political factors, the brand-building exercise is wasted. Commitment to the colors, fonts, logos, taglines, mascots, and all the other components that comprise your brand should not be treated as disposable. When a change is warranted, using data to drive the decision, and engaging your critical stakeholders, will minimize the risk of “change for change’s sake.” 

If your institution of higher education is eager to pinpoint its X factor and you’ve tried “everything but the kitchen sink,” The Martin Group’s integrated team of branding experts stands ready to tackle your challenge.

Alexa Christopher

Senior Advisor | Strategy

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