Know Thy Brand: 8 Strategies to Help Your Institution Stand Out

One of the most common questions I get from clients and prospective clients is “How can our school stand out?” These institutions will tell me the great things they have going for them – a long tradition of excellence, high-quality curriculum, passionate faculty, and a myriad of other things. So what’s the problem? Why can’t I just use what they tell me to help them develop compelling marketing?

The challenge is, of course, that most of the schools I talk to tell me roughly the same thing. And when everyone says they have a long tradition of excellence, for example, none of them will stand out. A recent report from Gallup backs me up; according to the report, “the mission, purpose or vision statements of more than 50 higher education institutions share striking similarities, regardless of institution size, public or private status, land-grant status or religious affiliation, or for-profit or not-for-profit status.”

For the top-tier schools, this isn’t a problem. No one is saying Harvard’s brand isn’t unique, because it has spent literally hundreds of years establishing itself as the premier liberal arts university in the nation. The same is true for schools like the University of Kentucky or Ohio State University, who have a long tradition of excellence in sports. But for middle-tier schools, this lack of differentiation can mean the difference between thriving to not even surviving.

What, then, can these institutions do? This is a really difficult question, more difficult than one blog post can address. But I have laid out eight considerations for institutions as they seek to adapt to the changing education landscape.

Understand Your Brand

Many institutions will say the same thing about their brand: we prepare the leaders of tomorrow, we create servant leaders, we nurture students, we care about individuals. But is this really true? And even if it is, what does that mean? Dig deeper into what your school offers that no one else does. What makes you exceptional? Why do students choose to attend?

Harvey Mudd College is a good example of a school that knows what it does well. Although it says it is a liberal arts university, it primarily focuses on science and engineering, directing most of its messaging toward that student population. While it does not have the name brand recognition of an MIT or Stanford among the general population, it does have a strong reputation among those who count – potential students and employers who know when they hire a Harvey Mudd grad, they are getting an employee with a solid foundation in the sciences.

At the same time, consider how your mission applies to the future. Does your institution appear ready to prepare students for the 21st century, or is it still relying on values, skills, and teaching methodologies, that were important in the 20th or even 19th century, but that no longer ring true for students?

Live Your Brand

Once you have defined what makes you special, you need to get buy in from the entire institution. Too often, the admissions department says one thing, while individual academic departments say something else, and students get an entirely different impression from departments like the registrar or financial aid office. It’s not always easy to wrangle an entire campus into agreement, but it’s critical to helping build, and maintain your reputation.

Southern New Hampshire University demonstrates how this total campus commitment can change a university. Once SNHU decided to enter the online space, it did so wholeheartedly, with every department dedicating itself to providing a top-notch online experience. From the admissions department to financial aid and beyond, everyone at SNHU believes in the value of an online education. Because of that, they are one of the biggest players in the space.

Invest in Marketing

So you have defined your brand, you have your whole institution living it…now what? Spend money on marketing to get the word out about what your school has to offer. One reason for-profit institutions thrived in the early 2000s is they were among the first to use new media, such as using paid search, content marketing, and affiliates in an era when colleges and universities were not doing that.

The next big frontier will be social media. Make sure you are engaging with students and potential students where they are, and where they are is social media. This will provide you with a unique opportunity to have a conversation and present your brand directly to the community, in a way where you can get immediate feedback.

At the University of Southern California, for example, the social media team created a series of YouTube videos profiling different dorm rooms around campus. Prospective students were able to better imagine life on campus, and were able to vote on their favorite dorm, creating even more social sharing and engagement. The campaign helped USC feel like home even before students applied, and made the university a part of the decision process for these students.

Become More Market Driven

Understand that students have choices, and are becoming accustomed to an on-demand world where everything from advertising to television is tailored specifically to them. You need to consider what students are looking for: Is it excellent customer service? Practical programs that will get them jobs? Low tuition? Free textbooks? Once you define what they want, you can communicate how your institution can meet that need.

Curriculum, too, needs to be more market driven and prepare students for the job market of today, and tomorrow. I recently interviewed a job candidate for a job in our marketing department. He graduated from college in May, with a degree in marketing. And yet, he knew nothing about digital marketing. “We didn’t learn that in school,” he told me. This is absurd. Digital marketing has been around for at least a decade, and is critical to the future of marketing. This young man’s college experience had in no way prepared him to succeed in the field he was interested in; we had to pass on him for a candidate who knew at least the fundamentals of digital marketing.

Another example that Learning House is aggressively pursuing is helping to train software developers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job outlook for software developers is expected to grow 22 percent by 2020. This means that there will be 1.4 million open software developer positions and only 440,000 projected college graduates to fill them. And yet, colleges are not rising to this challenge in the way an efficient market would. Private industry is stepping up to meet this demand, creating coding bootcamps and online, on-demand training to help fill this need.

Focus on Outcomes

I started my career in education at Kaplan, where we guaranteed an increase in SAT scores or your money back. Our entire value proposition was based around outcomes. I am puzzled as to the lack of clarity in higher education around outcomes, and think this will be a key differentiator for institutions in the future.

Once you have developed a more market-driven approach, you can start to track the success of your institution. How many students have jobs in their field within 6 months of graduation? How many are able to graduate without debt? How many are active in your alumni network and provide mentoring to new students? All of these, and more, are ways you can prove the value of your institution to those making a decision. An institution truly delivering and focused on great outcomes will absolutely stand out from the crowd.

Think of Students as Customers

Too often, institutions don’t view students as the customers that they are. After all, the last I checked, students are paying tens of thousands of dollars to “hopefully” get a degree and tangible skills for life. Treating them as customers throughout their lifespan with your institution can help improve their experience, increasing your retention rates and boosting your reputation.

Think about student needs and how you can meet them, whether it’s through faster response time, more flexible degree options, or building a stronger network for after graduation. Consider sending out surveys to see what your institution is doing well, and what can be improved upon. Listen to the feedback you are hearing, and implement action plans to address the issues.

Create More Lifelong Learning Channels

One of the things the success of MOOCs has shown us is that people want to learn, even after they have finished their formal schooling. Consider offering different channels for potential students to connect with your institution; perhaps a 6-month mini-MBA course, and then give credit for those students who continue on to complete a full MBA. Coding bootcamps, as I mentioned earlier, are another opportunity where colleges and universities can take advantage of a short-term, intensive learning channel that teaches practical, relevant skills. Another idea is to provide your alumni with access to those critical liberal arts skills that they probably neglect in college (I am guilty of this) around writing, communication, critical thinking, and other “soft skills” that are vital to success in the workplace.

Be Patient

Changing your reputation won’t happen overnight. Instead, it will rely on you living your mission every day, consistently, until enough students and alumni are able to be ambassadors for you, ensuring that your reputation feels authentic and aligns with the values in your community.

As I said above, defining your institution and standing out from the crowd is a complicated topic that requires unique solutions from every institution. Translating your vision and reputation in a digital world is not easy, but it is vital to success. The key theme running through my recommendations is clarity of vision, and then executing that vision to the best of your ability. When you know the “why” of your institution (what purpose it serves), you can develop the “how” (the execution of a successful strategy for growth). And when you do that, your institution can be unstoppable.


About Todd Zipper

Todd Zipper serves as the President and Chief Executive Officer at Learning House. He joined Learning House as Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer during the Weld North Holdings LLC acquisition in 2011. In his role, Todd oversees all operations and provides strategic management. Before joining Learning House, Todd co-founded and served as Chief Operating Officer for Education Connection. Todd can be reached at: