Stand out. But not too much.

The double standard of higher ed marketing, and how to fight it.

July 28, 2016  

For colleges and universities, competition has never been stiffer for top students and faculty, or for research funding, donor dollars, and reputation. Public universities have a hard time explaining what it means to be “public” in today’s funding-less environment. And liberal arts colleges are still trying to defend the benefits of a multidisciplinary and core-based education to 17-year-olds everywhere.

At every college and university, the marketing department is given a task that seems simple: differentiating its institution from every other college and university. The problem? Most colleges and universities are founded on a nearly identical model—a talented and intelligent faculty; an engaging campus setting; and an array of experiences, traditions, and opportunities, all designed to draw in the best and brightest students.

For decades, despite their many differences, most institutions produced communications that were extremely similar. Brochures filled with clichéd language and expected photos. TV spots featuring the same tired list of images. Content that included many of the same phrases: “Transformational experiences happen here.” “You’ll work alongside top-tier faculty and have access to research opportunities.” “There’s no end to the extracurricular activities.” In many cases, if you obscured the logo, you truly couldn’t tell one college’s collateral from any other’s.

Marketing-wise, higher ed hasn’t exactly been at the forefront of innovation (even though the word crops up often in schools’ communications). For many years, institutions didn’t think of themselves as brands. Until recently, it wasn’t necessary.

That’s all changed.

Today, for a college or university to stand out in the marketplace, it needs to stop fitting in. To improve recruitment, retention, and loyalty, schools must share a unified story, experience, and environment. So colleges and universities are dedicating more staff, more dollars, and more resources to branding and marketing than ever before. A decade ago, a chief marketing officer position at a university was unheard of. Today, it’s a sought-after position, often held by qualified professionals with years of experience outside of higher ed. And many schools invest significant budgets in external marketing professionals to help them create strong institutional brands.

So now what? In an arms race (that moves at a snail’s pace), we see colleges and universities clamoring to define and illustrate what makes them different, and do it in a different way than everyone else.

“We want to be bold!” is a frequent demand. At Ologie, we’ve learned that bold means different things to different institutions. We’ve also learned that when clients say they want something bold, they don’t always have the guts or leadership support to pull the trigger on making it real. (Our cutting-room floor speaks volumes.)

And what happens when an institution truly does something different? They often are berated for stepping out of the norm and away from cherished traditions. And what happens when they stick to the norm, even when authentic? They are called out for their striking similarities to other insitutions.

So. Let’s level set.
How can a school stand out, even if it’s afraid to commit to really, really standing out?

1. Let one piece of the story rise to the top.

When you include all your messages in the hopes of saying “something for everyone,” you only dilute the bigger story. You need a hook to draw audiences in, where you can then deliver messages at a digestible, customizable pace.

2. Have a sharper understanding of how audiences consume your information.

Printed materials like viewbooks are no longer read from cover to cover. So why are they still written that way? Web experiences are still designed to give equal weight to every academic unit, rather than engaging each distinct audience and getting them directly to the right information. And today’s prospective college students don’t tend to use terms like curriculum, rigorous academics, and admissions, yet they’re in heavy rotation throughout communications.

3. Be disruptive.

As the digital and cultural landscape continues to evolve, brands have to grow along with it. This is especially relevant in higher education, where change tends to happen at a slower pace. Try borrowing from practices outside the industry, when bold executions from retail, health care, and even financial services can shake up your communications.

4. Timing is everything.

Brands don’t happen overnight. You have to plan carefully, creating and rolling them out on a deliberate timeline. Recruitment schedules, upcoming advancement campaigns, milestone anniversaries, campus enhancements, and sub-brands such as athletics—take all of them into consideration.

5. Be consistent.

Everyone must be speaking the same brand language, across all departments and across the institution. By monitoring and gently correcting lapses along the way, you’ll improve consistency, which leads to awareness, which leads to loyalty.

6. Back it up.

A strong brand isn’t just great graphics and a few catchy headlines. Support your brand messages with facts, specific stories, and hard evidence. It’s important to remember that while your story won’t lead with facts and stories (it should lead with a point of view), they should serve a supporting role.

7. Measure. Then measure again.

Up-front research defines the benchmark you’re trying to reach. So define success metrics from day one, and then put the analytics in place to check on them throughout the process and well beyond.

8. Invest.

Invest in people, ideas, media, and experiences. Pay for a great, original photo shoot. Buy the fonts. Make the custom music. Make the hire for a strong designer. Collectively, these elements will differentiate you. When you make the investment, it shows. When you don’t, it shows as well.

9. Have some guts.

It pays off. We promise.