January 24

Your Next Higher Ed Branding Campaign: 4 Tips to Nail It


If there’s anything that can trigger a cold sweat in higher ed marketers, it’s the high-pressure, high-reward branding campaign

Your brand speaks to the core of your institutional identity. That’s nothing to take lightly.

Here’s how Jerry McLaughlin, CEO of Branders.com, put it a decade ago:

“Put simply, your ‘brand’ is what your prospect thinks of when he or she hears your brand name.  It’s everything the public thinks it knows about your name brand offering … Your brand name exists objectively; people can see it. It’s fixed. But your brand exists only in someone’s mind.”

In other words, your brand is your identity as it’s really perceived. 

As far as your prospects and stakeholders are concerned, it’s who you are.

Branding Campaigns are Built to Last

What that means is that a true brand or branding campaign is about more than what you say to prospective students and stakeholders over the next 6-12 months or so.

It’s a top-to-bottom, soup-to-nuts identity shift. Maybe even a full-blown rebrand.

Hence, the cold sweats. You know that mining your institution’s identity to find something new there is hard work.

But it’s a lot easier if you get started on the right foot.

4 Branding Campaign Tips 

Successful branding/rebranding requires time, patience, interpersonal skills, and intensive research. 

An institution’s identity can’t be engineered with a new logo. It’s created and shared by hundreds, maybe thousands of stakeholders.

This work should always begin with strategies to tap into the collective consciousness, such as:

  • Surveys to find out what current students and alumni think about the brand. 
  • One-to-one meetings with influential members of the staff and faculty. 
  • Questionnaires to determine why recent applicants chose your school.

As much work as it takes to collect all this data, the next step is often even more challenging. You have to find the message hidden within. Capture it. Package and deliver it.

Here’s how to get started with brand message creation.

1. Start with shared values.

It’s really easy to get stuck thinking about your institution in terms of what you do.

Maybe you have an impressive number of programs, or some really cool student organizations, or you’re strong in STEM courses. All that is great. It’s just not central to who you are.

Your values are the true heart of your brand. Look first and foremost for the values that are alive within your campus community today.

Note: explore the values that are alive today. Restating the values of your founders – as expressed decades, maybe a century-plus ago – may not fully reflect your identity now.

University of Manitoba’s Values Shift

If the University of Manitoba’s rebrand in 2019 teaches us anything, it’s the power of value expression to create an emotional connection.

The school was founded in 1877, a time when building such institutions on native lands brought up few ethical questions among most white Canadians.

Foundational values, including a pioneer spirit, resilience, and burning desire to push forward, didn’t lack relevance in 2019. But they were no longer central to what UM had become.

Their branding campaign sought to communicate their expanded set of values. They include reconciliation, an actively inclusive pioneer spirit, and collective action to advance human rights, global health, and climate change.

As Ruth Shead, coordinator of Indigenous Achievement, put it:

“[The branding campaign] tells a story of where we came from, and it tells a story about where we can go.”

That’s the ticket. Your values are built on the past but push toward the future.

2. Focus on student experience.

A branding campaign isn’t truly about you. It’s about them.

When you’re talking about your institution, even when you’re using “we” phrases, it should always be clear that the student is front and center.

Remember, your brand exists in the minds of your prospects. That means you are the experiences you create.

University of Phoenix and For-Profit Perception

It was 2004, and the University of Phoenix had an image problem. As a for-profit, online school, it was lumped together with black-hat institutions accused of scamming students.

Their brand was in poor shape because it was all about what they offered: online degrees.

They needed to shift the focus toward what the public was missing: the experience they created for students.

University of Phoenix students needed a credible alternative to the traditional college path. They were discovering a vibrant online community, engaging courses, and exciting new careers.

The branding campaign was successful because it captured that story. Instead of answering questions like, “What do you offer?” they went deeper.

They answered the questions, “What can I expect to experience? What can I hope to gain?”

3. Tell the story in a unique, authentic way.

“Oh, is that all?”

I know. This is a big one.

But I can’t stress enough how necessary it is in a branding campaign to express yourself differently from your competitors.

Every higher ed marketer can come up with a list of aspects that make the institution unique.

That’s the easy part.

The hard part is having the courage to say it out loud.

It’s far easier to whitewash your institutional personality. To express it in a bland, generic way that’s so open to interpretation, it’s basically meaningless.

Take these examples of perfectly boring higher ed slogans, courtesy of UK-based creative agency Fabrik:

  • Yes You Can.
  • Your Future Made Easier.
  • Uncommon Wisdom.

Imagine trying to tell a unique, authentic story with one of these slogans as your inspiration. Any school could insert these into a headline. And that’s the problem.

You can’t be all things to all people. The only way to create a sense of affinity with your best-fit prospects is to fully own your authentic brand, to stand boldly in it.

DePauw University’s Bold Brand Promise

The Gold Within branding campaign DePauw launched in 2019 is a wonderful example of what you can accomplish when you stand boldly on your identity.

First off, “Gold Within” is incredibly clever.

The slogan plays off of many things at once:

  1. Gold is the school color.
  2. AU, a combination of letters within the university’s name, is the symbol for gold on the periodic table.
  3. It’s a wink to anyone who gets the reference to the periodic table, saying “STEM students welcome,” without alienating anyone else.

Besides how clever it is, Gold Within checks off the first two boxes above. 

It connects with the school’s core values, finding the “gold” within yourself to achieve your highest potential.

And leaning into stories of collaborative learning and successful alumni, it’s rooted in genuine student experience. As Deedie Dowdle, vice president of communications and marketing explained:

“Individuals’ experiences vary greatly, depending on the times, a student’s classes, professors, peers, housing choice and innumerable other circumstances … But all of our alums share the common experience of a superior education and DePauw’s connectedness, the intangible force that makes them ‘Gold Within.’”

Deedie and her team believed strongly enough in the campaign that they pushed it straight through the pandemic. When a brand is at the core of who you are, it works in rain or shine.

4. Be consistent throughout your branding campaign.

Believe in your brand. Plan to take your branding campaign into every corner of messaging.

The brand should fit comfortably in every department, applicable to every program.

It should show up in every touch point – logo, slogans, website, social media, advertising, etc.

Why? Because it’s only in consistent application that you’ll maximize your ability to build brand recognition, trust, and the perception of value.

Also, it signals to mission-fit students that you’re the right school for them. A full-throated branding campaign will attract your best prospects.

Loma Linda University’s Rallying Cry

In 2020, my team and I worked with LLU to help them launch their Heroes Made Here campaign.

This is a healthcare university with eight schools, which traditionally had worked pretty independently of one another. The idea of central marketing itself was a new initiative.

Heroes Made Here was an effort to unite the schools around a single idea: that all healthcare workers – whether in medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, or any other field – are heroes.

And central to LLU’s identity is that it is a place where these humble heroes are made.

Through consistent application on behalf of all schools and programs, we were able to tie a message together for the entire university that reflected who they are.

  • Driven by faith-based values of humble service.
  • Unique in hands-on student experiences in on-campus hospitals and worldwide.
  • Telling great stories about coming together in faith, health, and science to make a difference.

Looking for support in your next branding campaign?

Just reach out. 

I’d love to hear about your school, your goals, and your challenges. 

Then, if you’re willing, let’s work collaboratively to get to the heart of your learning community’s identity.

Let’s show the world what you’re really made of.

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