Rebranding Universities. A Marketing Study.
Rebranding universities and colleges abound because they all feel the pinch. As the economy puts a damper on prospective students in the coming years, rebranding will be mandatory.
Jobs are harder to come by for students. Student loans are scarcer and more expensive. And universities are cutting back on what they offer. It is business.
The branding of universities has changed significantly in the last five years. In the past, universities focused on their academic reputation and prestige as their main selling points.
However, in today’s competitive landscape, universities increasingly use branding to differentiate themselves and attract students.
Several factors have contributed to the changing landscape of university branding. One factor is the rise of social media. Social media has given universities a platform to reach a wider audience and share their stories.
Universities can use social media to showcase their academic programs, research, and student life. They can also use social media to connect with prospective students and build relationships.
Another factor contributing to the changing landscape of university branding is the increasing emphasis on student experience. In the past, universities focused on providing a traditional academic experience.
However, today’s students seek more than just a good education. They are also looking for a university that will give them a well-rounded experience that includes opportunities for personal growth, leadership development, and community engagement.
In response to these changes, universities increasingly use branding to focus on the student experience.
They highlight their student-centered cultures, commitment to diversity and inclusion, and opportunities for experiential learning.
They also use branding to communicate their unique selling points, such as their location, academic strengths, or extracurricular offerings.
Four ways rebranding universities has changed
Here are some specific examples of how the rebranding of universities has changed in the last five years:
The use of data-driven decision-making
Universities increasingly use data to inform their branding strategies. They track the online behavior of prospective students, analyze social media trends, and survey current students to get feedback on their experiences.
This data helps universities to identify their target audiences, develop compelling messaging, and measure the impact of their branding efforts.
The focus on experiential learning
Universities increasingly highlight their opportunities for experiential learning.
They offer internships, study abroad programs, and service learning opportunities that give students hands-on experience in their fields of study.
This focus on experiential learning helps universities attract students looking for more than just a traditional academic experience.
The use of storytelling
Universities increasingly use storytelling to connect with prospective students. They share stories about their students, faculty, and alums.
These stories help to humanize the university and make it more relatable to prospective students.
The use of visual branding
Universities increasingly use visual branding to communicate their unique identities. They create memorable logos, develop distinctive color palettes, and use high-quality photography and video to create a strong visual presence.
The rebranding of universities is constantly evolving. As the higher education landscape changes, universities must adapt their branding strategies to stay ahead.
Universities can create strong brands to attract top students by focusing on the student experience, using data-driven decision-making, and telling compelling stories.
In addition to the changes mentioned above, a few other trends are worth noting. One trend is the increasing use of technology in branding.
Universities are using technology to create interactive experiences, deliver personalized messages, and track the effectiveness of their branding efforts.
Another trend is the growing importance of social responsibility. Universities are increasingly using their brands to promote social good and positively impact the world.
The branding of universities is an essential part of the competitive landscape in higher education.
By effectively branding themselves, universities can attract top students, build strong reputations, and achieve their strategic goals.
Rebranding universities. It’s a bad time to be young.
All the messages seem the same. It sucks to be at a college or university— although that is partly their fault. Instead of rebranding so they are emotionally intensive with students, universities claim the same crap.
They all market the same messaging and leave the “brand” up to their sports teams. (Read a new article on how the declining population will affect universities and their rebranding)
They don’t provide the “why” that would give meaning and add value to those mundane benefits. Hard to call it university rebranding when it all turns out the same.
It’s time to peel back the layer for real this time. (Read an article on rebranding colleges here.)
Brand identification with sports teams only works for the largest universities that appear on ESPN and conference networks.
And, even for those lucky enough to be in a major sports program, leaving your brand meaning up to those unpredictable athletes and coaches is scary.
Smaller university and college sports teams only have a slight chance at meaning to local and regional prospects.
But the large universities have not given much thought; even those who think they have already rebranded their U. Universities wake up and think about what their athletics mean, especially nationally. The University of Kentucky men’s basketball team has a national reputation—a reputation as the home for the “one-and-done” players.
