How to Win at Recruiting with a More United University Brand

A strong, central brand is essential for the ongoing success of your higher ed institution. But sustaining proper brand positioning is a common struggle across the higher education landscape.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a small, private liberal arts college or a behemoth, flagship state university. Keeping a handle on the way your brand appears and appeals to prospective students is an everyday concern — and one with outsized business implications.

Universities are complex organizations. Speaking with one voice does not come naturally to any complicated entity with a multitude of stakeholders and decision makers. Ensuring that all marketing and communications assets at all branches, campuses and levels of the university stay true to the attributes, values, tone and voice of your brand is a tough task for higher ed marketing departments.

A compelling and consistent recruiting experience is difficult to produce in an environment dominated by competing priorities and inconsistent narratives. But solving the brand positioning problem is essential to remaining competitive in an increasingly cutthroat recruiting environment.

Why is Controlling Your School’s Brand Such a Big Deal?

For one, the higher education sector is universally preparing for an anticipated drop in overall enrollment. On top of that, today’s prospective students and parents are increasingly savvy consumers. You’re not just trying to win over a potentially smaller pool of prospects. You’re also speaking to an audience that’s more knowledgeable about their choices and holds more robust expectations.

In this more competitive marketplace, you have to be especially effective at delivering your message. To stand above your competitors, you need to present a unified vision of your school with a simple, consistent narrative told by a singular, relatable voice.

To compete for tomorrow’s students and meet tomorrow’s enrollment goals, you need a polished and sophisticated marketing approach. A thoughtful, consistent, well-defined brand needs to be at the heart of all your marketing and recruitment efforts.

For that, you need to establish a brand hierarchy, enforce brand discipline and foster brand stewardship.

How Higher Ed Brand Management Should Work

Your university brand should be clearly defined and thoroughly documented in a comprehensive brand book, which should include the following elements:

  • Brand name
  • Mission and vision of the brand
  • Brand story
  • Brand language and communication style
  • Logo and other visual elements
  • Brand color scheme
  • Brand fonts, sizes and style variations

The brand book should also establish a brand hierarchy, which governs how various assets (trademarked logos, copyrighted language, color schemes, design and web page templates, etc.) are applied and in what specific circumstances. Each level of the organization needs to be differentiated with dedicated assets that reflect the overarching brand and fit in stylistically with other brand sub-levels.

Your brand hierarchy needs to provide context for the myriad of possible experiences on your campus. When prospective students check out the art history major on your school’s website, they should be viewing a page template that is subtly but noticeably different from the Department of History landing page they visited prior. It should also differ from the College of Liberal Arts landing page on which they kicked off their exploration of history majors.

This is brand hierarchy and brand discipline in action. From the user’s perspective, the proper (disciplined) use of differentiated templates helps to orient their journey through the various levels of the website. It also helps to communicate the relationship between the sub-brands.

How to Craft a Solid School Brand

The best way to create a united brand is with a top-down brand management approach. This means establishing and promoting the top tier of your brand first and foremost. Then, you can leverage the strength of the overall brand to lift up the smaller, dependent sub-brands.
This orderly, structured approach allows you to showcase your school’s depth and breadth while at the same time presenting a unified experience across departments. It also gives your brand the opportunity to build clout and increase its reach over time. A consistent brand helps you to deliver stronger messaging, a more complete visual identity and a broader scope of storytelling.

Ideally, your cohesive brand concept should be universally supported by all relevant stakeholders and implemented by a knowledgeable and professional university staff well-versed in marketing principles.

That’s how it’s supposed to work. But it’s not always the way it looks.

What Goes Wrong with Brand Management in Real Life

Unfortunately, marketing competence and know-how aren’t always distributed evenly among university units. In some departments, marketing duties are added to unrelated job functions — as in, “Hey, intern. You’re already updating photos on the website. Why not write and design that new landing page, too?” And other departments might be entirely devoid of dedicated marketing staff altogether.

It’s also true that many institutions of higher learning struggle to apply a business mindset to their operations and recruitment efforts. With academic leaders not always familiar with or interested in marketing principles, marketing efforts and branding guidelines are often treated as trivial.

