Establishing a Brand that Honors the Past While Embracing the Future

Universities of the 21st century face a Sisyphean cycle of recruitment, straining annually to push the metaphorical boulder uphill to assemble a talented and diverse freshman class. Each academic year brings the boulder back to the starting point, and with every reset, the competition only intensifies. 

In the older days of higher education, some universities could simply coast off their storied reputations, attracting students on the merits of their academic or athletic legacies alone. But now, with the digital age transforming how students research and choose their future alma maters, relying solely on historical laurels is no longer a viable strategy.

Today, universities must leverage branding strategies to bridge the past with the future. To that end, understanding how to craft a brand that respects the weight of institutional history, while adapting to contemporary demands, is paramount.

Higher Education Branding

Understanding the Importance of Branding in Higher Education 

Quality branding distills an educational institution’s identity into a cohesive, compelling, and candid narrative. 

It’s not just about having a logo, a Latin motto, or a color palette—although those elements do matter. It’s about creating an emotional resonance, a sense of belonging, and a level of trust between the institution and its various stakeholders, including the students, faculty, alumni, and the community at large. 

Your brand amalgamates the elements that define who you are as a school:

  • What you stand for – Your core values and mission.
  • What your student community is like – The culture, diversity, and overall campus vibe.
  • Your educational philosophy – The pedagogical approaches and learning outcomes that set you apart.
  • Your historical legacy – The traditions and achievements that have shaped your reputation.
  • Your vision for the future – How you plan to evolve and adapt in an ever-changing educational landscape.
  • Your unique programs and offerings – The courses, research opportunities, and extracurricular activities that offer distinct value.
  • Your relationship with the community – How you engage with local, national, and even international communities.
  • Alumni success – How well your graduates fare in their respective fields, serving as ambassadors for your brand.
  • Faculty expertise – The qualifications and achievements of your teaching staff, which add academic credibility. 

A well-crafted brand doesn’t just boost your reputation. It can become your institution’s promise to current and future students. It’s a commitment to deliver a transformative experience that, ideally, prepares them for their future careers.

But, to be clear, branding is not marketing. Branding sets the stage—it’s your core narrative and values. Marketing, on the other hand, is the act of promoting that narrative through various campaigns and mediums. And, in the world of higher education, these two facets must work in concert, with branding serving as the foundation and marketing building upon it to reach specific goals.

Honoring the Past: Preserving the Legacy and Traditions 

When it comes to higher education branding, there’s no doubt that legacy still matters deeply. 

Storied universities like Harvard and Oxford leverage centuries of history to maintain a prestigious brand. Their time-honored traditions, past achievements, and notable alumni form a compelling narrative that adds depth to their modern-day offerings. It’s not just about what they can offer now; it’s about what they’ve always stood for.

To that end, alumni aren’t just former students; they’re lifetime stakeholders in your brand. If properly harnessed, alumni can be your brand ambassadors and champion your university’s history. Their success stories not only add credibility but also humanize the brand. By engaging students in the alumni community after they graduate, colleges can actively involve alumni in the branding process via: 

  • Interviews & testimonials
  • Alumni spotlights
  • Advisory boards
  • Social media takeovers
  • Community outreach 
  • Student recruitment 
  • Networking events 
  • Jobs and internship programs 

Embracing the Future: Adapting to Modern Changes and Challenges 

The largely grassroots, word-of-mouth university branding campaigns are no longer nearly as effective as they once were. If a university wants to compete in the digital age, old dogs must learn new tricks. As advertising expert, Joel Cox writes in Forbes: 

“To recruit new students, it’s time for this old-school, image-based, general-audience advertising to give way to more effective strategies, using more persuasive value propositions and feature/benefit themes. Students need new reasons to enroll above and beyond a beautiful campus, a football team, or that their parents went there.” 

How can they do this? 

In particular, there are five ways modern universities can embrace the future: 

  • Digital transformation – Higher education has entered the digital age. To stay competitive, schools must adapt to tech trends, incorporating them into the brand’s messaging and reality. This may include revamping curricula, implementing e-learning modules, leveraging big data for student success, and leaning into social media as the chief messaging medium. 
  • Globalization and diverse student populations – Universities are increasingly tailoring their brands to appeal to a wider audience, both at home and abroad. Scholarships, exchange programs, and even satellite campuses abroad all feed into an inclusive multicultural brand narrative.
  • Innovative programs and research initiatives – Say goodbye to traditional four-year programs, and hello to interdisciplinary initiates, cooperative research centers, research and innovation leadership fellows programs, active learning initiatives, and real-world projects. These innovations not only boost the brand but also cater to the practical needs and expectations of modern students.
  • Stakeholder engagement – To humanize the university brand, leverage students, faculty, alumni, and the local community so that there’s a face in front of the institution. By folding these diverse voices into your ongoing campaigns, the brand becomes a dynamic tapestry of experiences and values that appeal to future students and underscore the institution’s role in the world beyond the immediate campus. 
  • Visual identity and branding elements – A well-thought-out logo or color scheme can evoke the storied history of an institution while employing contemporary design principles. Whether it’s a subtle update to the school crest or a fresh palette that respects the original colors, visual elements convey in a glance both where the institution has come from and where it’s boldly heading. It’s about balancing the weight of history with the freshness of the present.

Measuring the Impact of Branding 

So, how do you know if your branding efforts are working? 

First, focus on relevant KPIs, such as: 

  • Enrollment rates
  • Average position
  • Number of pages and posts viewed
  • Social media engagement 
  • Email click-through rates 
  • Brand awareness
  • Website traffic 
  • Conversion rates 

Then, commit to an ethos that embraces feedback and continuous improvement. If you’re branding efforts aren’t moving the needle, don’t be scared to shake things up. Analyze feedback from stakeholders and KPIs, then adapt and refine your strategies based on the results. 

Prioritize Higher Education Branding with Semgeeks 

Universities are at a digital crossroads. The stakes have never been higher for these educational institutions to define who they are and what they stand for.  

Fortunately, Semgeeks can usher your branding efforts into the modern age. In a fiercely competitive educational landscape, our team can elevate your institution with tailored digital strategies. From SEO to targeted campaigns, we amplify your higher educations brand’s reach and relevance. 

Ready to make your mark? Partner with Semgeeks in your rebrand. Contact Us