The meaning is, “Is a degree [in higher education] important?” That’s a great university rebranding theme, don’t you think? Not everyone is in the same standing as these pampered athletes. They have access to millions of dollars by jumping ship to the NBA.
Rebranding Universities is a BIG business
Colleges and universities must consider their brand in the business of education. A that includes its sports teams, for better or worse.
Keep in mind that rebranding universities and colleges does not mean changing a just color palette, logo, or mascot.
Those might pass for branding, but they are just tactics. Universities believe they are the most important.
These minor changes certainly live under the umbrella of rebranding universities and must be considered. But rebranding is MUCH more. Colleges and universities need to wake up to real rebranding. The kind that aspects attract more admissions. Ask a few questions. Answer them with a hard truth. Forget for just a minute all the garbage.
What makes attending your university more valuable than another?
Who does the student believe they ARE when they choose you? What does that degree mean for the student, and how does it reflect upon the university when that student is in the workforce?
That’s the questions that need answers when deciding to rebrand universities.
It’s not for the weak of heart. Politics will try to hold you back or cloud clarity with marketing jargon. It turns out that is your advantage. That is if you are willing to tell the truth.
Sorry Kentucky (but you are not alone)
Why will a student take out exorbitant student loans to attend any university? And how will they ever be able to repay the loans or find a job after graduation? How will a university help the student?
Help them become the emotional self-reflection of who they believe they are (or want to be).
Rebranding Universities means that colleges and universities must understand belief systems. The belief systems that control human behavior. Stop focusing on superficial crap that the colleges talk about.
A lack of focus kills the ability to steal market share from competitors. And you have competitors. The University of Kentucky (we will pick on them again) has a brand of in-and-out—one they need to RUN away from.
It’s the trade-off they made for winning and making millions of dollars. Basketball has brought its own reward (albeit not positive for its brand).
For Kentucky, alumni contributions overshadow any authentic brand. The ramifications of its current focus are negative.
Rebranding Universities is an option. Not a Name Change.
Can rebranding universities build student preference and steal market share? Yes. A few already have.
This is why we are seeing the success of online and adult education. Classes, degrees, and technical and for-profit universities are a trend that’s changing the industry.
You are already finished if you have trouble calling higher education an industry.
Three of the largest enrollments in the nation come from these institutions. The competition is fierce.
Schools with focus and clear messaging are stealing market share.
Everyone must act and build preference by rebranding universities through meaning. Forget all the crappy clichés and marketing BS.
Rebranding Universities. Private and State Schools.
The private and public university systems are this study’s most massive, nuanced part.
Each state supports a public university (and, most times, more than one)—a boatload of private universities, each with a different brand and student agenda. Looking at the market, there is a desperate need for the smart and exact rebranding of universities as a strategy.
A University of Tennessee journalism student recently wrote that she was unhappy with Tennessee’s new brand theme line, “Big Orange, Big Ideas.”
She was unhappy with the massive amount spent on a stupid brand theme. This student begged the university to focus its brands around the student, not the university or its color.
Too right. This student is too right.
The brand of public and private universities should always be built around the students who define themselves in context. Oddly enough, this also resonates with alum.
Who is the student?
But who are these students? What are their hopes and dreams, and what will they become by attending school?
What are the emotional self-reflection that matter? A winner? The smartest person in the room? One who knows what’s essential?
There are lots of emotional positions a university could take. But they don’t.
They settle for something clever if they promote what the university thinks is its prowess.
Some just retell the category benefits of being a university student. Are any of these ideas different? Are any of them better?
Give me a break. Rebranding universities means promoting the emotional aspirations of each student. What the student brings to the university and how the university can enhance those.
The University of Tennessee’s theme is “Big Orange, Big Ideas, ” a typically foolish mission statement.
Tennessee, with this, is celebrating the school’s color first. Why on earth would you EVER do that? Secondly, they wish you to know that the university has “Big Ideas.” Absolute craziness. But think about it. Are they the only ones doing it?
The recent ruling on Affirmative Action
The Supreme Court’s ruling on affirmative action in college admissions will likely impact the brands of colleges and universities significantly.
Increased diversity: Affirmative action has been shown to increase the diversity of college campuses, which can be a major selling point for prospective students. Without affirmative action, some colleges may see a decrease in diversity, which could hurt their brands.
