3 Key Elements To Strengthen Higher Education Branding

Leilani Bruce
Published on Feb 22, 2019

3 Key Elements To Strengthen Higher Education Branding

Many universities are using the right marketing tactics to attract students: PPC, direct mail, content marketing, etc. However, only a few are using the right branding to support those efforts. Although it’s great to use those strategies, they’re not as effective as they could be with a strong brand. 

Weak branding and messaging can be easily seen in the advertising of many universities. You’ve probably seen the ads on billboards, train station platforms, and online. “Start here. Go anywhere.” or “Start here. Get there.” The issue with this message is that it could apply to any university in America. Inside Higher Ed points out…

Colleges want their brands to be stylish, catchy, vibrant. But when style trumps substance, colleges start to look just like their competitors.

Strengthening your brand will allow you to craft messages that are impactful, have a cohesive look and feel, and help your brand be more memorable. This, in turn, can translate into higher conversions. 

So, why do so many universities miss the mark?

University brands are missing some or all of the three elements we’ll discuss in today’s blog:

  1. Brand Perception Research
  2. Potential Student Personas
  3. Truly Unique Features

By incorporating these 3 key elements into your strategy from the beginning, you’ll be able to build a total brand experience that naturally reinforces itself. Your marketing messages will be like a beacon to your ideal students. Not only that, they’ll encourage positive involvement by alumni and build stronger relationships with the local community. Let’s take a look at each one.

1. Run a Brand Perception Research Study

With so many different stakeholders spread across your campus and community, it’s easy for separate microcultures to grow. Only by speaking with people in every corner of your organization can you identify the common threads that will tie your university brand together.

This is a critical first step in the higher education branding process. Making assumptions at this stage can have a negative impact on your marketing campaigns for a long time. Unless your brand is rooted in the actual beliefs of all your stakeholders, it won’t feel authentic. As a result, students who step onto campus will quickly see the disconnect between what they’ve been told and what they actually experience.

Above all, a brand is a promise. Without buy-in from your entire campus, the experience won’t match expectations.

Unless your brand is rooted in the actual beliefs of all your stakeholders, it won’t feel authentic. Students who step onto campus will quickly see the disconnect between what they’ve been told and what they actually experience. Click To Tweet

Your Next Step

So, now that you understand the importance of this step, have you interviewed and surveyed as many different segments as possible?

  • Current and prospective students and their parents
  • Faculty (current and retired)
  • Alumni (recent graduates and supporters)
  • Administrative staff (not just leadership)
  • Community leaders and members
  • Local media, businesses and nonprofits
  • Corporate partners
  • Research funding sources
  • University vendors

Need more help? Check out this sample brand perception study from the University of Southern Mississippi for some ideas on how to survey your university stakeholders.

University of Mississippi survey

Conducting surveys and focus group interviews with a wide variety of stakeholders will provide a more accurate assessment of your university’s current brand perception.

This process may sound overwhelming, but using tools such as Survey Monkey or Google Surveys, the process can be easier than you think. We have helped many clients implement surveys like this one successfully. It requires a combination of good segmentation, asking the right questions, providing an incentive to fill out the survey, and making it short enough that easy to fill out.

2. Create Potential Student Personas

Researching and developing your student personas should be a key part of your university branding strategy. In other words, don’t let generalizations guide your decisions when it comes to branding in higher education. In today’s competitive higher education market, you need razor-sharp messaging targeted to your ideal student base. 

So, what's a student persona? This is a concept widely used for business audiences, now adopted by universities. As defined by the Buyer Persona Institute,

Actionable buyer personas reveal insights about your buyers’ decisions -- the specific attitudes, concerns and criteria that drive prospective customers to choose you, your competitor, or the status quo.

In other words, student personas help you understand your audience, so you can create marketing messages that matter to them.

