As we discussed in our last blog, the higher education sector is under pressure to transform. Building and nurturing relationships with past, present and future students matters more than ever. A strong brand is a vital part of building those relationships.

The bottom line

In a tough market, universities need to work harder to attract and retain students. Their former students play an important role as advocates and, increasingly, potential sponsors of universities’ work.

While academics may baulk at the idea of universities as commercialised brands, the bottom line is that a smaller pool of students has an increasing range of choices. And a university that can’t put bums on seats doesn’t have a future.

What is branding?

In simple terms, a brand is a name, a design or any other feature that identifies one organisation as distinct from others. It’s how institutions set themselves apart, how they explain who they are and what they offer.

But a strong brand is also more than that. It is a personality and a promise. It’s what the consumer should get if they invest in what the brand is offering, based on the attributes the brand portrays.

Why brand matters in higher education

While universities these days may be big business, what they offer is less tangible than most businesses. There is no product or service for sale – students are buying an experience with no guarantees.

The intangibility of the offer is part of the reason that branding is important in higher education. It forms a promise to prospective students about the quality of the experience they are buying. It should make the intangible offer into something more tangible.

Until recently, many universities had what could be described as a superficial approach to the brand. In challenging times, though, the moment has come for higher education institutions to take it seriously.

Building an emotional connection

Strong and effective brands help create recognition and understanding, vital steps on the way to trust and emotional connection.

Emotional connection is what convinces people to invest their money. And whether it is potential undergraduates just starting out or alumni supporting an institution’s work, universities need people to invest their money.

The top three reasons to prioritise branding for any university

#1    Reputation

People care about reputations. The experiential nature of higher education makes choosing a university a leap of faith with no guaranteed outcomes. Reputation is the reassurance that it’s the right choice.

Today’s students are also concerned about career prospects before they’ve even arrived at university. They know how much stock employers put on qualifications from particular institutions. Graduating from a university with a great reputation opens doors, and that makes them more attractive to prospective students.

Brand doesn’t guarantee a reputation, any more than a university education guarantees a great job. But just as a good degree significantly increases the chances of a rewarding and lucrative career, a strong university brand makes a great reputation more likely.

#2    Differentiation

There are more than 150 higher education institutions in the UK, and thousands more around the world.

When the competition is so high, organisations need to show what makes them different. How is their offer distinct? Why should a prospective student pick them over all the others?

A good university brand sets it apart in the minds of its target audience. It explains its differentiation in terms that resonate with that audience. Above all, it shows young people how that university is the right fit for them – in a way that all the others aren’t.

#3 Loyalty

Prospective students coming to know a brand (or university) that resonates with them is the very first step towards choosing it. Loyalty is what keeps them committed – essential when there are more choices and fewer students.

The increasing trend of young people changing their minds after clearing and looking to ‘trade up’ to a more prestigious university makes loyalty especially important. The more they are bought into a brand, the more loyal they will be – and the less vulnerable they are to being ‘poached’ by another institution.

In the longer-term, loyalty creates graduates who become brand advocates. There’s no marketing more powerful than personal recommendation or word of mouth. More than 90 percent of people say it influences their choices.

Brand loyalty is what creates long-term relationships. It keeps alumni speaking up for their institutions. And with fundraising a growing part of university funding, warm alumni relationships matter more than ever.

Branding made easier

Building a great brand doesn’t happen overnight. It takes a continuous effort and lots of factors are involved. But what is crucial is consistency.

Delivering a message and story that is consistent throughout every interaction, a prospective or former student has is vital. Whether it’s a direct email, a web visit, a social media post – or something else entirely – the strongest brands can deliver messaging that is personalised, but always consistent.

Achieving that holy grail of personalised but consistent messaging means asking technology to do that hard work for you.

BrightGen has been helping universities to invest in and get the best from new technology for over a decade. If you’d like to find out what we do and how we could help you, please get in touch.

To find out more about how universities can rise to the challenges facing the higher education sector in 2020, download the new BrightGen ebook Higher Education, Global Competition and Student Numbers: How the UK’s Universities can Maintain and Gain.