Improved reputation: Colleges committed to diversity and inclusion may see an improvement in their reputations. This could lead to an increase in applications and donations.
Loss of prestige: Some colleges may lose prestige if they are seen as being less committed to diversity. This could lead to a decrease in applications and donations.
Legal challenges: Colleges that continue to use affirmative action may face legal challenges. This could be costly and time-consuming.
The Supreme Court and Affirmative Action
Overall, the impact of the Supreme Court’s ruling on affirmative action on college brands is likely to be mixed.
Some colleges may see positive effects, while others may see adverse effects. It is too early to say what the long-term impact of the ruling will be.
Here are some specific examples of how the ruling on affirmative action could affect the brands of colleges and universities:
Colleges known for their diversity could see an increase in applications and donations.
For example, Harvard University is known for its diversity, and the university will likely see an increase in applications and donations if it can continue using affirmative action.
Colleges seen as less committed to diversity could see a decrease in applications and donations.
For example, Yale University has been criticized for its lack of diversity, and the university may see a decline in applications and donations if it cannot continue using affirmative action.
Colleges that face legal challenges over affirmative action could see their brands damaged. For example, the University of Texas at Austin has been involved in many legal challenges over affirmative action, and the university’s brand may have been damaged.
The impact of the Supreme Court’s ruling on affirmative action on college brands is still uncertain. However, the ruling will have a significant impact on the way that colleges and universities market themselves to prospective students.
But back to our thoughts on BIG ORANGE
So, what Big Orange, Big Ideas say about the student?
Nothing at all.
The message here is all about the school. Big and orange. And, because of that, it has big deals. That makes sense, right? Find out who wrote that line, and we will add their name to our competitor’s links. A badge of shame. Tennessee gives itself a “pat on the back.”
The theme should be about HOW Tennessee’s students have big ideas. I’m not even arguing that it is an important idea. That is another discussion. But the Orange idea cost UT more than $60,000.
The rebranding of universities has gone nuts
Kentucky and Tennessee are no different from all the US’s large public and private universities. They all masturbate. Take, for instance, the television advertisement for Seton Hall University.
Here, we have a standard voice-over against the backdrop of the picturesque Seton Hall setting.
Throw in a nod to the university’s accomplishments and benign action shots of its basketball team (whom the announcer boasts are in the Big East Conference). Folks, we are the standard example of rebranding universities and their advertising.
At least Seton Hall has broken the mold by including a mildly effective, student-centric tagline. “Seton Hall. Where leaders learn.” Its highlighting of New York City does give it some cache. But it is painted by numbers.
Kent State is an example of a rebranding university.
Kent State University proves that tone and attitude matter as much as the message.
It’s more student-oriented. But this advertisement suffers from near disease.
A series of bland statements. It’s a matter of course in rebranding universities because they believe their own crap.
Kent State is branding itself as “anything but typical.” A “top-ranked university” where you can find “an array of programs as diverse as you are.”
These all show the banality of everyday university advertising speak. And essentially, they lack any concrete brand position because it is crappy execution.
If Kent State is “anything but typical,” its campaign should be too.
Any Google or AI, or YouTube search will do.
You can search Google for any state university advertising campaign and will find the same: stupid academic statements against a beautiful university backdrop.
Then hold your breath for the hokey tagline that centers around the university. Not the student. It’s a formula. But the formula makes the poison.
Even worse is the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Here, the students have become unrealistic spokespeople for the university: I ask anyone reading, are these students truly a symbol of the hopes and dreams or the inherent nervousness present in our college-bound students?
Why does so much of rebranding universities fail?
These are some of the reasons why rebranding universities fails miserably. (Check out our rebranding checklist here) The rebranding messages are the same. The visual tone and attitudes and any attempt at reflecting the student are amateurish.
These examples of the university at a “macro” level have an infomercial feel to them. Forced sentiments, unnatural promises, and an overinflated sense of self.
Where is the smiling, clapping audience in the background? Think about it. We are treated to identical tonal approaches and promises in all of these examples.
