The Educated Marketer


How Risky Is Too Risky When It Comes to Higher Education Marketing?

by Vicky Lynch | Jun 29, 2016

 |  college recruitment, inbound marketing, branding


A recent Inside Higher Ed article examined why many college brands are so similar to each other. It seems that when many universities launch a re-branding campaign, they often times miss the mark, focusing on how they want to be perceived versus what they really have to offer their students. And when they focus on how they want people to see them, they end up sending the same message as many other universities.


In this brave new world, where old marketing tactics like billboards, glossy brochures and college fairs are falling flat, colleges and universities face an increasing need to redefine what makes them unique.

And in some cases, that may mean taking a risk.

But be careful—if you go too far, many marketing risks and rebrands backfire, breaking trust with students and alumni.

So, what steps can you take to minimize risk?1. Have a clear strategic vision.

Most colleges employ a marketing team that mainly works to drive admissions. What if instead you redirected part of your budget or group to solidly research what is unique about your college, and what former and current students love most about it? According to a recent study from Hanover Research, knowing what your prospective students truly want is the most important element of any rebranding effort.

The strategic vision should focus on the institution’s core values—good examples for that are student lifestyle, academic quality and post-graduation employment potential.

  1. Promote your institution’s strengths to an underserved niche.

When you focus on a specific area of strength within your university (or even create a new area of strength), you set yourself apart by promoting that niche to a very specific group of prospective students. By narrowing the field, you will have less competition in recruiting those students, as you are meeting their personal needs rather than trying to appeal to all the prospective students at the same time.

Recently, many colleges have placed a marketing emphasis on a single area that sets their institution apart, and have worked to change the images of those specific areas. For example, the University of Illinois recently partnered with Nike to rebrand their athletic uniforms in order to capture the school’s tradition in the design and create an innovative and consistent athletic identity. And according to Forbes magazine, the University of Southern California visited over 100 high schools around the world and can now promote the fact that they have more international students than any other university.

  1. Have an incredibly good reason to rebrand.

It might be tempting to change your image just for the sake of being fresh and new, but a big part of many institutions is their history and heritage. According to StratEDgy, an Inside Higher Ed blog, you should strive for your public perception to naturally evolve along with your institution. Make sure you have an extremely good reason to rebrand, like a new focus that goes in a separate direction from your previous reputation.

In 2014, The University of California decided to rebrand themselves with a modern, sunny image. An article in Transform magazine points out that they underestimated the value of a professional image versus a more light-hearted one, and their students and alumni felt their education had been devalued. The university ultimately decided against the change.

  1. Examine what has worked for corporate America.

In the past, it probably would have been unthinkable for a university to market themselves with the same tactics as a corporation. However, with falling enrollment numbers, The Guardian reports that a university’s survival depends on their ability to be clear about who they are and use that to attract students and funding.

Forbes magazine suggests that higher education marketers could learn from luxury brands that have built themselves on creating a strong brand. The article examines how many universities are becoming savvy with digital marketing strategies, so much so that the pendulum has gone in the opposite direction. Now every marketing dollar must be justified by the number of leads generated. And while digital marketing is important, branding can also be a key component to success.

The future of our institutions is uncertain. The key to thriving, not just surviving, is knowing what makes your university unique and using that to stand out. Knowing where your strengths lie and how to effectively communicate them will likely involve takings some risks and changing things up. But calculated risks can pay off.

In the words of T.S. Elliot, “Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”

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