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Building the University Brand

Written by 2U on Mar 4, 2017

Related content: Higher Education, Branding, Features, University, Marketing

More than 4,700 degree-granting colleges and universities currently compete for prospective students’ attention. Pair that with a steady decline in enrollment numbers, and it’s clear why college presidents are paying more attention to their marketing departments.

But that shift is recent. When Stacey DiLorenzo, former vice president of marketing at Discovery Networks, started working in higher education nearly seven years ago, branding was still an afterthought. “The word ‘marketing,’ we didn’t want to hear it,” says DiLorenzo of her early career in education. “Marketing is not what research, science and education like to embrace.”

Since then, DiLorenzo, who’s now executive director of communications for the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University, has seen less resistance. And for good reason: The landscape is more competitive than ever. Students today aren’t just choosing between two- and four-year schools or between private and public institutions. They’re being marketed to by a growing number of boot camps, massive open online programs and alternative education providers — many of which are promising career advancement at a lower price.

A college can’t rely solely on its reputation anymore. Institutions need a compelling brand to stand out in a crowded marketplace and to communicate to prospective students and families what it is they offer. When a prospect hears a school’s name, what does he or she think of? That’s branding.

For Babson College, that’s “entrepreneurship.” The private Massachusetts business school has capitalized on the word, even establishing a trademarked methodology called “Entrepreneurial Thought & Action,” as well as the trademarked phrase “Entrepreneurship of All Kinds.” Each is woven into Babson’s marketing materials and is used as a launchpad for larger campaigns.

Babson recently created a digital hub called “Redefining Entrepreneurship,” asking the community to post and share what the word meant to them. In just under three years, the college attracted 231,756 unique visitors to the site and leveraged the concept, both in print and online, to show how Babson is redefining entrepreneurship education and developing “entrepreneurs of all kinds.”

All that branding has paid off: U.S. News and World Report has ranked Babson number one in entrepreneurship for 23 consecutive years.

Centralizing the University Brand

However, the process is not always simple. The University of Oregon made headlines in early 2016 for its decision to scale back on a rebranding campaign that was slated to cost the school an overall $20 million. The university instead spent $5 million contributed by a donor and canceled its contract with the outside marketing firm handling its rebrand. Through the process, the school realized that by centralizing its internal marketing efforts, the institution could produce the same quality of work at a lower cost.

“Working in silos can only get us so far,” said Kyle Henley, the school’s vice president for university communications, to Inside Higher Ed. “We need to be structured differently, and we need to have more coordination and increased collaboration across campus.”

Cross-campus collaboration is key when developing a new campaign. Prospective students should feel as though they’re being marketed to by the same university, no matter what department they’re interacting with or where they are in their college discovery process.

When the George Washington University’s public health school was rebranded in 2014 as the Milken Institute School of Public Health, establishing an identity that complemented the central institution was crucial, according to DiLorenzo.

“In the case of educational institutions, that matters,” DiLorenzo says, “and it matters because universities and colleges are some of the oldest brands this country has. There’s a lot of reputational quality and value built in there, and we want to make sure we present that to our audience.”

The rebrand wasn’t without its challenges. To create the assets needed to support the new name, all while coordinating press, took “an incredible amount of work,” describes DiLorenzo, but the change produced positive results. The school rose two spots in the U.S. News and World Report rankings, built its brand awareness and is now able to deliver three online graduate degree programs.

Student outside on laptop

"For me, it’s cool to be in this delta of change in higher education,” DiLorenzo says. “We’re at this place where some people are predicting that, in 10 years’ time, every graduate degree will be online.”

Your Brand, Online

As higher education evolves, institutions’ branding needs to evolve with it. Fifty-three percent of today’s students turn to search engines first to find information on a college or degree program, making a well-designed website that clearly communicates the school’s brand attributes all the more important.

“It took a while for leadership to understand the value of having a web presence,” DiLorenzo says. “What we’ve all come to realize, in the age of Google, is that your website is your most valuable communication asset. You want people to be able to visualize themselves there.”

Without a strong brand, students won’t be able to visualize themselves anywhere. What does a student think of when he or she hears your school’s name?