Branducation: Brand development works in education, too

I don’t think education has ever been more important than it is now. A student can’t just stop with a high school diploma—he has to keep going, either to college or a trade school. There’s a lot of competition to get students, but if a school has a solid brand strategy, it will have an advantage over its competition in attracting students.


I call it branducation…brand development in the education sector.


Too often, a school—and it doesn’t matter if it’s elementary, high school or college—will do nothing more than spend a lot of money in advertising and recruitment, hoping to get a part of the market share. But that’s short-sighted. Every school really needs to conduct really meaningful brand discovery to learn what is truly unique about it. In doing so, they’d save a lot of money in recruitment and have a better ROI.


It must be tiring for schools to compete against each other at every level, including recruitment. But there is no reason competing schools cannot attract the audience that will thrive in their educational offering.


Many markets have more than one college, and they understandably compete for enrollment dollars. For example, here in Florida, how do the major universities—Florida and Florida State—compete for students if it’s not family-driven, if their parents didn’t go there? Or here in Jacksonville, there’s strong competition between Jacksonville University, the University of North Florida and now Florida State College-Jacksonville (FSCJ), which changed from a junior college to a four-year college. There’s no compelling distinction to choose one over another. Heck, even a lot of their promotional material looks the same.


UNF used to compete against private JU by saying it was the only public college in Jacksonville, but now it competes for students with FSCJ, which is less expensive. Will a prospective student go to UNF if he can get the same degree—on paper—from FSCJ?


Interestingly, Jacksonville’s magnet schools developed their own brands without even realizing it. Douglas Anderson High School is the school for the arts. So is LaVilla Middle School. Stanton and Paxon are college prep schools. Kirby Smith Middle School specializes in technology. Those are brands. But some of Jacksonville’s private schools—and especially its colleges—have not done that.


The decision has to be made on brand distinction. A school has to know what it offers that is truly unique, and not just the education. What is the college experience that it offers? It has to show people why they should attend. Why it’s the school for you. Every school—elementary, high school or college—has to uncover what is really unique about it and then attract students who seek and find value in that uniqueness. They can’t just offer a four-year degree. They have to make it a four-year experience so it feels like the perfect place for a student.


Students seek what’s important to them. They don’t just automatically go to the local college, and they don’t go to Florida or Florida State just because they’re state schools. Students seek a school that gives them meaning, that defines him or her, just as in the business sector. Brand development can be done successfully in the educational sector.


So how do you do that in education? By conducting a brand discovery workshop (or a series of them for a university). You dig in deep and uncover what is unique, authentic and already present. What about your school has become murky? What is it capable of becoming? If it uses the lens of what it already has—its natural strengths and attributes—it might be that there’s something more aspirational that maybe isn’t true today. Maybe a school is not very far from what it wants but doesn’t know how to get there. But, once it finds it, it can catapult a school over its competition.


Once a school has identified its uniqueness, then it can focus internally with its faculty and alumni, getting everyone buying into the brand. That would be a lot of resources activated in the community—people living the school’s brand at every point in their life because they believe it.


A school needs to create a student brand. We call it an internal adoption program. The faculty and the students are the audience because they’re part of the school, not just for four years but for a lifetime. And if schools want alumni donations, they have to engage their students before they graduate. It’s about engaging the students in a value-based, brand-centric way so they will stay with you for generations.


The schools we’ve brought to life through rebranding have uncovered what is truly unique about their school and what has meaning and value to students and parents. Sometimes we uncover what a school already knew but had become diluted. We figure out their distinction, their market, and we employ a long-term strategy of brand development, not just a short-lived marketing plan that isn’t sustainable.


A school doesn’t want to keep creating a new marketing or enrollment campaign. It has to breed loyalty, prestige and alumni passion. And it can be done with branducation—an effective brand strategy that will last and reap successes for years to come.