To top it all off, higher ed marketing teams often struggle to secure the resources they need. A more competitive recruiting environment has created more demand for marketing services. Yet, more resources have not always followed the increase in need. At some schools, marketing teams still operate without access to key communication systems and platforms. This means the marketing staff may not always have say over messaging aimed at prospective students.

All of these factors make it difficult for schools to implement a cohesive branding strategy. Your school’s marketing department can develop the most outstanding marketing tools, materials and branding assets. But if no one understands marketing strategy and takes the time to execute branding initiatives as intended, those assets are unlikely to be deployed appropriately — or have the intended effect.

The Marketing Silo

These difficulties are reflected in the most prevalent approach to marketing on college campuses — the siloed, go-it-alone method. In this scenario, unit leaders are largely unconnected to marketing expertise and often unaware of broader university marketing objectives. As a result, they deploy their marketing resources for the sole benefit of their department. Or, they might allocate those resources to pet projects or academic programs that may not need the extra help.

These narrowly focused marketing efforts aren’t aligned with a larger university marketing strategy or tied in with interdepartmental initiatives. Worse, these efforts may actually compete against the parent brand and the sibling sub-brands.

Inconsistent messaging leads to inconsistent branding, which translates to a confusing and disconnected experience for any student trying to get to know your school.

How to Orient Toward Proper Brand Positioning

We all know brand management can go bad. So how do you get it back on track? Brand hierarchy tells us to start at the very top.

Brand Stewardship Starts with University Leaders

To implement a better, more comprehensive brand strategy, you’ll first need to convince key decision makers that the exercise is worth the effort. The best way to do that is by arming yourself with data. If better branding can help the school target prospects more effectively, you need to find a way to tell that story with numbers.

This is important, because you can’t execute a university-wide initiative without considerable buy-in from all the important stakeholders. You need your school president to speak with the brand voice to outside audiences. You need your admissions staff preaching the brand attributes to your prospective students. And you need your academic unit heads adhering to the brand hierarchy in all their departmental communication efforts.

But for any of that to happen, you’ll need to inspire this same group of accomplished and strong-willed individuals to abandon their silos and unify around a common set of guidelines. One way to foster this more collaborative approach is by elucidating how a stronger central brand can help solve their specific marketing challenges.

Brand Training for Everyone

After you get stakeholder buy-in, you need to make sure everyone understands how this new brand management approach is going to work in their own units. It may also be helpful to re-familiarize stakeholders with the important elements of the brand. Department leaders will need to know what specific branding resources they should use and how to access them.
This is also a good opportunity to relay or refresh a few general marketing principles to help with implementation. For example, you might explain why a department’s top-performing, overbooked academic major probably doesn’t need any additional marketing dollars if there are no more available seats in the program.

This branding orientation should not be reserved just for the stakeholders and decision-makers. It should be made available to all university employees, and especially staff with marketing and communications functions. In fact, all new marketing and communications hires should be required to complete the training when they start.

More Internal Marketing Help

Your marketing tools are only as good as the people who use them. If your school lacks enough staff with sufficient marketing skills, implementing your new brand management strategy isn’t going to be easy. That’s true no matter how good it is. The only way to get around this problem is to advocate for more internal marketing expertise.

Of course, there are things you can do while you wait for reinforcements. For one, you should make the brand book readily accessible to any university staff member. You can also help department leaders communicate the proper branding protocols by creating dedicated resources for each unit (unit-specific templates, logos, brand elements and guidelines). Lastly, you can put guardrails in place or recommend other quality control measures to ensure that correct branding elements are used in departmental marketing efforts.

The Comprehensive Brand Experience

Today’s prospective students expect a seamless, comprehensive experience when researching college education options. If you’re falling short of your enrollment goals, maybe your brand isn’t as strong as it needs to be.

Consider applying a broader, more structured strategy to add muscle to your brand and win at recruiting. Because success in recruitment hinges on how well you can present a clear and united brand — one that tells a story that tomorrow’s students will want to continue to be a part of for years to come.