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May 20

Once Upon a Time… Higher Education Branding as Storytelling


Eric Hoover and Beckie Supiano wrote a Chronicle of Higher Education article entitled “In Admissions, Old Playbook is Being Revised.” The article was a good discussion on the pros and cons of traditional strategies of enrollment marketing: increasing the size of the applicant pool; expanding recruitment to far-flung states; discounting more heavily. The last element of discussion that I found particularly interesting was to better articulate the college’s brand.

While it seems simple and obvious, the more colleges and universities that I meet with are unable to do so. Even the senior leadership is often at a loss to articulately communicate the brand’s benefits and unique selling points.

In the article, Hoover and Supiano make a case that the downside of articulating the college’s brand is that “if the brand is not compelling, not enough students will enroll.” While that statement seems to be true, I think a better way to state it would be “if the [information you are presenting as the brand] is not compelling enough…”

Every institution has a story to tell. Every institution has elements that are compelling. Those elements just need to be articulated.

The Process of Higher Education Branding is Not the Same as Developing a Logo

A logo is a product of a brand, much like your wardrobe is a product of your personality. Your suit does not define you anymore than a logo defines a brand. It complements and helps someone understand who you are.

In the same way, higher education branding is not simply giving your printed and digital collateral a look and feel that is consistent with your logo.  Branding goes much deeper, seeking to communicate your school’s distinctive qualities (its brand) using every medium available.  Everything about your print and digital collateral, from design to messaging to your website navigation, should be part of telling your story effectively.

Understanding the Heart

As I sit down with new higher education clients, I often begin by asking about the institution’s distinctives. Many times I am disappointed by what I hear; not because it’s not a great institution with great people, but because those in the room representing the school don’t seem to know how to articulate what makes the institution unique.

I find that I hear the same “distinctives” from many institutions.  If the five institutions down the road from you cite the same differentiators, are they really differentiators?  Rest assured; your institution IS unique and can stand out from the crowd if you learn to tell your story in a compelling way.

Perception vs. Reality

Another challenge I frequently encounter is that of helping institutions face reality in their higher education branding.  What colleges and universities think makes them unique can be quite different from what attracted students there in the first place. Understanding how your audience perceives you, including what attracted current students to matriculate, is a critical part of telling an authentic and compelling story.

Storytelling Tools

We’ve already mentioned some of the storytelling tools that every institution can use, including digital media and print. Within those broad categories, however, lies a rich well of tools like rich media (e.g., infographics, video and 360 photography); social media; inbound marketing and more.  Even your elevator speech is an important part of your story.  Using storytelling to drive traffic and increase engagement can yield greater enrollment results… and produce a very happy ending.

For more tips and marketing solutions, feel free to contact us today! 

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