How Higher Education Brands Can Face Disruption

Harvard University was founded in 1636 and is the oldest institution of higher learning in America. In the 382 years since, education has been practiced and perceived, more or less, in the same traditional ways…until now.

Those in the business of higher education must seriously contemplate how to respond to the disruptive forces at work today. Powered by a number of internal and external factors and accelerated by technology, we are witnessing transformation at key points from how higher educational institutions are populated, considered, positioned, marketed, and offered. Through this disruption, our notions of higher education as educators, consumers and marketers will change radically and will make our own college experiences seem quaintly simple and nostalgic by comparison.

The question facing the 6,900 or so accredited institutions in America is simply this: Are you ready?

Laying The Groundwork For Disruption

Every president, provost, dean, marketing director, admissions director, and alumni director must deal with a growing list of economic, technological and demographic challenges in today’s hyper-competitive higher education landscape. At no other time in history have the challenges facing educators been greater or more complex:

Escalating costs and growing concern (and negative publicity) over epidemic student loan debt
A new cost-versus-value debate regarding a typical college education
Declining graduation rates
Declining enrollments for six years running
Increased “non-traditional” student enrollments (working, part-time, supporting a family)
State universities losing funding
Competing on a virtual global scale with the advent of online learning
Elevated consumer expectations in service
Declines in administrative staff productivity
Free speech issues, controversies and politics
Scandals involving high profile administrators or coaches
Adapting to a rapidly changing demographic student makeup
Adapting to a ‘phygital’ world that blends the physical and digital for enhanced engagement
Disruptive Responses Are Required

Institutions of higher education are discovering that new challenges require radically new solutions, such as new business models, new applications of technology and new marketing strategies that don’t just communicate but connect.

Where To Start? Evaluate the leadership. Are they part of the old or part of the new? The brand stewards needed today don’t maintain ideas that no longer contribute to performance and no longer produce results. They know if their institution is committed to maintaining yesterday, no one will be available to create tomorrow. They don’t see disruption as something that is happening to their brand but rather for their brand. They understand that disruption is a place where the new value that is needed for their competitive future is discovered.

Learning At A Distance

One approach that has grown rapidly over the last 10 years is to take education out of the classroom and onto the Internet. This increases accessibility and enrollments in the face of rising costs. Many colleges and universities have adopted this distance-learning model, commonly known as MOOC (Massive Open Online Course). Introduced in 2006, MOOC has proven to be an ideal learning solution for a generation raised on the internet and for those already in the workforce who need the flexibility of time and online collaboration outside the classroom.

Early adopters such as Carnegie Mellon University, Georgia Tech and Arizona State have not only been successful, but have grown their brand awareness and reputation through its implementation. Another early adopter of online learning, Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, boasts a staggering online enrollment of 100,000. Western Governors University has comparable numbers without the support of a physical campus or a sports program. Purdue University is presently launching its “Purdue Global” via a smartly produced national cable TV campaign. These and other institutions are finding that the growth of their brand is not limited by the size of their campus, the number of satellite campuses or the availability of qualified applicants in their market. Their marketplace is now the entire world.

Given this new digital world of higher education, brick and mortar schools must consider how best to bring their brands to life online, how to leverage their brand reputation, maintain continuity and compete in a world filling up with rivals.

Where To Start? Identify all the ways in which your institution has made compromises with the consumer (for example; the absence of distance-learning) and then break them all so that that consumer gets exactly what he needs and wants.

Learning How To Brand

Higher education is no longer the sole domain of older teenaged and young 20-year old students. Half the enrollments are over 25 years old. The majority is female. Many work part-time. With demographic disruption come branding implications. For example, many institutions are re-evaluating the perception of their brands and how they are effectively marketing them to remain relevant and desirable to changing demographic and economic needs. Such attention to serious marketing efforts by academic institutions would have been unthinkable and unnecessary just 20 years ago.

For example, there is often a lack of brand differentiation, which has become something of an expectation in the category. Higher education’s approach to brand marketing has been rightfully criticized for being slow to adjust to new demands and expectations. Often, there is sameness in the portrayal of individual school brands all vying for the same students. Campus life is often portrayed as a sunny, carefree and Frisbee tossing experience. The problem with this and other formula-driven images and ideas is that they fail to communicate creatively and compellingly what is unique and special about the brand they are attempting to sell. This stems from not defining what makes them unique and compelling in the first place. Given the changing demographics and needs of today’s higher education students, the school brand may appear to be woefully out of touch.

Where To Start? Ask, ‘what would the world miss if this institution ceased to exist?’ Build on the value revealed by that answer. If no differentiating value is revealed, it needs to be created.

Learning How To Compete

By outward appearances, the level of marketing sophistication has increased over the last decade. Non-marketers handling branding and marketing duties have slowly given way to professional talent either in-house or to contracted design studios and agencies. The shift has been noticeable. Ask anyone who follows their favorite college football team televised on fall Saturdays and they will agree that the painfully awkward and poorly produced spots for even the largest universities have given way to slick, creative and production-rich commercials. School sports mascots and uniforms, from very small colleges to major athletic conferences, have gotten professional makeovers worthy of any ESPN coverage.

Although expensive, the reliance on sports to compete for awareness and prestige will likely continue even in this age of disruption. College athletics and lucrative TV contracts, along with the Big 3 apparel and equipment brands (Nike, Adidas, and Under Armor) have kept and grown college and university brands into legendary, mythic status among their ardent supporters. According to Statista, college sports sponsorships topped $1.24 billion in the past 12 months, climbing steadily for the last 12 years.

Sports programs and television coverage aside, competing in an age of disruption requires a shift for many in how to think about marketing their higher education brand. First, know your marketing partners and their strengths. Before any external communication plan is even considered, think through the brand strategy. It’s work that will require participation and commitment from key stakeholders and a highly facilitated brand positioning process. This initial work is largely in the domain of brand consultancies.

Understand that advertising agencies traditionally focus on the execution of creative strategies. That is, they will determine the best marketing vehicle to reach your target audience and will use compelling creative to make a connection and entice a reaction. The best ones are strategic in nature and see tactics as a second step.

A brand consultancy traditionally lives by this philosophy: Instead of trying to communicate a brands’ features and benefits, they recommend studying the minds of the target audience first and then try to “position” the brand in the mind, taking advantage of the strengths of the brand and weaknesses of competing brands. Further, they align your institutions unique value with those most important to its future. This process ensures that your brand has selected the most powerful benefits to own and that it has developed the proof points and reasons to believe for those benefits.

Where To Start? Evaluate your marketing partners, they are more important now than ever before. Know who you are working with and expect to be involved in defining the strategic direction of your brand.

Building A Strong Brand In An Age Of Disruption

With times of rapid change come opportunity and advantage for first movers. Schools of higher education, large or small, can have a strong brand in this age of disruption, if they have the strategic intent and infrastructure in place to advance at the pace of change.