University Market Study and their marketing messages

University Marketing Study

By Tom Dougherty

Colleges and universities of all stripes are expected to feel the pinch even more so in the coming years as the economic climate has put a serious damper on prospective students. Jobs are harder to come by for that demographic, student loans will become scarcer and more expensive, and universities are cutting back on what they offer.

It’s a bad time to be young.

The University Market Study revealed little to no differentiation
All the messages seem the same

It’s no better to be an educational institution – although that is partly its own fault. Instead of rebranding so they are emotionally resonate with prospective students, universities claim category benefits, market similar messaging and often leave the “brand” up to sports teams. Rarely do they provide the “why” that would otherwise provide meaning and value to those benefits.

They need to peel back the layer one more time.

The identification with sports teams only works nationally for the largest universities who appear on ESPN, while smaller university sports teams only become meaningful to regional fans.

But the large universities have not given much thought to what their sports teams really mean, especially nationally. For example, the University of Kentucky men’s basketball team has gained a reputation in recent years as the home for the “one-and-done” players. The ones who play one year, then leave for the NBA. The meta question is, “Is a degree [in higher education] that meaningless?”

While not all students are on the same platform as these particular athletes (who have the immediate access to millions of dollars by jumping ship to the NBA), the fact remains that institutions of higher education must consider their brand in the business of education – and that includes its sports teams, for better or worse.

It is best to keep in mind that rebranding a college or a university does not mean limiting your focus on that school’s particular color pallet, logo or mascot. Those are minuscule branding tactics that many universities believe are most important. While these minor attributes certainly abide under the umbrella of rebranding and need to be considered, institutions of higher education should hone in on other branding aspects to attract more admissions.

Some of these aspects include:

What makes attending said institution more valuable than another?

Who does the student believe they are as an attendee of said institution?

What does a degree from said institution mean for the student, and how does it reflect upon the university when that student is in the workforce?

the university market study demonstrated business issues
Education is a business

Why will a student be both willing and eager to take out exorbitant student loans in order to attend said institution, and will that student ever be able to repay these loans or find a job after earning the degree?

And most importantly: How will said university help the student aspire to the emotional self-reflection of who they are while attending the university and who they will be after?

The assumption here being that institutions of higher education must consider precepts, belief systems that drive behavior, and not solely focus on the superficial aspects of their institutions. Doing such brings fleeting success, lack of focus and any tangible ability to steal market share from other universities competing over the same student.

In our opening example, the University of Kentucky has built a brand of impermanence, one that any institution should not relish in. Its trade off for winning and making millions of dollars via athletics has brought upon its own reward (albeit, not a positive one for its brand). For Kentucky, the ramifications of its current focus has been nothing short of negative. The media has had a field day covering the school, and sports enthusiasts outside of the Kentucky fan base look poorly upon the school.

The sad fact is that, at least in men’s basketball, this might become more of the norm. North Carolina, anyone?

Kentucky’s goal is to earn money and gain national recognition through athletics — which is why it, among hordes of other institutions, must heed the call and consider how it is perceived in the world of academia by potential students. (It should be noted: To some students, this approach might mean they are associated with a winner, a cutthroat version of their own self-reflection.)

Can institutions of higher education build student preference and steal market share? Undoubtedly. A few already have — which is why we are finding the advent and success of online and adult education classes and degrees, and technical and for-profit universities as a trend that’s transforming the industry. In fact, three of largest enrollments in the nation come from these institutions.

The competition is fiercer than ever and schools with focus and a message are stealing market share. In short, institutions must take action and build preference by rebranding through meaning, instead of category benefits.


The private and public university systems are the most massive, nuanced component of this study. With each state supporting a public institution (and, most times, multiple institutions), and a plethora of private universities as well — each with a different brand and student agenda. Looking at the market as whole, there is a dire need for smart and exact rebranding strategies.

For example, a University of Tennessee journalism student recently wrote that she was unhappy with Tennessee’s new brand theme line, “Big Orange, Big Ideas.” Unhappy with the massive amount of money spent around a poorly planned theme, this student begged the need for the university to focus its brands around the student, not the university or its color.

University market studyThis student is correct. The brand of the public and private university should always be built around the attendees of the university and how students define themselves in context. Who are these students? What are their hopes and dreams and what will they become by attending this state or private institution? What are the emotional self-reflections they aspire to be? A winner? The smartest person in the room? One who knows what’s important? There are numerous emotional positions a university could take, but do not.