What student doesn’t say they have ambition? Which school isn’t one with ideas? I thought that’s what universities are.
Get in the Game. University Rebranding
If you are a college that doesn’t, it’s time to get out of the game. Statements like these are as foolish as a Blu-Ray manufacturer selling that its machines have a play button.
Few are positioned against other universities. There’s nothing different or better about them in terms of their brand positions. These are also no defining characteristics of a brand. Instead, these are just the overriding table stakes.
Yet they all claim to be the result of university rebranding. Why have these commercial atrocities become the public and private school advertising standard?
Especially considering that it is a competitive category where so much money is on the line.
The essential argument
The argument that a university’s brand must hinge on the student’s unique qualities and life experiences is all that matters. When these ideas are central, a big preference-building difference takes place.
The University at Texas-El Paso (UTEP) has done something close to right. Replacing the trite and passionless VO focusing on the school’s achievements with a story about children. Children with real hopes and dreams.
While its story focuses on the university’s space program (which could be improved), the imagery, music, and “Dream Big” tagline succeed. These ideas are about the ambitions of the student.
Then UTEP’s role in fulfilling your dreams is implied and nicely done. This pushes this collegiate advertisement into a higher league. You can’t claim the same position as your competitor to steal market share.
That seems to be the problem, doesn’t it? Each represents a jellybean of the same color.
Why would anyone have a preference over any other? Each tastes the same, and each brings the same result.
So, where’s the difference?
Rebranding Universities. Look at for-profit Universities.
For-profit universities currently have the strongest and most profitable place in the “business” of education. This is despite a rash of bad press. And that is most certainly what these institutions are—a business.
Using aggressive advertising tactics and a well-skilled sales force, they work. Currently, they have a stronghold on the federal student loan system.
These universities have become known for “recruiting students who don’t understand the debt burden under which they’ll spend their lives”).
Here’s how they work.
For-profit universities employ well-produced mass media (internet, print, billboard, radio, and television ads) to build brand recognition.
Visit Google or YouTube and type in the keyword “university.” Who owns the first option under Google Ads? That’s right, the University of Phoenix — the world’s largest for-profit institution.
At first glance, you don’t realize that these schools lack proper accreditation. It’s a major downfall for these universities. PBS, in its documentary College Inc., said these schools also lack the depth of degree requisites.
They lack all that adequately prepare students for the workforce. For-profits strike a chord with low-income, potential students seeking a degree to change their life circumstances.
University of Phoenix
A potential student follows Phoenix’s Google Ad. First, you click on the link and are brought to a somewhat vague website for the university (but it has been created tactically to get you to sign up as quickly as possible.)
Here’s what the site’s intro page says: The brand of the University of Phoenix brand is hinted from the name (rising after being left for dead).
It is a good brand, and the site itself has been developed tactically. How? Because you are forced to click further and become involved. You are entangled as a user and potential customer (even if you are just curious).
You must follow the “Learn More” link to get anywhere on the site. And it could prompt some anger, but clicking on it prompts the visitor through questions like, “What’s your degree interest?” “What’s your level of education?” as well as location.
Then you are brought to a form letter that looks like this: Any user coming to this form can either exit immediately or complete the form.
But many finish it hoping they can find the answer to their questions about the University of Phoenix.
The University of Phoenix has a catch
Here is the hook. Completing this form gives Phoenix a telephone number, which allows the sales force to call you.
Whenever they want. Phoenix now also knows your educational interests and experiences.
This allows their salespeople to pull on your heartstrings on the phone.
As was reported by PBS, the sales force of for-profit universities is a tireless, focused, and driven group.
They call incessantly. They make educational and career promises. This reels in many financially struggling adults.
Their goal? For you to believe that their university is the answer to your prayers. (Rising like a phoenix?) What about federal student loans?
These degrees cost more than in-state tuition at a university. For example, undergrad programs are currently $550/credit + $90/course tech fee. Each course is 3-4 credits; you will need approximately 120 credits to graduate.
Adding this up, this will cost you roughly $70,000.
These costs do not reflect additional expenses like books and graduation fees. Surprise! But it works for them.
