Brand Differentiation in Higher Education: 3 Crucial Steps

Posted on August 03, 2018

I love working with our college and university partners in helping them identify and articulate their authentic brand stories. Today’s ultra-competitive higher education landscape has made it more important than ever for institutions to do just that. Our mantra: “Position yourself today, because if you don’t, your competitors will be happy to do it for you.” Indeed, the stakes are high and brand differentiation is critical to your institution’s enrollment health, alumni engagement, academic reputation, funding opportunities, desirability as an employer for talented faculty and staff, and the list goes on.

But brand differentiation isn’t just about having an on-point brand promise and a compelling brand story. While these are critical for any successful brand to stand out and avoid the fate of becoming just another brand clone, your brand is ultimately only as compelling and differentiating as you allow it to be.  So how do you differentiate?

1. Share it

There have been more than a few occasions where I’ve seen colleges and universities invest considerable time and resources in developing a new brand without it ever seeing the light of day. Brand differentiation cannot be achieved without actively sharing the brand. First, get everyone on board internally, building pride and ambassadorship—then share it externally. Create a thoughtful integrated marketing strategy that puts your brand in front of the people you want to know more about your institution, what it stands for, and what you have to offer.

2. Nurture it

Getting your message out there so that your target audiences call, click, and visit is just the beginning. As we all know, success is not measured by clicks alone. A cohesive multi-year segmented nurture strategy is absolutely critical. For prospective students, in particular, how early you begin engaging with them, how you tailor your brand messages based on where they are in the enrollment funnel, and what they most need at that time can differentiate you in a crowded market.

3. Live it

Brand differentiation requires you to actively live it—day in and day out.  Start with a strong set of brand guidelines so everyone on campus is clear about what you stand for and how it should be communicated. Make sure everyone understands your “why”—your institution’s reason for being. Successfully living a brand starts from the top. If your president is repeating your brand message over and over, it will trickle down. A good barometer check? Anyone who visits your campus should feel your brand in action.

Brand differentiation is within your reach. You simply need to own it. Share it. Nurture it. Live it. What kind of investment of time and resources are you willing to make to fuel your brand? To put it in front of the people that matter? To tailor your message to your audience? To bring it to life every day and invite others to experience it? Standing out in a crowded market takes a lot of work, but it’s well worth the effort.

Take a look at our rebranding work for St. John’s University, which resulted in huge gains in enrollment from specific states across the U.S.

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