The mistake here, like with so many other universities, comes by promoting what the university’s prowess is or the simple category benefits of being a university student – which are positions any institution could claim.

Instead, universities should be promoting the unique qualities each student brings to the university and how the university can reflect those.

Referring back to the University of Tennessee theme: “Big Orange, Big Ideas”, we are faced with a typically foolish mission statement.  Tennessee, with this particular theme line, is celebrating the school’s color first. Why would they do that? Next, they wish you to know that the university has “Big Ideas”.

So, what does this say about the student?

Nothing at all. Rather the message here is that the school is big and orange, and because of that it has big deals. It is essentially its way of giving itself a “pat on the back.” The theme should be geared toward saying Tennessee’s students have big ideas. Whether, that’s intensive or not is another discussion, but the Orange-Idea them cost UT more than $60,000.


However, Kentucky and Tennessee are no different than nearly all of the large public and private universities in the US.

Take for instance the following television advertisement for Seton Hall University. Here, we have a standard voice over against the backdrop of the picturesque Seton Hall setting. Throw in a nod to the university’s accomplishments as well as routine action shots of its basketball team (whom the announcer boasts is in the Big East conference).

Folks, we have ourselves the standard of university advertising.

At least Seton Hall has broken the mold by including a mildly effective, student centric tagline: “Seton Hall. Where leaders learn” and its highlighting of New York City does give it some self-reflection cache.

Still, it’s paint by the numbers.

Not that far removed from Seton Hall is a recent campaign created for Kent State University that proves tone and attitude matter as much as message.

While more student-oriented, this advertisement also suffers from nearly the same bland statements found in most university advertising. Here, Kent State is branding itself as “anything but typical,” a “top ranked university” where you can find “an array of programs as diverse as you are.” These assertions all fall prey to severe banality of everyday university advertising speak and, essentially, lack any concrete branding position because of its failure of execution. If Kent State is “anything but typical,” its campaign should be anything but typical too.


Truthfully, you can search Google for any state university advertising campaign and will find much of the same: platitudinal academic statements against a beautiful university backdrop and a hokey tag-line that normally centers around the university — not the student — to close out the thirty seconds.

Like this commercial for Brigham Young University, which instead has used “signage” in place of the standard stock voice over, to sell the school:

Or the following commercial for Wichita State University:

But perhaps even worse is this example for the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Here, the students have become unrealistic spokespeople for the university:

I ask anyone reading, are these students truly a symbol of the hopes and dreams or the inherent nervousness present in our college bound students?

These are some of the reasons why university commercials fail miserably in rebranding a university. The messages are the same, the visual tone and attitudes are similar and any attempt at reflecting the student are amateurish.

University market studyThese examples of the university at a “macro” level have a nearly infomercial feel to them — forced sentiments, unnatural promises and an overinflated sense of self. It’s surprising to not find a smiling, clapping audience in the background.

Think about it. In all of these examples we are treated to nearly identical tonal approaches and promises. What student doesn’t want to say they have ambition? Which school isn’t one that spawns ideas? If you are a college that doesn’t, it’s time to get out of the game. Statements like these are nearly as foolish as a Blu-Ray manufacturer selling that its machines have a play button.

In essence, few are positioned against other universities. There’s nothing different or better about them in terms of their brand positions.

These are also no defining characteristics of a brand. Instead, these are just the overriding table stakes. Why have these commercial atrocities become the standard barer for public and private school advertising, especially in such a competitive category where so much money is on the line?

Let’s return to the argument that a university’s brand must hinge around the unique qualities and life experiences of the student. When these ideas are apparent, a big preference-building difference takes place.

For example, the following commercial for the University at Texas El Paso (UTEP) has done something close to right. It replaces the trite and passionless VO focusing on the school’s achievements with a story about children with real hopes and dreams. While it’s story focuses on the university’s space program, the evocative imagery, music and tagline of “Dream Big” succeed. These ideas are about the ambitions of the student and UTEP’s role in the fulfillment of your dreams is implied beautifully. This pushes this collegiate advertisement into a higher league.

