University Branding Strategy

University Branding: How to Tell a Story Prospective Students Want to Hear

University Branding Strategy

What is your university’s brand? Where do you find it? Is it in the bucolic campus quad? Its storied past? The dean’s office? The alumni newsletter? The mix of degree programs or reputation of its professors? The excellent research opportunities for post-grads? The football team?

The short answer is yes. And no.

A university brand encompasses every aspect of what makes it great. But telling a persuasive story is the art of clarity, precision, and understanding your hero’s journey. 

For each element that comes together to make a college or university great there are motivated, passionate women and men behind it, each with their own idea of what is most important, all vying for the attention of our hero - the right student.

In order to build our story we need to get out of our silos. If your brand is everywhere, it’s nowhere.

University branding is a whole greater than its parts. It feels like a daunting task. But all the elements are there. You’ve done much of the hard work. It is on that hard work that we build a brand.

How to Market to College Students - The Art of Sacrifice

Branding, Chris Perkins of Bernstein-Rein told Sextant in a recent interview, is “knowing your ‘why’ and ‘who would care?’” It means know your True North, who you truly are and why you do what you do.

Put another way, a successful brand understands and articulates its mission, it knows who that mission serves, and how to tell a story that is compelling for those people. A good brand brings it all together.

The challenge here is precision. There is a natural tendency to try to “boil the ocean,” Perkins says. It’s not so much about finding any student, but the right student.

After all, our story and our brand is exclusive. There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to university branding, though Perkins sees ad agencies and marketing firms try.

“Positioning is the art of sacrifice,” says Perkins. “A position done well automatically disqualifies the right people for the right reasons.” It requires precision. This, he explains, is why Bernstein-Rein is a key partner of Sextant Marketing.

Sacrifice is hard. When done for the right reasons, it leads to clarity. At its best, a clear message is a simple message.

University Branding Strategy - A Holistic Approach

Articulating a brand that resonates is no simple task. According to Greg Ash, president of the advertising firm Heavy Studios, one of the “pitfalls that often come” up is integrating the many components that make up a great college or university into a single, compelling message.

Everyone has the same goal in mind - elevating the brand of the university, furthering its mission, but there are many perspectives to consider. What constitutes “brand” in the mind of one department may not necessarily resonate the same in another.

“When colleges and universities use the term brand, it can mean a lot of different things,” says Ash. “It can mean something as targeted as an admissions campaign trying to recruit the next class or it could mean raising money... focused on giving initiative. Maybe it's about reputation, development, or management. It could be around faculty recruitment.”

It is a challenge, but managed strategically, all these various perspectives come together, like a well-diversified portfolio, into a brand “holistic enough to consider all those audiences and applications,” Ash says.

With a sound strategy of collaboration, precision, and focus, we have our ‘why.’ Now it’s time to tell our story.

Create a Conversation with Your Audience

According to the New Oxford American dictionary, a conversation is “a talk, especially an informal one, between two or more people, in which news and ideas are exchanged.” It’s a connection.

It may seem like oversimplification but connecting with your audience is really just a conversation. Asking a lot of questions and listening. Mostly listening.

“It’s not rocket science,” says Greg Ash. “It's a series of interviews with students, faculty, alumni, donors, the cleaning crew, campus security, folks in the surrounding neighborhood, the football team, the servers at the bar down the street where all the kids hang.”

Inevitably they’ll all say a lot of different things, the professor from the bartender, the cleaning crew from the quarterback. But what you realize is that there are bits and pieces that each has in common. When you boil that down into the four elements shared by all, you have the foundation upon which you can build a unique message.

“You always come back to those four things that you heard across 75 different interviews, Ash says, and with those four things,” you know exactly how to tell your story.”

By listening, you know what to say. Though you won’t say it exactly the same way to each person.

Generational Marketing - Know Your Audience

Traditional college-age students grew up in a different media landscape than their parents or adult students. If the story remains essentially the same, the format for telling it is important for generational marketing.

Technology has lowered the cost of entry for access to advanced story-telling tools. Upper funnel techniques like video campus tours are important methods for extending a school’s outreach, especially in the challenging situations brought by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Whether a video tour or a printed brochure, it’s the story that connects.

“What cool stuff happens in this lab?” says Ash. “What amazing breakthrough was thought of in this classroom? Who sat in these chairs?”

That’s where you find your connection, your conversation, with the people who care.

Your Students Tell Your Story

All these things may help inform the story that makes the brand, but ultimately, the best place to look for a college or university brand is in the students themselves. Find your students where they are and let them tell your story.

University branding is no less a challenge than it ever was. More so now with increased competition and the rise of online education, especially in response to the COVID-19 health crises.

Any good story employs both a top-down and bottom-up perspective. From the top we consider what the story is, why we want to tell it, to whom we will tell it, and why they should care. From the bottom comes how we tell the story and all the elements that comprise the whole.

What the people associated with your brand say about you informs your raison d’être.

Sextant Marketing - Your Partner in Branding Strategy

Sextant Marketing’s vision is of a world where each prospective student selects the right institution to support their best learning experience.

A student’s journey begins with a story, a conversation, and a brand connection. Sextant Marketing is an extension of your brand story.

We are a full-service marketing consultancy and a comprehensive complete enrollment cycle management partner for residential and online programs. Sextant is uniquely positioned to understand and articulate your brand, telling an engaging story that reflects and connects with your ideal student.

Our storytelling framework is built on a diverse set of tools. Used individually or collectively, we create the foundation for a holistic, coordinated, and persuasive brand narrative.

College branding is at once complex and simple. Sextant Marketing understands both. Our mission, our raison d’être, is incorporating the complexities of college branding into a story that connects with your students. One that lasts throughout their journey, from discovery, enrollment, and study, to graduation and whatever lies ahead.