Universities are learning that previous methods used to attract students and donors must be rethought to meet the challenges of today’s education environment. Tactics that were successful in the past must evolve into more relevant brand communications strategies.
Many institutions now recognize the need to develop precise messaging to connect effectively with audiences—and that a failure to properly address market shifts can equate to dwindling enrollments, unpassionate donors, and the peril of depleted prized endowments.
Discerning students—approaching high school graduation—are paused on the sidelines in their search for a university story that strikes a common chord with their needs and a value proposition to fulfill those needs. And on the fundraising side, advancement teams recognize that donor communications must be rethought to offset a universe of declining gifts. To navigate these challenges, school administrators and marketers must respond with tailored strategies to engage segmented audiences on a new level. Thought leadership in education marketing is evolving, and tested strategies and tactics from mainstream markets are now being adopted.
The tremendous financial impact of today’s education costs on low-income and middle-class households is not the story. For decades students and parents have asked, “Which school is likeliest to provide a positive return on our education investment?” Or, worse, “Is college really worth the staggering cost?”
Standing out From the Crowd. There are more than 3,000 colleges, universities, and independent schools in the United States, each claiming to provide a unique educational experience. Unfortunately, scrutiny of curricula touted as being designed for individual needs exposes such promises as hollow platitudes.
From an audience perspective, too many admission enrollment and fundraising campaigns look and sound the same, as if lifted from a master template. University slogans are interchangeable. And content is constructed from a perfunctory checklist of buzzwords and phrases, as if copied from an education lexicon.
Institutions that understand the need to communicate a distinctive value proposition have turned to more thorough, layered mainstream marketing practices—marketing thought leadership that empowers universities to address the cost-versus-value question with confidence. These new strategies also enable a more relevant market position for navigating an uncertain future.
Tough questions regarding a school’s real purpose must be asked and answered. Only then can brand communications strategies be tailored to that specific market presence. Universities that do present a compelling proposition and a distinctive market presence communicate more effectively with prospective students, donors, and faculty.
Defining Brand Drivers and Purpose. What most institutions lack is a deep dive to identify, articulate, and memorialize brand drivers—critical positioning elements used to differentiate one organization from another. Memorializing brand drivers empowers an internal marketing and communications staff to develop more meaningful key positioning messages.
One essential brand driver is a brand purpose. A brand purpose explains why a college or university exists: the strategic position it fills in a competitive landscape, how it fulfills the needs of segmented audiences, and why prospective students and donors should think about only that respective school.
Identifying key messages that reflect brand drivers ensures that university stakeholders understand the brand framework and the value in supporting a central story. Plus, campuswide marketing communications can be critiqued and adjusted so audience touchpoints achieve brand objectives. The goal is to create a compelling story to express differentiators and attributes to the marketplace. A story that is honest, forward-thinking, and engaging. A story that will lead to a distinctive share of mind meticulously executed across all channels.
Too many marketing strategies, applied by admission enrollment offices and fundraising teams, convey a generic educational environment and brand—a decorative, “everything is important” approach.
Reaching Out to Target Demographics. Another issue involves the changing dynamics of undergraduate demographics. Low-income, first-generation students have always been part of the mix, but a renewed focus is needed on this nontraditional group—specifically minorities. Their top-of-mind concerns of access, success, and affordability contribute to stalled enrollment numbers. Outreach programs must be developed, offering reassurance and validation—how a particular college provides faculty, peers, counselors, advisers, and coaches to set up first-generation students for success. Such support will lead to new, vibrant legacies.
Schools are investing heavily in perception research to address communications gaps. But research is only as powerful as the creative minds hired to apply the data to distinguish a school from cross-application peers and aspirational competitive sets. Most institutional brand perception research studies of non-brand-name universities indicate the need to increase brand awareness, improve academic rigor, and demonstrate return on the tuition investment. This data—not epiphanies—represents the most basic higher-education communications objectives. It’s akin to research concluding that a restaurant must serve good food. And when 3,000 institutions are working nationwide to achieve the same basic objectives, hiring a creative partner with the experience to humanize data and analytics through engaging presentations is critical to developing a distinctive brand.
