Illustration of lighthouse

Achieving Brand Awareness in Higher Education

Budgets are still tight for the vast majority of private colleges and universities, which can turn spending allocations into a zero sum game. With higher education consumers focusing on return on investment and shopping around for their best value, students and families want to see “their” dollars being spent by their colleges on the academic product and the student experience. That type of investment can lead to valuable word-of-mouth testimonials, but the reality is that many colleges are located in education deserts where not enough people are even familiar with their higher education options. And if too few people are familiar with a college, too few will consider it, let alone select it.

In fact, any institution’s awareness efforts really do matter: “This college has a very good academic reputation” is the top-cited very important reason for first-year students choosing their college—and that’s on an upward trend, from 63.8% in 2012, to 64.0% in 2013, to 65.4% in 2014, and now to 69.7% in 2015, according to CIRP data.

It should go without saying that reputation can’t even exist without awareness. And given all of the marketplace conditions that are making student recruitment so competitive, many institutions (especially the small private colleges) can’t achieve that awareness via word of mouth alone. A financial investment is, in fact, required to project an institution’s brand attributes and broaden awareness.

Then there’s the matter of what, exactly, to project about the brand. Its authentic strengths? Its differentiators from the competition? Its aspirational traits? The key consideration is that with so much advertising bombarding consumers, a college is competing for both attention and relevance. That is, it not only has to stand out—it has to stand out on something the consumer really cares about. Ideally, the brand expression is able to focus on the sweet spot where there’s convergence among what the college does best, what makes it distinctive, and what students seek from it. The most successful awareness campaigns offer a clear and favorable understanding of the value proposition.


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With frequent misunderstandings among higher education consumers about the overall value of the experience, the outcomes, and particularly the price, colleges and universities long ago stopped relying upon the Field of Dreams marketing philosophy—”Build it and they will come.” Students and families seek persuasive evidence about the authentic value, relevance, and distinction of each college they are considering. And because they look for it across a variety of communication platforms, each of the college’s brand ambassadors (and that is really everyone) should converge around a collective sense of self that is shared at every touchpoint. This consistency via multiple sources of brand awareness leads to a better understanding of and greater familiarity with the institution. And familiarity increases the likelihood of favorability, provided the value proposition is worthwhile and relevant.

The Lawlor Group’s Summer Seminar on June 9 & 10 in Minneapolis will offer an opportunity to gather market intelligence about what’s worthwhile and relevant to today’s students and families, along with other informed insights. Registration will open soon.