‘Minds, Motivated’. ‘Innovation Is Our Tradition’. ‘Education for an Inspired Life’. ‘Your Success. Our Tradition’. ‘Possible Is Everything’. I challenge you to identify a university from this list of lightweight, inane taglines.
This is the space in which many universities find themselves. A sea of marketing sameness driven by a lack of understanding of the power of brand. When it comes to student and faculty attraction, a university with a well-respected brand is in an advantageous position.
Today there are fewer college-age students, higher costs of ‘traditional’ 4-year colleges, shaky post-graduate employment prospects, and competition from alternatives such as online degrees, certificate programs, and MOOCs (massive open online courses).
Many college marketers are encouraging student-generated content, which not only builds credibility for the institution but also makes stronger advocates of the students and faculty themselves.
One upside of these challenges is that ‘brick and mortar’ universities are being forced to look inwardly to understand what makes them different from both their traditional competition and the ‘new school’. They are also looking at new ways of communicating their difference and engaging their audiences.
Historically, college brands have taken decades, or even centuries to develop – many of the worlds’ most prestigious universities can trace origins back hundreds of years. Oxford University for example, was founded in 1096. Today, brands don’t have the luxury of time, and instead must actively craft a differentiated experience.
By following the three principles outlined below – universities can build stronger brands for decades (and perhaps centuries) to come.
One of the historical reasons for weaker university brands is simply that the school, its board and key administrators have never had to define a ‘mission’, or devise a strategy for achieving that mission.
Educational institutions must learn that brand building is more than a logo and clever wordsmithing. It is about making wise choices to set a strategy – deciding what you’re not is as important as deciding what you are.
People have longer relationships with their university than almost any other institution in their lives. Continued post-graduation engagement with alumni is not just of financial importance but also can serve to strengthen the sense of ownership.
Then centralizing that strategy to everything the institution does. If you want your school to be known for the best out-of-classroom experience, then that desire must permeate every aspect of the journey ‘customers’ will go on. You must nurture and develop extra-curricular activities on campus and invest in the best accommodation and food. If you want to be known as the best teaching school – then you must recruit, train and retain faculty accordingly. You must then continually evaluate teaching staff to ensure they are delivering to the standard.
Effective university brands exist in multiple dimensions. The campus is just one of the places where students and faculty experience the brand. It is imperative for colleges to study the journeys that these audiences go on with their brand and to find ways to amplify the positioning along the entirety of those journeys.
Another point worth considering is that people have longer relationships with their university than almost any other institution in their lives. Continued post-graduation engagement with alumni is not just of financial importance but also can serve to strengthen the sense of ownership that the community owns. Alumni reunions, for example, are not simply fund-raising efforts but also brand building exercises.
One of the most important factors to consider is that unlike in business – universities have thousands upon thousands of willing ambassadors who will go the extra mile for their school. This is not a new concept. Fraternities, sororities, and sports teams have for generations been central to building communities in schools. In fact, Ohio State University and their team the Buckeyes released their brand guidelines online for ‘superfans’ to make on-brand support collaterals for games.
For established universities, the focus must be on building brands that are desirable, distinctive and engaging with their respective target audiences.
Today, the concept of school spirit has taken on a whole new dimension. Many college marketers are encouraging student-generated content, which not only builds credibility for the institution but also makes stronger advocates of the students and faculty themselves. Hofstra university added student-created video content to their interactive campus tours, which included a walking tour of the dining hall, conversations with faculty and student interviews.
The competitive landscape for tertiary institutions is only likely to heat up in coming years. For established universities, the focus must be on building brands that are desirable, distinctive and engaging with their respective target audiences.
This overarching approach fused with the three specific principles outlined earlier should act as a useful mechanism in guiding universities that are keen to stand out from their competition.
The generic narrative of ‘Creating the leaders of tomorrow’, which is prevalent amongst so much university marketing literature, is unlikely to distinguish one institution from another. For brand custodians of traditional universities, the time is now to differentiate their offer in a meaningful way.
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