College and University Branding

I am the proud mother of twin daughters, who happen to be in their senior year in high school. Anyone who has gone through the college search process in the last few years is well-aware of the marketing prowess demonstrated by even the most unknown colleges. If you haven’t experienced it, you would be amazed.

Some of this we brought upon ourselves. As neither daughter seemed to comprehend the importance of good grades, we began visiting colleges after their freshman year–hoping to give them an inspiring glimpse of why exactly they were in college prep schools. Those first tours did not have the desired effect. In fact, they might have boomeranged. But not surprisingly, those early schools began to contact us regularly. Impressive follow-up.

Then my husband discovered the book, “Colleges That Change Lives“, which is a cottage industry unto itself. The book is terrific, uncovering some of the best, smaller schools that connect with their students in meaningful ways. The book came first, then the schools seemed to capitalize on it, and thus a specialized college fair was born. My husband and daughters attended one, and at the Cornell College booth, the recruiter knew of their great-aunt Geneva, who had been an renowned English professor there for 40 years. Then they visited the Ohio Wesleyan University booth, where the recruiter had been a classmate of my husband’s (back then a ne’er do well) brother, and remembered him well and fondly. Each school was more impressive than the next. Now the girls were starting to “get it”. What is so interesting about this group of schools is that they have, in effect, created a branded class that in total begins to challenge the commonly accepted top tier of schools.

As a brander, I applaud them. As a mother, I realized that many of them were beyond the academic reach or geographic interest of my daughters. And so we continued to search.

Today’s college fair (if you live near a large city) is an amazing experience. It’s like a trade show, but what is interesting is that everyone plays on an even field. Each school has a table. What they do with their table is up to them, but there is no change to create a fancy two story, over the top, booth. Business could learn a great deal from the “sales” efforts of the recruiters. The best of them have attended the school they recruit for, and they provide detailed, insightful and personal information.

Another great resource is “America’s Best Colleges for B Students“. It’s not as rigorously researched as CTCL, but there is helpful information about how and where students may access academic support and get the tools for success. We found several intriguing schools, some of which cross-referenced with CTCL, which made them even more interesting.

The best schools understand how 17-year olds today communicate, which is not always in a formal interview or a formal essay. Most have FaceBook pages, and they communicate via email–and direct phone calls. Again, this is evidence of total focus on the target audience.

We are far from done. What were the memorable experiences? High Point University, whose president is a businessman who has both a vision and a deep understanding of marketing. It may look glossy, but it is not fluffy. A surprise finalist is McDaniel College, which is both a CTCL and a “B Student” school. The information session purposely had no fancy PowerPoint or video, just an incredibly intelligent and articulate representative who focused on the school’s commitment to the holistic education of each student. Instead of being put off or intimidated by the academic excellence, my daughter found herself challenged and insprired by it. Bravo!

Right now, we are in the thick of it. The phone rings nearly every day with a recruiter or student representative from a college. Our mailbox is overloaded with post cards and brochures.

If you are a marketer, just think of the challenge. There are the Ivies, the Big Ten, the major State Universities. But there are thousands of schools under the radar, all trying desperately to stand out from the pack. The best have a deep sense of who they are, their heritage, and their vision for the future. The remainder have bought into expensive marketing communications programs, but they still have far to go. As many people say, “There is a college for everybody.” Some make their case far better than others.

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1 Comment

Filed under Brand strategy, Employee Brand Engagement

One response to “College and University Branding

  1. sara schroeder

    Nice posting! I am a college admission advisor (my bro-in-law, Jerry Kuyper passed the link to your blog on to me) and I am going to forward this to my colleagues. You have hit the nail on the head in your assessment that colleges are embracing the power of marketing and I love your comparison to college fairs as trade shows!!! Good luck to your daughters when it comes to making a choice. Remember, odds are that they will thrive wherever they go.

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