March 3, 2021
Higher Education Brand Strategy: Bringing Balance to the Modern Higher Education Brand
Our industry is at an inflection point. Higher education has lost billions of dollars. College Board reported apps are up, yet the numbers are unevenly distributed across the spectrum of college types. And while we continue to read predictions that aren’t in our favor, Americans are “still attached to the college experience.”
More than ever, colleges and schools must establish a strong identity and position themselves in a way that brings clarity to their core truths–meeting current consumer shifts caused by COVID as well as having the vision to remain relevant beyond.
So while the results of the pandemic have left many schools re-evaluating who they are, their value proposition and what to invest in, it’s been shown that an investment in building a strong brand increases the likelihood of enduring.
Today, modern brand building starts with a strong higher education brand strategy that understands that there have been fundamental shifts in where brands are built and combines intelligent strategy and creative communication.
Modern Brand Building Requires Balance
Modern brand building is built on a foundation that balances culture, media and marketing truths. For every new shift in media behavior there is a marketing truth that continues to endeavor. For every emergent social media platform, there are still fundamental human behaviors that are slow to evolve. For every qualifier we place in front of “influencer” and for each push to remove “funnels” from our lexicon, the more we rediscover a need to go back to past practices to inform key business goals.
As Richard Rumelt wrote in Good Strategy/Bad Strategy, strong strategy “discovers the critical factors in a situation and designs a way of coordinating and concentrating your actions to deal with those factors.”
From a brand strategy perspective, the critical factors higher education marketers must focus on is media’s continued fragmentation, the dividing of attention and a customer journey that is more disconnected than ever. To remain relevant, visible and unique, we must connect the various “bits” and develop them into a coherent and comprehensive alignment.
In sum, strong higher education brand strategy should be rooted in modern brand building techniques that strike a balance between these new challenges and the fundamentals that haven’t changed.
Balance brand marketing and enrollment marketing
Often thought of as siloed or divided by traditional/digital tactics, modern higher ed brands must balance brand marketing and recruitment activities across the spectrum of marketing objectives. As Binet and Fields argued “Balancing brand building and sales activation activity appropriately for the sector in which the brand operates remains a vital requirement.” Enrollment and brand marketing should seek to work in tandem to build a full funnel.
There’s nothing worse than recruitment efforts gone unnoticed because the brand wasn’t recognizable, marketing efforts cannibalized or ownership of first party data weakened the overall institutional media strategy. All should work in concert to maximize effectiveness of brand building activities to make recruitment efforts more efficient.
In practice, modern higher ed brands use brand marketing to reach the right audience enough times to increase preference and shape attitudes, so when recruitment campaigns are launched, these short-term activations are made much stronger. Similarly, marketers should pursue a balanced and shared scorecard to monitor the movement of both efforts to better understand which leading indicator is a reliable predictor of long or short-term success.
Balance the “bits”
Our current media environment can best be described as fragmented, disconnected and decentralized. The customer journey is messy at best, attention is divided and interactions with brands extend beyond our control–making higher education marketing much more difficult.
Modern higher ed brands recognize that this seemingly endless array of digital interactions demands consistency across each audience touchpoint that reinforces a brand’s distinct assets and brings balance between brand, college and program communications.
Balancing the bits also requires understanding that the diverse collection of channels higher ed marketers have at their disposal can work together, not only to scale reach but through a mastery of craft and context can maximize impact throughout this complex ecosystem.
Balance the collective understanding
Brands are built through collective meaning. Marketing helps to create meaning, reinforce previous interactions with a brand and get more people to experience the brand. It’s when a consensus reality has formed that a brand truly “owns” its status and attributes. For example, luxury brands don’t maintain their luxury status without a collective understanding.
As prospective students experience a college or school, collective attitudes and perceptions are established and strengthened through a school’s advertising as well as reinforced by the actions of current students.
Modern higher ed brands find their authentic brand promise and ensure that it resonates internally as well as externally. Effectively communicating your brand promise ensures you attract more right-fit students, which has the potential to improve future student outcomes. Similarly, improved student outcomes coupled with delivering on your brand promise increases the likelihood that the meaning you’re building with advertising is also reinforced through internal audiences.
Balance marketing communications and community
Just like our social networks, brands have become decentralized. Audiences have just as much voice and more creative tools than ever before. Brands are now shared and scale can now be built through co-creation and community–creating meaningful incremental reach.
Whether it’s an influencer or genuine fan, strategic partnerships with creators add value by communicating more nuanced brand codes, reducing buying friction and strengthening emotional connections to a brand.
In practice, modern higher ed brands balance distinctiveness and messaging between paid media and their community creators. Carefully selecting partnerships with creators who enhance your brand promise brings additional value to your creative strategy and credibility.
The Modern Higher Ed Brand is Built with Authenticity
As Stephen King wrote in What is a Brand?, “[A brand] has to be a coherent totality, not a lot of bits…blended into a single brand personality…Secondly, it has to be unique, and constantly developing to stay unique, because it is through its uniqueness that the brand can offer sustained profit margins. Thirdly, this blend of appeals must be relevant to people’s needs and desires, and immediate and salient. It must constantly stand out from the crowd; it must spring to mind.”
To King, a brand was always more than its communications–and we couldn’t agree more. It starts with the desire to invest in uncovering what makes a brand truly authentic. Reflected in a compelling brand promise, balancing each new media challenge becomes much easier when anchored in a brand truth that’s consistent, unique and relevant to the needs of your right-fit students.