Every industry has a way of doing things that works. But as I study different industries — their brand, marketing, and advertising efforts, what’s working and what’s not — I’ve stumbled across a common thread: The companies that are the most successful, the brands that stand above the rest, are ones that have taken effective practices from different industries and applied them to their own.
For example, one brand everyone is raving about is Liquid Death Mountain Water, a canned water company that’s passionate about the environment. It adapted different packaging and messaging efforts from the brewing industry and energy drink industry and applied them to water. Instead of opting for a minimalist look in a recycled bottle that talks about the spring from which it came, Liquid Death is canned water that resembles a tall boy beer with the tagline “Murder Your Thirst,” playing off of the tone of voice from energy drinks.
It took very simple methods from two other markets and applied them to its own, making something completely original. Its adaptation of other industry trends is making serious waves in the brand, marketing, and advertising world. By looking to other industries for inspiration and being open to observation, Liquid Death has launched a brand into a saturated market that no one can compete with.
Other great examples of industry-stealing marketing techniques include Surreal (brand personality), Oatly (messaging and design), Amex (content marketing).
Higher education has always played it safe
In higher education, things are pretty straightforward when it comes to marketing efforts.
Picture this: It’s half-time during March Madness and you get hit with a commercial. It’s a slow pan up of a historical building during golden hour. Break to a fan-filled stadium rooting on a team, then you see a diverse group of students spread out on blankets on the Quad (at least one person has a guitar), and the last scene has two students doing some precarious lab work, dripping liquid into a beaker. The commercial ends with the promise of a unique journey and a close-knit, supportive community where you find your passion.
I’m poking fun, but a lot of the standard efforts are actually working. The real, emotional testimonies, the backstory of how an institution was founded, the camaraderie on campus — none of that is bad. It’s just safe and expected. Colleges and universities have been repeating the same styles and voices forever. But looking into the future of higher education, doing the same things over and over isn’t going to work for much longer.
Higher education is shifting greatly and with the looming “2026 cliff” approaching, institutions must find alternative approaches to reach their audience. If you are equipping students, faculty, and staff to change the world, it only makes sense to think more strategically and differentiate your institution from the “standard.”
Let’s look at other marketing efforts and focuses
Typically, colleges and universities shy away from adopting new marketing practices for a handful of reasons:
- We’ve always done it this way.
- No one else is doing it.
- We don’t have the budget.
While staying true to the institution and keeping budget top of mind, there are plenty of examples of marketing trends other industries adapt that you could apply to higher education. The one thing you have to get past is being one of the first to do it.
Influencer marketing is big for product advertising and is slowly starting to gain traction in higher education. A 2020 report from Instead found that more than half (57%) of surveyed students said that online conversations with student ambassadors were the most helpful resource when considering which university to apply to (compared to 47% who said friends and family were the most helpful, which has typically been the trend in the past). The report highlighted students’ appreciation for the ambassadors’ “unique and honest perspectives on academics, student life, and local culture.”
Focusing on Health
A strong health focus has become a “must” for businesses in the food and beverage industry, from wellness trends for consumers to mental health support and initiatives for restaurant staff. And it’s also something GenZ and Generation Alpha value when choosing an education route.
During the 2020–2021 school year, more than 60% of college students met the criteria for at least one mental health problem, according to the Healthy Minds Study. An Ohio State University study found that 70% of students are stressed about finances, and the most recent Hope Study in the fall of 2020 suggested that three in five students experience basic need insecurity. So students are now asking “Can the institution support my needs (i.e. mental, physical, financial health)?”
Authentic, Long-Form Content
Long-form content will always remain king. As we mentioned before, Amex started its OPEN Forum where brands submit useful information to live as content. By leveraging its current customers as experts and giving them a platform to share useful information by answering common questions, this long-form content continues to be Amex’s number one lead generation for new customers.
Experiential marketing doesn’t have to require a Fortune 500 budget. There are plenty of ways higher education institutions can create their own experiences that invite others in. Whether you look to a theater group to help with marketing (like Skittles did) or work with your creative colleges to generate a powerful campaign through an art showing or even create your own Snapchat filter, this type of content will never fail to make noise.
It’s time to be curious again. There’s no need to fall victim to the “This is the way we’ve always done it” mentality. As you know, that statement is the biggest detriment to any establishment. Be open to observing the many things around you, regardless of the industry. If higher education only looks inside its industry for inspiration, everyone would be contradicting their own mission and vision. As you encourage your students to try something new, to not fear failure, or to take a risk, remember to take action in your own words.