In order to steal market share, you must not boast the same position as your competitor. That seems to be the problem with pubic and private universities, doesn’t it? With each representing a jellybean of the same color, why would anyone have preference over any other? Each tastes the same, and each brings the same result.

So where’s the difference?


For-profit universities may currently have the strongest and most profitable place in the “business” of education — and that is most certainly what these institutions are. A business.

Using aggressive advertising tactics, a well skilled sales force, and a stronghold on the federal student loan system, these universities have become known for “recruiting students who don’t understand the debt burden under which they’ll spend their lives” (

Here’s how they work.

For-profit universities employ well-produced mass media (internet, print, billboard, radio and television ads) to build brand recognition. For example, visit Google and type in the key word, “university.” Who owns the first option under Google Ads? That’s right, the University of Phoenix — the world’s largest for-profit institution.

At first glance, one would not realize that these schools lack proper accreditation — a major downfall for these universities. Moreover, as reported by PBS in its documentary College Inc., these schools also lack the depth of degree requisites that properly prepare students for the work force.

For-profits seek to strike a cord with low-income, potential students looking for a degree to change their life’s circumstance. Again, let’s use our example of the University of Phoenix. Say you are a potential student and you follow Phoenix’s Google Ad. First, you click on the link and are brought to a somewhat vague website for the university (but has been created very tactically to get you to sign up as quickly as possible.)

Here’s a shot of the site’s intro page:

University Market Study

Although the brand of the University of Phoenix can only be gleaned from the name (rising after being left for dead) and is a good one, the site itself has been developed tactically. How? Because you are forced to click further and become involved as a user and potential customer (even if you are just curious).

Obviously, you’ll need to follow the “Learn More” link to get anywhere on the site. It could prompt visitor anger, but clicking on it prompts the visitor through several questions like, “What’s your degree interest?” “What’s your level of education?” as well as location. Following these questions, you are brought to a form letter which, looks like this:
University Market Study
Like any user coming to this form, you can either exit immediately or complete the form with the hopes that you can find the answer to your questions about the University of Phoenix.

University marketing studyBut here is the hook. Completing this form and the leading questions gives Phoenix a telephone number, which allows the sales force to call you — whenever they want. Incidentally, Phoenix also knows your educational interests, and experiences. This allows their salespeople to pull on your heartstrings on the phone.

As was reported by PBS, the sales force of for-profit universities are a tireless, focused and driven group. They call incessantly, and make educational and career promises (which can reel in many financially struggling adults). Their goal? For you to believe that their university is the answer to your prayers. (Rising like a phoenix?)

Now, what about federal student loans? These degrees, unbelievably, cost more than in-state tuition at a university. For example, undergrad programs are currently $550/credit + $90/course tech fee. Typically, each course is 3-4 credits and you will need approximately 120 credits to graduate. Adding this up, this will cost you roughly $70,000. Plus, these calculations do not reflect additional expenses like books and graduation.

Shockingly, these schools (while only accounting for 10% of the nation’s total college student population) account for 25% of federal student aid and, even more astoundingly, make up nearly half of all student loan defaults.

This begs the question: What is a college degree truly worth? Is a low-income individual truly in a better financial position prior to attending a for-profit? Or are a degree, debt and the possibility of no job actually worse? For-profit’s are betting on the latter.

Even if you don’t agree with the process, for-profits are a big business, and they have recognized their difference better than any other collegiate system in the market.

Take, for example, these television campaigns:

First is for the market leader, The University of Phoenix. In this spot a successful professional in police attire proclaims that: “I am a Phoenix” and is part of a larger campaign.

Here is another spot focusing on another adult who has earned her doctorate through Phoenix. She tells us what it feels like to graduate from an institution of higher education, and it is hard to avoid that sense of joy as a viewer:

Without pulling any punches, these commercials are heads and tails better than those produced by the major state and private universities. These advertisements are evocative, personal and inspiring. Who, after watching, wouldn’t also want to be a “Phoenix”? They are the most emotional ones in the market. It’s one of the reasons why Phoenix has the largest enrollment in the nation, with more than 300,000 students annually.

How about Walden University — another massively successful for-profit? The following commercial is also student-centric and hinges on the “higher purposes” of the attendees at Walden.

Equally as poignant is the following advertisement for Kaplan University:

There are two points about this for profits. For one, they are generally directed at the older student, much more so than private or public universities. Therefore, the focus is more on their aspirational end results rather than the college experience.

