Higher Education Marketing and Brand Positioning

Table of Contents

Why are Marketing and Brand Positioning Important?

Ninety-eight (98) percent of colleges and universities look alike to students and employers. In today’s environment in which enrollments are decreasing, discounting is increasing, and financial trending is negative. That isn’t good news.

The issue isn’t planning – some (but not many) universities do a decent job of this, but in most cases, they fail to get buy-in from key stakeholders and faculty on the final plan which leads to resistance to change. Or, which is more likely, the institution fails to differentiate/position, measure, and execute on the plan:

  • Differentiation – You have the same programs, courses, etc., your competitors have.
  • Measurement – You measure the wrong things and thus focus people on the wrong things (you get what you measure).
  • Execution – You create resistance to your change because you forgot that people support what they help create and/or you failed to put in the necessary change management structures that keep the change on track.

Marketing and brand positioning answers the question:

What is one thing that is unique, different, and better about us 

in the eyes of our customer 

vs. the competition

in the marketplace that has them hiring our graduates / attending our institution / wanting to work here / giving us grants and donations?

Good brand positioning begins with strategic market research and analysis of your institutional brand’s current positioning in the minds of your audience members, then defines the core of what you want to stand for in the minds of your audiences. Importantly, it speaks not only to the attributes of your institution, but also the benefits that those attributes provide to your audience members.

A strong brand positioning is aspirational. It is grounded in reality but reflects what you want to be as an institution.

Strong brand positioning that is executed with a strategic marketing plan can increase both brand awareness and reputation, leading to higher student applications and enrollment, more successful fundraising campaigns, and stronger grants and appropriations from foundations and government agencies.


See our presentation slides for Creating Higher Ed Marketing Strategies to Grow Enrollment

Benefits of Good Marketing and Brand Positioning Practices

Good brand positioning practices enable a higher education institution to:

Fill your enrollment pipeline and increase student applications and enrollment

Improve fundraising and bequests from alumni and other potential donors

Attract top faculty and employees because of the institution’s stellar reputation

Secure top grants and government funding for new and distinguished programs

Get “free” publicity in higher ed publications because your institution and faculty are the “go-to” experts in their field

Get ranked in the U.S. News & World Report and other key rankings in categories that you desire​

Signs Your Brand Positioning Needs Improvement

There are many telltale signs that an institution’s marketing and brand positioning practices aren’t working. Unfortunately, many of them are things that your institution has done (or not done) for years, probably because you didn’t know any better or thought that doing the marketing research was too expensive (it doesn’t have to be when done correctly). In reality, these are red flags that tell us that your institution isn’t functioning at its full potential, putting your institution at risk financially.


Student applications are declining overall or in the specific prospective student demographic you are trying to reach


Prospective students and donors find the reality of your campus differs from what you communicate to them


Development has difficulty in raising money for new programs and/or initiatives


When you ask 10 faculty and staff to define your brand, you get 10 different answers (or no answers)


Your institution's schools or colleges have different logos, and/or your website uses different colors and/or fonts


Prospective students and donors have to figure out what's in it for them (WIIFM) because your website talks about you only

Best Practices for Higher Education Marketing and Brand Positioning

There are a number of higher education marketing and brand positioning best practices that institutions should follow to ensure they are helping their institutions be successful in filling their enrollment pipeline and creating value for students, alumni, and donors. These include:

Brand Positioning Best Practices for Higher Education Institutions Include:

You conduct external market research and have a solid understanding of your current brand positioning — associations, strengths, and weaknesses — what is in the minds of your important audiences

Your brand positioning statement is simple and memorable – it is built on a one-sentence statement that describes what you are and why that matters to the people you’re trying to influence

Your core messaging builds on your positioning statement, and describes in more detail the unique features and benefits you offer – in most cases, there are core messages developed for each important audience

You have a “visual identity,” a consistent representation of your institution’s brand that generally includes a main logo, a logo architecture for the institution’s sub-brands, a primary and secondary color palette, and fonts

You have a clear brand implementation plan that defines the creative strategy, creative execution, and marketing tactics your institution will use to express your brand positioning to your key audiences.

You conduct follow-up research 1-2 years following a branding campaign to ensure your brand positioning is conveying what you want it to, and if it is changing

Our Client Benefits and Successes

The Change Leader’s proprietary processes and methods have helped multiple universities and colleges grow their enrollment and improve fundraising as a result of improving their brand positioning. Some of the areas we’ve helped colleges and universities improve include:

  • Conducted market research and developed a brand positioning statement and core message statements that improved enrollment and advancement communications

  • Developed a brand architecture framework and visual identity, including logo, color palette, and fonts, giving a consistent look and feel across an institution’s communication platforms

  • Developed a strategic marketing implementation plan that rolled out the brand positioning across key audiences, including prospective students, parents, alumni, and donors, resulting in increased enrollments and donations

  • Audited an institution’s website and marketing materials to identify opportunities to strengthen the communication of the institution’s brand positioning, and once they implemented the changes, their enrollment and donations increased

Marketing and Brand Positioning Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Most frequent questions about marketing and brand positioning consulting for higher education

Why is strong branding and positioning important to higher education institutions?

Strong brand positioning ensures that you are telling your institution’s story in an authentic, consistent, and aspirational way. It provides language and visual imagery to all of the communicators across your institution. And buyers want consistency across your platforms so that they aren’t confused as to who you are and the value you offer.

What is the difference between branding and positioning?

The terms branding and positioning are frequently used interchangeably, however, they’re not the same thing.

Positioning is differentiation and branding is establishing expectations and recognition of the differentiation. 

We use the term “positioning” to refer to the art and science of defining a brand in the minds of your target audience; students, parents, faculty, employers, and consumer perceptions, for example, that differentiates your institution from the sea of choices in the marketplace.

While branding includes the elements your college or university uses to convey that positioning message to evoke the image of the expectations and experience of your institution. These usually include the logo, tagline, slogan, etc…

What do you do for your clients in a typical brand positioning project?

The deliverables of a brand positioning project generally include a market research summary, positioning statement, key messages by audience, visual identity, and marketing implementation plan; however, this can vary based on the needs of the institution.

How important is market research to good brand positioning?

Market research is essential to solid brand positioning. If your institution has been in existence for a while, you already have a brand. The question is whether you know what it is. Further, your institution’s leaders may have a very different perception of what the institution stands for than what its external audience members think it stands for. And it’s the perception of the external audience members that will drive the business results.

Is market research expensive?

Market research can be very expensive, especially if you retain a big name firm that specializes in market research. Most of the time that isn’t needed.

Market research doesn’t have to be expensive or time-consuming. Depending on your budget, timing, and goals, it may involve one-on-one meetings with stakeholders, or group discussions with a relatively small number of people. Or it may involve quantitative surveys among large groups across multiple audiences. We will identify a plan that best meets the needs of your institution.

Most market research can be done at low cost to your institution, and will get you 90% of the information you need to understand your positioning and branding. 

Does brand positioning include development of a new logo?

A new visual identity, including a main logo, sub-logos, primary and secondary color palette, and fonts, is frequently included in a brand positioning project; however, some clients are only looking to (re)define brand messaging and want to maintain their current visual identity.

How long does a brand positioning project take?

Generally, a brand positioning project can take 8 weeks or less. However, we have found that a strategic brand positioning project that starts with market research and ends with an implementation plan takes 12-18 months.

It is the implementation portion of a strategic brand positioning project that takes the most time and effort.

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