branding & strategic planning

Why is Brand Important in Higher Ed?

January 31st, 2018

Prospective students are beset on all sides by messages from higher education: television, social media, the internet, and direct mail, just to name a few. Ways to get your message out are more plentiful than ever, and everyone is making use of those avenues, making the higher education space very noisy. Without a unique brand and a great value proposition, you will get lost in the noise and your ideal prospects may never hear your message. It’s a challenging time and maintaining or increasing applications can be difficult.

Why is brand important in higher ed? Brand is what is going to set you apart from everyone else, especially in a competitive environment.

Most people probably think that well-defined and powerful brands belong primarily in sectors like retail, technology, and sports. The truth is there may be no sector more important for a well-articulated brand than higher education. A 17-year-old is making a one-time, high-price decision, probably for the first time in their life. In the absence of thoughtful brands, the decision could be fraught with risk. But when the student, and typically also the parents, can clearly understand not just the rational parts of the university (like the location, the program offerings, the faculty members, the residences), but also the emotional parts (the philosophy, the “vibe,” the culture, and the personality), then they can make a much more informed decision. So it is actually incumbent on higher education institutions to articulate their brands in a way that can give students a sense of what to expect: There is a certain covenant, or promise, that your brand, and any good brand, should aspire to. It’s part of the relationship with the student.

The truth is there may be no sector more important for a well-articulated brand than higher education.
What makes things more difficult is that the benefits of a college education can be somewhat less tangible, than say, buying a new car. How do you make higher education as a product more tangible to prospective students?

Your unique attributes are what makes your university or college stand apart from all of the others. The quality of education, the faculty, the culture, the alumni, the activities – these are the tangibles that create an intangible: your why, and that is what brings students to your school.

When a person buys a pack of gum that is “wrong” for them, they solve their problem by buying a different kind of gum. The wrong mobile device: They get used to it or upgrade or maybe complain about it on Twitter. The wrong car: They trade it in, or maybe suck it up and feel disappointed until the payments have been made, and eventually buy a new one. However, the person who chooses a school that is just completely “wrong” for them – may end up on a personal, academic, career, or life path that just doesn’t help them reach their potential. A well-articulated brand is a powerful tool to match up the right people to the right kind of university.

Your university brand is a promise; a culture; an ideal; it’s tangible and intangible. As m5’s Senior VP of Strategy & Branding Michael Pickard puts it, “A smart brand provides a shortcut: it allows people to quickly associate you with positive things. And finally, it should permeate beyond ‘ads’ — to HR, events, everything!”

Our job as an agency is to find what differentiates you from the competition, and if that’s not immediately apparent, then finding what Pickard calls “nuggets of awesomeness” – spectacular niche, tactical reasons why some people in the right demography and geography and lifestyle would and could see you as their top choice for a very unexpected reason. Everyone can’t be a Harvard, nor should they want to be. Everybody isn’t a fit for Harvard, but they just might be a fit for you. Your brand will make them aware of it.