Rebrand time? Why you should talk to a researcher first…

In Education, Research by Jen Steadman

Universities haven’t always paid close attention to their brand, instead relying on their reputation and metrics like grades to attract students. But as the higher education marketplace grows increasingly competitive, and the fight for student recruitment intensifies, it’s becoming especially important for institutions to appeal to students.

One clear way universities can set themselves apart from the crowd is to double down on their branding efforts. In this article we take a look at why branding matters in higher education, the benefits of rebranding and how to plan and implement a successful rebrand.

Why branding matters

Branding – everything from the name and logo to the style of language used in communications– is one of the most identifiable assets an institution has. It communicates what an institution does, what it stands for and who it’s for.

Without clear and effective branding, a student may at best be left unsure of what value an institute has and at worst mistakenly think it’s not for them when in fact it would be a fantastic fit. In such cases, as well as other scenarios such as a change of direction, a university may benefit from a rebrand.

The benefits of a university rebrand

As discussed above, there are many reasons why a university may want to consider a rebrand. They may need to update an outdated brand, appeal to a fresh generation or shift the current focus onto a new area. When a rebrand is well executed it offers a range of benefits including:

  • Establishing an emotional connection with target students
  • Differentiating clearly from competitors
  • Demonstrating the ability to evolve and stay current
  • Reflecting new areas of focus (e.g. departments, courses, staff)
  • Improving brand reputation and thus credibility
  • Ultimately, increasing student recruitment

The case for a research-led rebrand

So why isn’t every university considering a rebrand? To be blunt, it’s time-consuming and easy to get it wrong. There’s a lot more to a successful rebrand than a jazzy new logo and slogan. Consider the cases of the University of Waterloo and the University of California; both institutes rushed into a rebrand and faced a huge amount of backlash and resistance.

Instead of rushing, an effective rebrand involves utilising extensive market research to drill down into the nitty gritty of what needs to change and for whom. Thorough market research will also ensure new positioning won’t alienate current students and alumni, like the aforementioned examples did.

By using quality market research tools, you can also crystallise the reasons behind the rebrand and ensure they are valid and that your goals are appropriate and achievable. The type of research undertaken will vary from institute to institute, but most should consider both consumer and competitor research. This will enable an institute to gain a thorough insight into the marketplace and help create a rebrand that communicates your institutes values appropriately, in a way that chimes with stakeholders.

Top tips for a successful university rebrand

  1. Know your prospective students

First things first, you need to really get to know your target audience. Even if nothing major has changed at your institute, the way in which you communicate will need updating. Why? Your target students have changed. If you’re messaging is still stuck in the days of Millennials, there’s every chance it’s not striking the right note with Generation Z.

Action: Using various market research tools, you can segment your prospective students even more effectively and learn how to best get their attention.

  1. Find your strengths

Every university is capable of having a specific student niche, or niches, that they can serve best. Narrowing down on that niche is a great way to find a focus for your rebranding campaign.

Perhaps there is an area of study that your university is renowned for, or maybe you offer a degree that nobody else does. Perhaps one of your departments is revered in their respective research community, or maybe one of your courses has an industry leader as a professor?

It pays to think outside of the box too. Perhaps your university excels in offering part-time or long-distance courses or maybe there is a strong connection with a certain industry, allowing students to gain vital real-world experience.

You can then find out which of these areas chimes best with your target students and effectively communicate these benefits.

Action: Carry out market research to find out what currently drives people to your university and from this develop a list of your institute’s strengths.

  1. Assess the competition

With the race for students officially on, no rebrand is complete without a thorough assessment of your main competitors. The harsh reality is that there are more universities than ever before with many likely offering a similar selection of courses to their prospective students as you. The key is to understand this and then find a way to differentiate your offering in a way which attracts a certain segment of the market to your university over another.

By carrying out the aforementioned strength research, you’ll fortunately already have a list of ways you can stand out from the crowd. Teaming this up with an effective competitor analysis will help ensure that your potential strengths aren’t too similar to your competitors. It has the added bonus of revealing competitor weakness, which will help you to avoid making the same mistakes.

Action: Conduct a thorough competitor analysis of similar universities (e.g. in your area, with similar courses etc.) and ensure you have differentiated yourself from them adequately.

  1. Communicate value effectively

Once all of the above is done, you will need to develop a plan to communicate it effectively. You can use market research tools to find out what kind of messaging, and in what format, your target students would best respond to. Take the previous example of Generation Z, they are particularly well-known for placing importance on privacy, so you’d need to make sure that any student recruitment drive wasn’t too intrusive and respected their privacy lest you risk alienating them.

Action: Once you are clear on your target students, what value you can offer them and how you can differentiate yourself from the pack, you can use market research to learn how to effectively communicate your rebrand in a way which elicits the best response from your prospective students.

In conclusion…

With an increasingly competitive marketplace, universities need to stand out for the right reasons and attract the right students now more than ever before. Branding plays a crucial role in this and if it’s been a while since branding has been considered in a meaningful way at your institute, it could be time for a rebrand.

A research-led rebrand can help your institute highlight new target students, establish an emotional connection with them and make the case for why they should choose your institute over your competitors. It will also showcase your university’s ability to evolve with the times and help bolster its reputation. All of this should ultimately lead to an increase in student recruitment.

A successful rebrand requires extensive market research to ensure it is targeting the right people, with the right message through the right channels. By undertaking a research-led rebrand you’ll get clear on who your prospective students are, what the universities unique set of strengths is and how you can separate yourself from your competition. You can then learn how to communicate all of this in a way that resonates with your target audience and results in more applications to your university.

Want an idea of how we can help you rebrand? View our LUMS brand case study video here.