Are you making these 4 higher ed branding mistakes?

Here’s how to avoid them—and resonate better with today’s Gen Z students
By: | February 12, 2020
(Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash)
Josh White is principal and creative director of New York City-based brand and design agency OffWhite Co.

Josh White is principal and creative director of New York City-based brand and design agency OffWhite Co.

At time when three-quarters of prospective students believe there are ways to get an education other than attending college, it’s imperative for higher education institutions to stand out. That means adopting a more businesslike mindset to attract candidates. This may sound elementary for establishments entrenched in decades of higher learning, yet there are schools still missing the mark when it comes to student outreach.

In my experience helping higher ed institutions to resonate better with today’s students, here is what I’m seeing as the top four branding mistakes and how to avoid them. 

1. Neglecting your demographic

Many institutions are stuck in the past, relying on their rich heritage to navigate forward. The result is a brand that ignores the interests of Gen Zers—those born between 1995 and 2015—whose attention span averages eight seconds. According to recent surveys, 74% of this group prefer to spend their time online, 60% want to have an impact on the world and most are aiming for job security.


Read: What’s social media’s role in college searches?


To reach them, college and university leaders need to focus on smart market research that delves into the student psyche and tweak initiatives accordingly. If, for example, the mindset of the future grad is focused on “What can I do to better the planet?” consider how to position and communicate programs to show that bettering the world is the institution’s concern too. Consistency is key. You can grab their attention with an earth-friendly stance, but you’d be sending them confusing and mixed messages if you created and sent them a glossy brochure that can’t be recycled.

2. Failing to find your voice

Modern consumers expect brand transparency and that means the days of implying that “you can trust us because we’re well established” are over. Prospective students want to know what’s going on at the college or university, how decisions are made, and where institutional priorities lie. Finding your voice is a critical step toward presenting a clear brand position and building trust.

For example, a New York university with a rich heritage, yet stuck in a “we’ve always done it this way” mindset, undertook a rebranding exercise to reinforce its priority on future careers. In its marketing collateral—from posters to social channels—the higher ed institution presented graduates as superheroes, each cloaked in a relatable, Marvel comicslike illustration of a cape while on the job. The updated, current voice resonated with the school community, resulting in an incredibly successful Day of Giving that surpassed its target by $1.5 million.

You need to reach Gen Zers by ensuring your brand and voice speak to them in a consistent, uncluttered way.

3. Being inconsistent

Even if you update your view book annually, in the absence of an overarching, unified expression of your school’s brand, you’ll end up with outdated imagery and piecemeal messaging—resulting in a muddy execution that won’t be effective. Being consistent means capitalizing on every opportunity to showcase who you are, across all departments.

For one university, we introduced brand consistency by deconstructing the school’s shield logo and then featured graduates bursting out of the shield, clearly portraying the school’s successful students who have gone on to do great things in the workforce. The shield became an identifiable branded anchor for all communication touch points, making its way into ads, large billboards and promotional materials. This modern shield asset became the graphic element that bridged the gap between tradition and a younger, more relevant vibe.


Read: Podcasting: A voice of the future for higher ed?


4. Dismissing the importance of tech trends

The most damaging mistake a higher ed leader can make is to treat the online experience as an afterthought. When you try to say everything in a busy, dysfunctional or poorly designed website, you essentially end up saying nothing. Successful outreach program leaders must put time and energy into developing digital content that includes an on-point website as well as fun, targeted social media campaigns. Imagine offering prospective students an opportunity to live chat with a department dean. You need to reach Gen Zers by ensuring your brand and voice speak to them in a consistent, uncluttered way.

When your online presence is meaningful and well executed, you will stand out and be on your way to growing your targeted student base.


Josh White is principal and creative director of New York City-based brand and design agency OffWhite Co. He has extensive experience successfully helping a wide range of organizations—from higher education institutions and Fortune 500 companies to startups.


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