Partnering for Success. Savvy colleges and universities are retooling with internal communications teams and creative agency partners, similar to consumer product marketing. These institutions recognize the value of staff and agencies with successful track records stewarding consumer brand marketing outcomes in extremely crowded, highly competitive markets.
Hiring an agency that averts conflicts of client interest is also key. McDonald’s and Burger King would never hire the same firm to produce simultaneous campaigns. A university should look at its agency’s client list and loyalties with a critical eye.
Leadership positions in education marketing are being filled by a new generation of talented creative agencies. One such firm is San Francisco–based Michael Patrick Partners. Renowned independent, private, and public universities—along with internationally known boarding schools—have retained the agency with unparalleled results. By counseling its higher-education clients to apply precise brand communications strategies, enrollment and fundraising goals are being achieved and distinctive market positions recognized.
Leveraging Michael Patrick Partners. One reason behind the agency’s success is that it does not live on education assignments alone. The strategies and practices benefitting its education clients have been applied for more than 40 years of continuous operation to build brand value for major-market clients.
Best known for developing the E*TRADE identity, the agency’s expertise includes brand development, brand communications strategy, and design, plus digital and traditional marketing campaigns applied to differentiate a market presence at any stage of an organization’s life cycle.
Award-winning creative attracts clients to the agency’s door, but the process and results bring them back. The agency delivers nontraditional approaches to expand the dialogue between people and brands. Approaches that are working brilliantly in education marketing.
Two decades ago, the agency began producing admission enrollment programs, brand development, and fundraising campaigns that resulted in historic outcomes. In each case, prospective students and donors responded positively to innovative writing and design—tactics that moved enrollment applicant pools to set records for both quantity and quality, as well as growth in donor fundraising participation.
The agency creates stop-and-think moments that combine insightful writing with design that is classic, confident, and void of decorative elements that distract from the content. This less-is-more approach helps prospective students and donors see real differences between one school and another. A marketing environment that demands a second and third look. But most importantly, outcomes have led education clients to believe that a solid brand communications strategy is critical to growing brand value.
Through the years, the agency has won more than 500 industry awards—the most coveted accolades from national and international competitions. Those organizations include the American Advertising Awards, the Art Directors Club of New York, Communications Arts, the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, Graphis, the Greater San Francisco Ad Club, The One Club, the University & College Designers Association, The Society of Typographic Arts, and many others. Its work has also been featured on the websites of the International Paper Company and Mohawk Paper Company.
Duane Michael Maidens, agency cofounder, states, “Our approach requires commitment and leadership from both sides of the table. We dig deep to uncover relevant factors and then apply our discovery to move a brand to the next level. To be relevant requires honest self-evaluation. In many instances, recommendations are obvious; in others it’s an epiphany that only an outsider can recognize.
Daniel Patrick O’Brien, the other cofounder, adds, “Our process helps clients embrace change. It’s the logical evolution of a brand approached as a marathon, not a sprint.”
These results have contributed to myriad colleges and universities asking the agency for assistance in achieving specific goals. Visit michaelpatrickpartners.com/education to see the work.
About Michael Patrick Partners
Michael Patrick Partners is a San Francisco creative agency best known for developing the E*TRADE identity. Its expertise includes brand development, brand communications strategy, and design, plus digital and traditional marketing campaigns applied to differentiate a market presence at any stage of an organization’s life cycle. The body of work spans banking to beer, education to energy, hot sauce to health care, and technology to transportation—engaging work that has received more than 500 awards from the nation’s most coveted competitions. Visit michaelpatrickpartners.com to learn more about the agency.
Duane Michael Maidens, Michael Patrick Partners, 503.432.0696, email@example.com