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Why branding still matters

August 4, 2020   //   Zehno

This is, quite frankly, a terrifying time for higher education.

Budgets are tight. Every staff is stretched thin. There’s uncertainty around both the immediate future (Will we make our enrollment numbers? What’s our distance learning plan?) and the long term (Will the campus experience be permanently changed? Will college even exist anymore?).

We’ve seen plenty of sweeping proclamations about how colleges can “fix” this situation, such as shift entirely to remote learning, fully reopen campus, cut programs, make tuition free, partner with a Fortune 500 company.

You might as well be rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

But there’s still hope yet — if you have a strong brand as your foundation.

Branding has a mixed reputation in higher education. When it’s not done well, it can be seen as inauthentic, or even counter to a university’s teaching and learning environment. And it doesn’t often top the list of mission-critical things needed for a school to operate.

But your school’s brand is actually more important now than it’s ever been. (And it’s something you actually have the power to influence.) Here’s why you can’t afford to ignore it now.

You can’t brag about what you do best if you can’t articulate what that is.

According to Moody’s Investors Service, universities with the strongest brands are positioned best for coronavirus challenges. That’s because those schools are poised to double down on what they’ve been saying about themselves all along — and offer assurance that those things will never change.

But if your school hasn’t yet rallied around a unifying promise, it will be much harder to draw in new students who are newly wary of the idea of college in general.

On that note…

College is becoming a harder sell.

As more schools shift to distance learning or hybrid models, students and parents are calling into question the value of a traditional four-year degree — especially at schools with a higher price tag.

We’re hearing about more and more students opting for a gap year, community college, or opting out of higher ed entirely and going straight into the workforce. This all means that, instead of hunkering down and waiting for the pandemic to pass, you should be working harder than ever to prove your value to prospects.

A strong brand can help you rise above the alternative options and show your best-fit students why you still matter.

Your college president cares about branding — even if it doesn’t seem like it.

Since March, Inside Higher Ed has regularly surveyed college and university presidents about their plans and concerns for the future of their institutions. In surveys spanning three months, presidents’ interests had increased only in two areas: marketing and communications and “strengthening brand perception.” And 35% of presidents said that their school should “focus more on what it does best” so that it can “invest and grow in those areas once the recession ends.”

So right now could be the best time to start the conversation with leadership about ramping up your school’s branding. They may be one step ahead of you already.

Ready to strengthen your brand? Ways Zehno can help.


Go back to the drawing board and start with the biggest questions: How are you communicating your value? What are you saying to stand out in your competitor set? Our branding project can start where you need the most help: focus groups, surveys, a competitor review, brand audit, brand positioning, key messages or creative.


Don’t have the time or resources to commit to a total brand overhaul? Gather the ammunition you need to build your case for why a more robust branding effort is in order. Take the temperature of your student prospects, alumni, current students and other audiences invested in your school’s brand. Our focus groups and surveys reveal often-surprising insights that our clients use to drive strategic decisions and reach their goals.

Flagship content

Infuse your existing brand with fresh content — profiles, photography, videos and more. We’ve seen some incredibly creative ways that photographers are working within social distancing regulations. We’d love to share some ideas with you!

Learn more

We can help you move the needle. Contact us for a customized project scope to fit your goals, budget and schedule.

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