These schools (while only accounting for 10% of the nation’s total college student population) account for 25% of federal student aid. And they make up nearly half of all student loan defaults.
What is a college degree genuinely worth? Is a low-income individual in a better financial position before attending a for-profit? Or are a degree, debt, and the possibility of no job worse?
For-profits are betting on the latter. Even if you disagree with the process, for-profits are a big business.
And they have recognized their difference better than any other collegiate system in the market. Take, for example, these television campaigns.
The first is for the market leader, The University of Phoenix. In this spot, a successful professional in police attire proclaims, “I am a Phoenix,” and is part of a more extensive campaign. Another spot focuses on another adult who has earned her doctorate through Phoenix.
She tells us what it feels like to graduate from an institution of higher education, and it is hard to avoid that sense of joy as a viewer: Without pulling any punches, these commercials are heads and tails better than those produced by the major state and private universities.
These commercials are evocative, personal, and inspiring. Who, after watching, wouldn’t also want to be a “Phoenix”?
They are the most emotional ones in the market. Maybe they are better because they realize they are a business. And they act like it. It’s one of the reasons why Phoenix has the largest enrollment in the nation. They have more than 300,000 students enrolled annually. How about Walden University?
It is another massively successful for-profit. The following commercial is also student-centric and hinges on the “higher purposes” of the attendees at Walden. Equally as good is the next advertisement for Kaplan University:
What makes a campaign good?
They are great examples of universities rebranding for better positions. There are two points about this for profits. The brand messages are generally directed at the older student. Much more so than private or public universities. The focus is more on their aspirational results rather than the college experience.
Their production values are much better than those of non-profits. That makes a difference like other industries. Battling with lower production values is a losing strategy. It contributes to an unprofessional brand. It becomes the message context. (Credit unions in the face of the banking industry are a prime example.)
It’s no wonder the rate of for-profit students is increasing.
For those attending for-profit colleges, the real promise does not translate to jobs in the real world. Education Week shared, “Although the for-profit schools have greater success at retaining students in their first year and getting them to complete short programs at the certificate and AA levels.
Students were not as successful in the employment arena.
When compared with similar students at other types of schools, the research found.”
“Graduates of for-profit colleges had earnings from work that were on average $1,800 to $2,000 less than their counterparts at other schools.
This study notes the gap was likely linked to lower rates of employment.
Students with training from for-profits were 4.8 percentage points to 6.7 percentage points more likely to be unemployed than those who attended other types of institutions.” Ultimately, the impact of for-profit universities is big.
But that brand does not guarantee you a better future.
Technical and Community Colleges
The brand strategy of technical and community colleges are similar. And they need to be included in any rebranding university study (despite not technically being a university).
The US Department of Education met to develop a new post-secondary-graduation action plan.
The Washington Post reported, “The plan is sure to be met with enthusiasm by community college leaders across the country.”
“Historically, the chief available measure of an institution’s success was its graduation rate.” Presumably, the higher the rate, the better the institution. Until now, the graduation rate for community colleges has been based on the proportion of first-time, full-time, degree-seeking students.
Those who graduate within three or four years of enrolling.”
The Post adds, “For many reasons, though, this rate has presented an incomplete and distorted picture of community college success.
Most community college students attend part-time, and many transfer from other colleges. These sizable populations have been excluded in traditional graduation rate calculations.”
A billboard campaign has been running in Dallas which admonishes these very issues; it reads:
Not surprisingly, Dallas DCCD is up in arms over the campaign, and understandably so.
This tarnished outlook is the impetus for heightened enthusiasm. These colleges represent two intriguing traits in the education system.
One, they prepare the student for a specific skill set; two, they act as a stepping-stone for students interested in pursuing a four-year university.
Fortunately for these institutions, these specific agendas create an immediately definable difference. But they are not brands. Northeastern Technical College pinpoints the need for a technical college: “NETC was my pathway to an internship…”
The focus here is the student and, secondly, what NETC can do for you to become the success you have always dreamed of being.
However, it describes the category benefit of a technical college. It does have a different model (and also attracts a different kind of student). Hinds Community College is also student-centric. But still fails to explain why it’s essential emotionally.
