Higher Ed Branding: 3 Tips to Bolster Your Institution’s Messaging

Jump into a new academic year with optimized college or university messaging that addresses evolving student needs and expectations. 

There was a time when all it took for a college or university to attract students was the promise of a good education. That time, however, has passed. Today, with enrollment on the decline and students questioning the value of a college degree, higher education branding is critical for institutions trying to gain a competitive foothold. Colleges and universities are not only vying for a shrinking pool of students, but they’re doing so against a growing number of competitors, as online universities and certificate programs grow in popularity. In response, many institutions have already revamped their brand to bolster enrollments — and with good reason: Fewer Americans, especially those ages 18–29, believe a college education is worth the cost 

At the same time, the state of higher education branding seems to be in flux. One of the college and university trends we’re seeing is highlighting practicality over prestige in brand identities. It makes sense: As student needs and expectations change, articulating the tangible benefits of a college education — including a clear connection to meaningful careers — is a smart and necessary pivot. Yet it can also seem like a daunting (and even risky) undertaking.  

Realigning your institution’s messaging, however, doesn’t require a complete branding overhaul. Rather, higher education branding is an iterative process that calls for regular tweaks and maintenance. Here’s how to make sure your institution’s brand meets students where they are and, ideally, brings them to your doorstep. 

1. Higher Education Branding Is a Process: Establish a Cycle of Creating, Testing, and Adjusting

Higher education branding has often been regarded as an expensive and long-term endeavor undertaken perhaps every three to five years. It’s often heavily focused on building name recognition through visual elements such as colors and logos, and frequently emphasizes points of pride and prestige. But in today’s competitive marketplace, it takes more than pretty designs, snappy taglines, and bravado to convince students that your institution can secure them the future they want.  

Students and their families expect greater assurance that their investment in your college or university will pay off. And because we live in web-first times, their first perception of your brand is most likely to begin with virtual experiences, including your website, social media, email communications, online interactions with staff or alumni, and digital word of mouth. Potential students have many opportunities to experience your implicit and explicit messaging before they ever decide to apply or set foot on campus. They pay close attention to how you make them feel and how well you speak to their needs.  

The strength of your brand rests on whether it speaks to students’ needs — and their needs are rapidly and constantly evolving. That means that your brand must evolve at a similar pace. It can’t be static: Your brand is being continuously co-created with students from the moment they first interact with your institution. So, where to begin?  

2. Don’t Start Your Higher Education Branding Initiative with Costly Logo or Tagline Redesigns

Instead, routinely reexamine your brand’s value proposition to ensure it clearly and compellingly marries your institution’s exceptional qualities with your target audiences’ top concerns. As you engage in this process, revisit the following three questions with leadership and key stakeholders to maintain internal clarity and consensus: 

  1. What does our institution want to be known for?  
    • Review your mission, vision, and values, and name your institution’s core strengths. Look for the “mountain peaks” where you stand tall above your peers. 
  2. What are our target students looking for in a college education?  
    • Regularly collect and review a variety of internal and external data, including surveys, focus groups, in-depth interviews, online polls. 
  3. How do we match up those ideas and express them as a coherent concept?  
    • Look for ways to tighten your brand identity platform, including messaging pillars, attributes, and positioning statement. 
 Hear the latest branding advice and experiences from higher ed leaders at our webinar, Building a Cohesive Brand Identity Across the University.  

Create Messaging That Pinpoints the Value and Tangible Outcomes of a College Education

In the past, touting a new campus facility or amenity might have been enough to capture the interest of potential students. But the pandemic has fractured the traditional student experience. Many prospective students don’t know what to expect from their college experience anymore. Some have lower confidence they’ll be successful academically or financially in college. More than ever, students want a clear picture of what they’ll get out of their education. Follow these tips to ensure you provide that and to reinvigorate your institutions’ brand in your student communications and other messaging: 

  • Stay on brand. Ensure that your institution’s implicit and explicit messaging consistently aligns with your brand. 
  • Highlight what matters to students. Amplify succinct outcomes data, relatable student testimonials, and specific tangible benefits in your branded materials. 
  • Clearly communicate opportunities for personal support and social connection. Tell prospective and admitted students what types of support, services, and social experiences they can expect at your institution. Don’t assume they know what’s available to them. 
Get more students in the door by building stronger partnerships across multiple campus departments. Check out our report, Drive Enrollment with Cross-Departmental Collaboration 

Your Higher Education Branding Should Showcase Your Supportive First-Year Experiences

When the pandemic upended the traditional college experience, many students were left feeling less certain about their preparedness and their ability to persist through the academic rigors of college. According to our 2022 national survey of admitted students, only about half of admitted students feel very or extremely prepared for their chosen academic program, with discipline/self-motivation and study skills listed as their top concerns. 

While much of higher ed marketing is designed to foster brand awareness or tout specific programs, more institutions are attempting to pique interest by advertising success services and financial assistance. Here are a few tips to help you follow suit: 

  • Showcase the support and services you have in place for first-year students. Reassure prospective, admitted, and new students that your institution will support their success through activities such as orientation, tutoring, personalized academic advising, counseling services, student disability accommodations, supportive learning communities, and more.
  • Highlight opportunities for students to participate in engaged learning experiences. That could include internships, apprenticeships, community work, work-study jobs, and career networking opportunities.
  • Don’t shy away from tuition talk. Price sensitivity is at an all-time high. Rather than bury tuition information, show how your institution guides students through the financial aid process. Break down the true cost of attendance into meaningful measurements. Use plain language to explain financial concepts. And present examples of other students who found multiple ways to make college affordable. 
Learn more about what today’s admitted students look for when selecting which institution to attend. Download our report on the 2022 National Admitted Student Survey 

In the 2022–23 academic year and year three of the pandemic viewing your branding and messaging as an iterative, interactive process will go a long way toward building stronger connections and engagement with prospective and current students. Tracking their current needs and expectations and finding creative ways to reflect your institution’s commitment to meeting them is a golden opportunity. 

— Emily Kelleher, MA, Research Advisor, Higher Education, Hanover Research 

Read additional insights from this year’s top trends for more ideas to refresh your institution’s 2022–2023 plans. Download the Higher Education Trends to Watch in 2022–23 infographic. 

Author Information

Research Advisor
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Education: MA., Economics and Education Policy, Columbia University; BS, Mathematics and Economics, Wofford College
Areas of Expertise: Quantitative methodologies, program evaluation, survey research methodologies, specialized accreditation, advancement research, professional education, data analytics, academic development and portfolio optimization

Emily’s background is in economics and education policy, having conducted research on the effect of charter schools, school vouchers, and low-income student access to higher education. She also consulted and provided data analysis for the New York City public school system. As a research advisor at Hanover, she leverages her previous research expertise and data analytics skills to partner with institutions across the higher education landscape to better understand their goals and priorities, and design research methodologies accordingly. She is passionate about utilizing research to create a more equitable education system and increase the workforce opportunities for all.

“Making an impact within education has always been my dream, and as research advisor I get to do just that. Brainstorming and collaborating with institutions to decide how best to act and ensure they have the data needed to make those impacts has been a fulfilling experience.”
Optimize your higher education branding with messaging that reflects evolving student needs and expectations.

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