Creating a brand that attracts students

1 minute read

A university brand must be more than a logo and a strapline. To engage the digital native generation, it needs to spark an authentic connection with prospective students. But how?

There are few organisations selling services with stakes as high as universities. Prospective students are not only weighing up the quality of their education but a whole series of lifestyle choices. A student’s university becomes part of their identity and, at the very least, will dictate the place they call home. And not to mention the cost involved.

With this in mind, is it any wonder students are thinking about their university choices harder than ever before? It’s a big commitment. University brands can’t be made on the same assembly line. They must be bold and unique.

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to create a student-focused brand strategy. It requires a thorough approach to market research, communicating your points of difference and constructing a compelling brand narrative. Just like for your students, it’s an ongoing journey. Let’s take the first step.

Use market research to inform brand positioning

Step 1: Know your audience

The starting point for any successful branding strategy is your audience. Do you know how they like to communicate? What about the things they care about? Or, what informs their decision-making? Chances are this will vary across different disciplines and courses but to give a general steer, we can look to existing research on Gen Z characteristics.

Getting to know the digital native generation

Today’s students fall within the Gen Z generation. The very first to have grown up with the internet as an everyday part of life. Dubbed ‘digital natives’, Gen Z are intuitive digital users and over a third spend four or more hours a day on social media. And if this is where your target audience is, then you should be there too. With style.

Gen Z is a generation committed to its values. 73% of Gen Z actively try to purchase from organisations they consider ethical. Being typically more politically and socially active, brands that address and respond authentically to societal issues can reap awareness and attention from Gen Z.

With exposure to the digital landscape from an early age, Gen Z has grown up with ‘always on’ advertising. Hard sell tactics won’t reach this generation amongst the noise – it’s all about authentic and transparent communications. Organisations with a strong brand story or purpose have found success connecting through a sense of shared values and goals.

student brand

Step 2: Know yourself

You know what you want your brand reputation to be – but how does the audience perceive you really? Self-evaluation can be tricky. Things you see all the time are sometimes the easiest to miss. But as with many big decisions in life, the answer may come from within.

Own your reputation and location

Each department within your university will know what’s working and what isn’t. Great. Now break down those siloes and refresh your marketing team with new perspectives. Ask current students, alumni, teaching staff, deans, janitors – whoever you can get hold of – what they consider to be your university’s strengths and weaknesses. What does everyone value about student life? Then reflect: is this being effectively communicated to prospects?

Really own your local area. After all, this is the one thing you can’t change (with one or two exceptions). Many students will make this a core consideration so it needs to be seen as a strength. How does your location feed into student life? Which local and cultural aspects can you draw on to inspire prospects? If your local town has a strong reputation of its own, use it!

Step 3: Know your competition

So, you now have an idea of your own strengths, values and differentiators. From here, it’s a case of making sure these aren’t the same as everyone else’s. The third essential step is a competitor analysis.

Conducting a competitor analysis

A competitor analysis will help refine your brand position and messaging, ensuring it’s unique within the marketplace. Identify your closest rivals and assess their strengths and weaknesses to determine what your university does differently – or better. Consider points of differentiation (more on this later), points of parity, alumni success stories, student lifestyle and additional local opportunities. Reposition your brand with these elements and you’ll create a clear alternative to attract students better suited to your university.

How to develop an effective university brand

Identify priority PODs and POPs

These are the magic ingredients that set your university apart from the competition so you need to own them. Comparing your strengths with your competitors will reveal your unique points of difference (PODs) – get these front and centre of your messaging. Also, determine points of parity (POPs) – that is, prospects’ essential considerations that you must match your competitors in. Without parity, prospective students might not believe that you fit into their essential criteria before taking the time for a closer look.

Refresh your student personas

Fresh from your market research deep dive, this is the perfect time to update those audience personas. This process will reveal how your target prospects have changed and how to adapt your student personas accordingly. It will also reveal which points of difference (PODs) are most important to each persona. Knowing the values that appeal to each group of prospects will allow marketing teams to tailor communications for each persona.

university brand

Construct a brand narrative

The PODs and POPs will show you can technically deliver on your educational promise, now your brand narrative needs to create an emotional connection. Storytelling is a powerful method of sharing your university’s unique identity. A concise yet clear brand narrative will share your university values, mission and vision to create an affinity with your target prospects. With a simple, consistent and authentic narrative, university brands create that spark.

And don’t forget staff advocacy

It’s not just the marketing team that needs to understand and articulate the brand narrative. To create true brand consistency, all staff and student ambassadors need to be on the same page. A successful brand will inspire your staff to endorse and advocate its message – and that requires some strong internal communications.

Create a brand toolkit

Different channels and touchpoints can require different communication styles but an effective brand will be consistent. A brand toolkit is a collection of resources and guidelines that help maintain a coherent brand identity – whatever the touchpoint and whoever the person. Investing time in a brand toolkit can save time and money in the long run – and boost brand reputation and recognition permanently.

Consider user generated content (UGC)

Authenticity goes far with a Gen Z audience – and what is more authentic than first-hand experiences of student life? Provide a diverse range of relatable perspectives that reflect the unique elements of your university. Incorporating UGC within your brand toolkit will keep your communications fresh and foster that emotional connection – allowing students to see a version of themselves at your university.

Key takeaways

Know your audience, know your competition and, most critically, know yourself. Armed with this intel, your team will understand what your brand should be saying to attract the most suitable students. And, quite often, the people with a star combination of fresh perspective and market knowledge are best placed to help out (ahem, hi!).

Need a hand creating a brand that attracts students?

Let’s talk.