What if it was about taking an essential position in a place of need? It’s at least the reason why being a caregiver is emotionally necessary to the student.
But it only shows the student in her desired field: In this billboard for Ivy Tech Community College, the primary focus hinges on potential students looking for that “life change.”
Like other billboard and print advertisements, the following commercial for First Coast Technical College (though abysmally produced).
It boasts it’s a ton of specific technical degree options and its affordability (another critical selling point for the community and technical college brand)
But there are problems
The community and technical colleges have only defined themselves by the category, a tiny leap from where universities stand.
The very definition of technical and community colleges is that they offer specific degrees for specific careers. Which means they are defined by the courses they offer.
The next step for the individual community colleges (as an example of rebranding universities) is to uncover why those careers are emotionally important to the student.
The prospective students don’t know what career they would choose. An emotional self-reflection that goes beyond the simple definition of that career would make them covet that school over others.
Community colleges are positioned against other higher education institutions as a category.
But they have yet to reach the point where they attempt to steal market share from each other. Without that, the category has a ceiling in attracting new students.
Rebranding Universities and College Athletics
You can’t have a rebranding university study without discussing athletics and college sports. It is no surprise that collegiate sports mean big money.
Flaunting a successful college sports team can be just the ticket to put a small school in the national spotlight. It helps to generate enrollment.
When George Mason made the Final Four in 2006, its freshmen enrollment increased by 20 percent. Despite our economic hardships, in 2011, USA Today reported this.
“More than $470 million in new money poured into major-college athletics programs last year.
Boosting spending on sports even as many of the parent universities struggled with budget reductions during tough economic times.”
Love it or hate it, this ongoing flood of money continues to spew into university athletic programs.
It is a direct extension of what can be seen through advertising. Boston College’s football program rivals the production value of the preview of Avatar or Gladiator.
Anthem-like music, football superstars, and a ruckus crowd to boot.
Any potential student would salivate to be a part of this energetic scene even if the ad is targeted at ticket holders. It can be part of universities’ rebranding strategies.
You can’t find much if you search the internet for a commercial focusing on the college itself. But you can find the outreach to ticket holders to Boston College’s athletic teams. It tells you something, doesn’t it?
Outside of school advertising, ESPN, CBS, and other sporting networks generate school awareness on their own. Advertising features many universities (those with a good team).
Like the example entitled “Dancing Coaches” by ESPN: Or their University of Alabama “Roll Tide” advertisement: The difference in quality these athletic commercials possess over the standard rebranding universities advertisement is easy to see.
Teams can quickly help to reinforce a rebranding effort. The enthusiasm and focus of a coach and their players can go a long way when defining a brand, even if the ads are attracting viewers.
College athletics are powerful in attracting students as they speak to the experience of attending and how students define themselves.
But it may be because nothing else of consequence is invested in.
Rebranding Universities. Conclusion
Higher education has many nuanced facets: state and private colleges, technical and community colleges, and for-profit universities.
There is NO single market leader when it comes to rebranding in education.
The for-profit institutions’ strongest positions are because of their model, not their brands.
There is an opportunity for rebranding. Schools must acknowledge their reason for existing. The student is royalty (the alum is also related to the royal family). What matters is the future they can claim.
Universities rebranding is done well, as seen in the television commercial for UTEP; a university is where “big dreams” can become a reality. But done poorly, they are simply an infomercial.
This Rebranding Universities Study shows that colleges and universities must also find the highest emotional intensity that makes students move.
Some universities speak to who you are as a student of that university on an emotional level.
The messages are the same as those taken by competitors.
The Highest Emotional intensity
Universities must find the highest emotional intensity that makes students crave them. Still, few universities speak to who you are as a student of that university on an emotional level beyond messages taken by competitors.
The major problem universities are having in rebranding themselves is they rarely present anything other than a category benefit.
Even UTEP’s “big dreams” have an expected quality. It’s not positioned against anything else, so it does not offer a valid choice. Few, if any, have answered why those benefits are essential to the prospective student.
The ones who uncover that and aggressively market it will see their enrollment increase. To hear more about the brands of higher institutions and how we can help rebrand yours, please contact us.