There have been countless news headlines about drops in higher ed enrollment, but there are also encouraging reports about colleges seeing increases in enrollment. The institutions experiencing a rise in applications have established branding for their universities, going beyond an advertising campaign. Their brands stem from commitments the schools have made to differentiate from other institutions and support students, which is infused throughout their integrated marketing communications.
What is a Brand?
Before we move on, it's essential to understand what a brand is. A brand is an emotional connection people have to an institution. It goes beyond transactional points like location or affordability. A brand is how people perceive your college or university.
A brand is more expansive than an advertising campaign. It comes from what your institution stands for—its mission, priorities, and values from the strategic plan. It is embedded throughout the organization and expressed through marketing to help build people's perception of your college or university.
Why is Branding in Higher Education Needed?
What's challenging for higher ed enrollment is that many macro trends impact it beyond an institution's control—declining birth rates, inflation, pandemics, and travel restrictions for international students. So universities need to leverage micro trends they can impact, like degree offerings, program format, and the student experience, while also factoring in consumer behaviors of their prospective students.
For example, institutions recruiting prospective Gen Z students should know that Gen Z values education, but they need to understand the ROI and how they will benefit. They also prefer learning in a classroom vs. fully online. For Gen Z, a degree is multi-faceted. It's about education but also the experience of the university and its outcomes after graduation.
Developing branding for universities helps enrollment by getting your institution's story out about the value you provide to students beyond a diploma or credential.
How Do You Create Branding for Universities?
Ultimately the brand is what others think of you, but you need to lead their perceptions. Start by uncovering the purpose of your institution by looking at the university's mission and strategic plan. Also, involve your community—students, alumni, faculty—and review the institution's choices regarding programs, student support, and partnerships.
Then, extend the university's purpose into marketing. Evaluate survey data, run focus groups, meet with people on campus and ask them questions like:
What makes this university different?
What is the university great at?
Why do people come here as students and to work?
What does life look like for students after they graduate?
Listen for trends and similarities among responses and connect them to the university's purpose and what makes the institution stand out. Then, outline your findings into a brand messaging platform.
University Branding Guidelines Example
After you have a brand messaging platform, develop university branding guidelines next. Consistency is one of the most critical factors in building a brand: written communication and visuals. There's what you say, which comes from your brand messaging platform, and there's consistency in how you look, which entails your logo, colors, imagery, and iconography. University brand guidelines outline everything you need to be consistent. The guidelines are provided to anyone in marketing creating communications and advertising, including in-house teams, contractors, and agencies, so that all of your marketing is aligned and consistent.
The University of Michigan has comprehensive brand guidelines available online. It includes rules regarding its logo, colors, typography, and more with examples and templates. It also includes copywriting direction regarding tone and voice and when to capitalize. The brand guidelines also link to their brand messaging platform, outlining their value proposition and key message points.
University Branding Examples
Ivy League schools, like Harvard University, come to mind when people think of university brands. They have brands that connote a strong reputation for academic achievement worldwide. But a college or university doesn't need to be internationally recognized or highly selective to have a brand.
Many colleges and universities have developed brands that have contributed to increases in enrollment because they have established their institution's purpose and leveraged marketing to tell their story.
Here are some university branding examples:
Bennington College's VP of Enrollment stated that enhancing their marketing campaign was a contributor to their increase in enrollment.
Bennington College's brand positioning is about being a forward-thinking elite liberal arts institution where students graduate ready to make the world what they want it to be.
That positioning is expressed through their marketing. For example, the homepage states "your life's work" with articles and graphics highlighting their students and alumni.
Purdue University's value proposition is "Purdue delivers practical solutions to today's toughest challenges to build a better world together." They highlight "persistent" students in their TV commercials and written and video stories and promote their ranking as an innovative university.
Tying to the brand, Purdue University experienced increased enrollment due to a "persistent commitment to affordability and accessibility."
Westminster College experienced increased enrollment which the VP of Enrollment, Marketing, and Strategic Communications stated is related to the college's focus on delivering education and support services for all students.
Similarly, their brand is about helping students find their unique purpose so they can achieve success. They run ads about how they support students after graduation and use the line " Come as you are. Graduate as who you will be." on their homepage.
Higher education is going through a transformation, and despite the uphill battles, some colleges and universities are experiencing increased enrollment. At the core, the successful institutions dug into what they stand for to improve student experiences. In addition, branding for universities also helped tell their stories through marketing.