Your Next Step

Use the following guidelines to build your target personas:

  1. Divide your student population into logical groups - For example, if you have a mix of age groups, you might decide to put recent high school grads into one group and returning adults into another. They’ll have different needs and expectations.
  2. Identify similarities for each group - What are their goals, motivations, and concerns? For example, your returning adult persona may have concerns about whether their full-time job will prevent them from attending classes. 
  3. Confirm your assumptions - So far, your personas are based on internal university knowledge. But you could easily be missing major insights by not speaking to prospective students directly or monitoring social media conversations. For example, you might not realize that a large portion of your returning adults students is interested in social connections. You may have assumed they’d be too busy to care about this, but it you may be surprised to discover that it comes up frequently in surveys.

Need a template? For a helpful, brief student persona format, check out this six-slide example put together by Mackenzie Welsh, a student from the University of Florida.

Understanding your potential students will certainly help you craft better messaging, but it can also tell you what kind of content to create and where it should go. With a limited budget, knowing the most effective enrollment lead generation strategies for your specific audience is crucial.

Prospective Student Persona

Student personas help universities understand the unique goals, challenges, perspectives, and concerns of their prospective students. This clarifies how to position your brand, what outreach methods to use, and many other branding decisions.

3.  Showcase Truly Unique Features

The authors of Three and A Tree, a comical but useful guide to higher education branding, took their title from the most frequent cliché in university marketing: three students of varying ethnic backgrounds and gender, in college sweatshirts, standing by a tree. So, how do you avoid three and a tree?

Hopefully, through this process, your university has figured out what makes your school unique. But keep in mind that many universities have probably identified similar “unique” attributes. It’s important to research higher education marketing messages. If you’re in competition for the same student audiences and you offer similar programs, there’s a good chance they’re already using the language, images, and concepts you’ve been considering. As you can see, it's essential to do your research before you can commit to a university branding strategy.

Once you get a sense of the higher education marketing landscape, move away from tired soundbites. Instead, focus on what is truly different about your organization. Remember - no other university can imitate your history, surrounding environment, one-of-a-kind faculty, and the stories of your students and alumni. This is where your university marketing strategy can shine.

Focus on what is truly different about your organization. Remember - no other university can imitate your history, surrounding environment, one-of-a-kind faculty, and the stories of your students and alumni. Click To Tweet

Your Next Step

As an example, user-generated content is an excellent way to tap into your university’s culture. Newscred wisely points out, “(User-generated content) is about the ability to capture an unscripted moment. It’s about creativity, authenticity and perspective. It’s about relaying a deeply personal experience that simply can’t be objectively recreated by a brand.”

The stories of the people who make up your university culture - that's what makes your university truly unique. Weaving these stories within your greater brand message is the best way to make your university memorable for prospective students. That’s a winning higher education branding strategy.

University of Miami Instagram Post

The University of Miami has a #CanesLikeU series on Instagram that takes candid shots of students on campus and asks friendly questions. This gives future students a way to picture themselves on campus and highlights the key brand messages.


Much of the advice in this higher ed branding blog boils down to three words - Don’t Make Assumptions. Instead, talk to as many people as possible about how they perceive your brand, so you can create an authentic experience. Then, learn about potential students from every angle and develop clear messaging that will resonate. With these foundations, you can then rely on the real stories of your students, faculty, and community to communicate your university’s brand.

If your university marketing suffers from a case of “three and a tree,” contact Pacific54. We’ll make your higher education branding strategy clearer, stronger, and more effective in driving student engagement. 

3 Responses to “3 Key Elements To Strengthen Higher Education Branding”

  • Harlem Smitt says:

    Okay I feel like we are missing that unique part. I never even thought about it. I just wanted the site to look good.

    • Leilani Bruce says:

      Totally! There are tons of good looking university sites out there, but what makes you different? Once you figure that out you’ll have a better chance of standing out and attracting the right students for your school.

  • Sawyer Davidson says:

    There is so much competition for higher education that no college or university can afford to be complacent. I’d imagine that even Ivy League schools find themselves fighting for bringing in students. Sure, there will always be a few top schools that people are fighting to get into (or willing to bribe someone to get into, but that’s another story) but the other 90% have to figure out how to stand out. This advice is a good starting off point IMO.

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