How to Bring Higher Ed Branding to Life

Students today are bombarded with more options to advance their education than ever before. With nearly every institution now offering online learning, schools have a new pool of applicants—unrestricted by physical proximity—to market to. While this has ushered in a wave of new audiences and potential streams of revenue, it has also heightened competition and the need to attract students with a brand and story that truly resonates with their values and aligns with their goals. 

Higher education branding can not afford to take a generic approach. In order to succeed, schools and agency partners must dig much deeper to understand what separates them from the competition, what drives students to the program, what students go on to accomplish, and how to craft a story that is compelling, different, and true to the educational experience they’re offering.

Here’s what our branding team has to say about higher education branding strategies and tactics that every higher ed marketer should be thinking about when crafting their university’s story.

Lay The Foundation With a Robust Discovery Process

Caroline Khalili, Director of Communications

In order to engage with prospective students in the most meaningful and effective way possible, we must first conduct a deep dive with our university partners and their key stakeholders. This exercise helps to lay the foundation for our creative strategy moving forward—from the visuals and messaging, to the overarching story that ties everything together. 

Throughout this process, we engage with faculty, alumni, current students, and internal marketing and enrollment teams, who can provide unique perspectives and insight into what makes the program or school unique, why students choose it, what they hope to accomplish once they graduate, and more. 

Since key internal stakeholders are often so entrenched in their own world and brand—living it firsthand every day—it can sometimes be difficult for them to verbalize the less tangible aspects of a program or school, but this is often where the best ideas and inspiration come from. It’s critical to push stakeholders to challenge their own assumptions or more generalized insights.

These are some of the core buckets that we tailor questions around, based on the stakeholder we’re speaking to:

  • Passions, or getting to the ‘why’
  • Unique value propositions of the program or school (UVPs)
  • Audiences (or personas) 
  • Student outcomes
  • Challenges or misconceptions

When these insights are pieced together, they form a holistic and impactful story that we can help to tell on behalf of our university partner. These interviews and insights also guide our persona creation, which allows us to be much more targeted and effective in how we tell this story based on the audience we’re trying to reach and what they care about. Through customized messaging and visuals, we are able to connect with each unique audience in a way that can’t be replicated with generic, cookie-cutter ads. 

By digging deeper with the individuals who know the program and institution better than anyone else, we’re able to construct a narrative that will engage prospective students who best align with that mission and story—and who ultimately want to help change the world using the tools that their advanced education provides them.

Create A Brand Mission That Tells a Story

Jacque Dobbins, Brand Manager

In the higher education marketing space, we’re not only competing against other universities, we’re competing for our audience’s attention in a crowded digital landscape. The best way to engage them is to connect with them on a psychological and emotional level—to tell them a story. The brand mission is the thesis statement of that story.

It’s the foundation for all the content and marketing assets we produce: search and social ad copy, microsites, landing pages, emails. It’s all pulled directly from and inspired by the brand mission—the story of a program or institution.

There are a number of tools that help us uncover these stories—from discovery interviews to team brainstorms. But one of the best ways to approach it is through the framework of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey.

To craft a unique story, we have to know what our audience wants and what’s getting in their way. The student is the hero in our stories and it’s our job to show them how this program or university is the path to achieving their goals. We like to imagine ourselves as prospective students. What do we want to achieve? What’s preventing us from getting there? How does this program help us? Answering those questions is key to crafting a compelling, relevant mission.

An engaging, distinct story can have a widespread impact. A campaign we developed for a few of American University’s online education programs was such a hit that it was adopted throughout the School of Education. The core of the message was simple: raising your hand, joining a bigger movement in education, making an impact on every level.. Here are some examples of the resulting taglines:

  • Raise your hand if you believe social change starts with education policy.
  • Raise your hand if you believe in the power of play.
  • Raise your hand if you believe every classroom should be inclusive.
  • Raise your hand if you want to transform education for everyone.
  • Raise your hand if you’re ready to break down barriers.

And how a couple were implemented in ad creative:

Understand The Program’s Unique Value Propositions

Connor Christiansen, Copywriter

Knowing what makes a university or specific program unique is what separates good branding from bad. A firm understanding of a program or school’s unique value propositions (UVPs)—also known as unique selling propositions—will make crafting the materials needed to market them much easier, from landing page copy to creative assets and social media content. 

UVPs aren’t just something we make up during a creative brainstorm. They’re derived from in-depth conversations with various stakeholders, which take place in the discovery process we discussed earlier. It’s important to understand what faculty and administrators believe makes the school or program unique, but it’s arguably even more important to find out what current and former students found unique when they chose that program over other options. By speaking with these stakeholders about a program or institution’s brand we can be much more successful in differentiating them from the sea of competitors. 

For example, having a program that emphasizes hands-on field work at some point in the curriculum is not a UVP—many degrees, whether undergrad or graduate, have required field work at some point. However, having exclusive partnerships with community organizations and companies that offer work opportunities to students is a clear UVP. 

We noticed this UVP in American University’s Master of Arts in Special Education, which has partnerships with the Peace Corps, City Year, and the Lab School of Washington that offer students unparalleled experiences. Rather than simply highlight the focus on fieldwork, we identified specific, well-known organizations that students will have access to thanks to the unique relationship they have with AU. You can see below how we incorporated this UVP onto the program landing page:

Once we’ve uncovered the aspects of a school or program that make it unique we ensure that these UVPs are prominent throughout our branding efforts.

Some materials lend themselves to displaying multiple UVPs at once, like landing pages, microsites, and brochures. Other branding assets allow for more specific UVPs to shine—for instance, we can use a Facebook ad to highlight one UVP to a specific audience or persona who resonates most with that UVP. 

Use Design to Bring Your University’s Identity to Life

Gaby Brambilla, Visual Designer

When creating the visuals for a new client in the higher education space we have to consider not only what will catch the attention of someone viewing the social ad, for example, but also what will tell the story of the university the best.

Our design team works together to find patterns in the client’s identity while following their brand guidelines of colors, fonts, and photographic style. Concurrently, we’ll work with the copywriter and creative leads to uncover that brand identity further and brainstorm what visuals and copy will work best together.

Once copy has been written and design has gone from the conceptualization stage to the creation stage, all of the content and iterations go into a creative guide. This creative guide is used to not only bring the vision of the content and design teams together but to also help the paid advertising team implement strategies based off of the personas that were created: 

After the client approves the creative guide, the paid team works closely with the creative team to create more designs for different channels like Instagram, Facebook, and Linkedin and develop landing pages and email assets.

Don’t Feel Like Doing the Branding Yourself? Let Our Team Help You!

Circa Interactive’s team of branding and creative experts is always up to date on strategies to help your university tell its most authentic story. Our branding tactics can help your university:

  • Understand and connect with prospective students
  • Ensure content speaks directly to your brand’s mission and student’s goals
  • Create visually compelling ads that generate leads
Caroline Khalili
Caroline Khalili is the director of communications at Circa Interactive. Since joining the company in 2014, Caroline has been instrumental in leveraging key stakeholders, such as faculty members, to help institutions engage with target audiences in more meaningful and authentic ways. A seasoned interviewer and communications strategist, Caroline is well-positioned to draw out key insights and unique aspects from university partners to help guide the creation of compelling narratives, eye-catching creative, and valuable media opportunities.

Don't know where to start? Find out how our team of experts can help.

Content is king, but without strong branding behind it, content rules over an empty kingdom. We can help your organization develop an engaging brand and attention-grabbing content that illuminates your strengths and unique values.

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