Colleges are brands, too.

January 20, 2014

I’m feelin’ ya.

My 11th grader has begun the process of choosing his finalists.  I attended a college fair with him a few months ago.  Everyone who was anyone was there.  It was a sea of booths and I felt lucky to be wearing flat shoes that day.  While we walked the endless aisles (and as a brand expert), I couldn’t help but notice who had the best looking displays, who had the most staff, who had the latest gadgets to collect our data.  I found myself collecting more marketing material than my son.

In each case, when we stopped to chat with the representatives, they said the same things…the programs they were noted for AND what made them special.  I guess they meant their “differentiators”.

Obviously, it was a blur that day, so I only half listened.  Upon returning home and dumping out more literature than a pillowcase full of Halloween candy, I took notice.  Some were clearly more “visually” impressive, some really, really sad.

Just recently, we’ve been getting some follow up.  Not all of them do it, of course, and not everyone that does, does it well, but each is trying to stay top of mind with their potential students.  Remember…it takes at least 6 touch points to make an impression…blah, blah, blah.

Which clan will students align with?

There are nearly 4,000 colleges and universities in the US and as we continue to narrow the contenders in our household, I began to wonder…how many colleges spend time on their brand to lure their student body?

Institutions of higher education have a huge stake in the quality and type of students they attract.  Doing so is critical in their success.  It will attract the best faculty, the most talented student body, etc.

In researching this blog, I’ve read article after article about how colleges are hopping on the branding bandwagon.  They want to stay in business and they’re turning to branding as one of the strategies in doing so.

Historically, college brands have taken decades or even centuries to develop.  Not anymore.

No surprise…

There are two branding objectives colleges should consider – attract the necessary quantity and quality of students and build an identity that transcends the campus.  What are some examples?  Well, one I’ve personally experienced with my son came last week from Duke University.  They sent a highly designed, oversized, two-sided postcard that did two things:

1.  Identified 5 unique differentiators

  • Their academics – over 200 programs available
  • The campus – claiming their spaces move education far beyond the theoretical
  • DukeEngage – their volunteering opportunities world-wide
  • Their Start-Up Challenge – a competition for up to $50,000 in business start up funding
  • Duke Audience – touting the Blue Devil athletics and the over 3 million in viewership

2.  A personalized website

Yep, you heard me correctly.  My son has his own landing page.  How special do you think he feels right now?  Guess what his #2 choice is behind Stanford right now? Yep…Duke U.  Why?  Because they went out of their way (or so it appears) to make him feel special.  Good form!

Differentiate or die a slow death.

We’ve all heard it before.  The BIG question…what’s YOUR differentiator?  Well, colleges are no exception.  They need to find theirs and fervently communicate those differences.  Many have messaging that is interchangeable with hundreds of other schools.  That’s not going to work, people.  And once they define the differences, they need to live them.  That means from the top down.  They don’t need fancy wordsmithing or mesmerizing logos; they need passion and sincerity and have it resonate through every touch point and student experience.

Go Duke!