The other point is that their production values are much sharper than those of non-profits. That makes a difference as many within other industries battle unsuccessfully with lower production values that just contributes to an “unprofessional” brand face. (Credit unions in the face of the banking industry are a prime example.) It’s no wonder the rate of for-profits students is increasing.

University market studySadly for those attending for-profits, the branding promise of these universities does not translate to jobs in the real world. Recently, Education Week shared that: “Although the for-profit schools have greater success at retaining students in their first year and getting them to complete short programs at the certificate and AA levels, they were not as successful in the employment arena compared with similar students at other types of schools, the research found.”

Continuing: “Graduates of for-profit colleges had earnings from work that were on average $1,800 to $2,000 less than their counterparts at other schools. This study notes the gap was likely linked to lower rates of employment. Students with training from for-profits were 4.8 percentage points to 6.7 percentage points more likely to be unemployed than those who attended other types of institutions.”

Ultimately, the impact of for-profit universities is big. But that brand does not guarantee you a better future.


Not far removed from the brand strategy of for-profits are technical and community colleges and they need to be included in any university marketing study (despite not technically being a university). Recently, the US Department of Education met to focus on a new action plan for postsecondary students, as the Washington Post reported, “The plan is sure to be met with enthusiasm by community-college leaders across the country.”

The Washington Post report continues, “Historically, the chief available measure of an institution’s success was its graduation rate. Presumably, the higher the rate, the better the institution. Until now, the graduation rate for community colleges has been based on the proportion of first-time, full-time, degree-seeking students who graduate within three or four years of enrolling.”

The Post adds that, “For many reasons, though, this rate has presented an incomplete and distorted picture of community college success. The majority of community-college students attend part-time, and many transfer in from other colleges. Both of these sizable populations have been excluded in traditional graduation rate calculations.” The entire report can be read here

Interestingly, a billboard campaign has been running in Dallas which admonishes these very issues, it reads:

University Market Study

Not surprisingly, Dallas DCCD is up in arms over the campaign, and understandably so.

This tarnished outlook is the impetus for the heightened enthusiasm. Why? These colleges represent two intriguing traits in the education system. One, they prepare the student for a specific skill-set, and two, they act as a stepping-stone for students interested in pursuing a four-year university.

Fortunately for these institutions, these specific agendas create an immediately definable difference – but they are not brands.

For example, the following print advertisement (while poorly designed) for Northeastern Technical College pinpoints the need for a technical college: “NETC was my pathway to an internship…”


University Market Study

The focus here being the student, and secondly, what NETC can do for you to become the success you have always dreamed of being. Again, however, it simply describes the category benefit of a technical college, which does have a different model (and also attracts a different kind of student).

The following ad for Hinds Community College is also student-centric, but still fails to explain why it’s important emotionally. What if it was about taking an important position in a place of need? In that way, it’s at least say the reason why being a caregiver is important emotionally to the student.

Instead, it only shows the student in her desired field:


University Market Study

Or, as represented in this billboard for Ivy Tech Community College, the primary focus hinges on potential students looking for that “life change.”

Like the preceding billboard and print advertisements, the following commercial for First Coast Technical College (though abysmally produced), boasts it’s plethora of specific technical degree options and its affordability (another key selling point for the community and technical college brand)

There is an overriding problem, though. The community and technical colleges have only defined themselves by the category, which is only a small leap from where universities stand. The very definition of technical and community colleges is that they offer specific degrees for specific careers, which means they are defined by the courses they offer.

The next step for the individual community colleges is to uncover the reasons why those careers are emotionally important to the student. In a way, we suspect prospective students don’t know what career they would choose and an emotional self-reflection – that goes beyond the simple definition of that career – would make them covet that school over others.

Simply put, community colleges are positioned against other higher educational institutions as a category, but they have yet to reach the point where they attempt to steal market share from each other. Without that, the category has a ceiling in attracting new students.


You can’t have a university marketing study without talking about athletics and college sports. It is of no surprise that collegiate sports mean big money. Flaunting a successful college sports team can be just the ticket to put a small school in the national spotlight — which helps to generate enrollment. (For example, when George Mason made the Final Four in 2006, its freshmen enrollment increased 20 percent.)

Despite our nation’s economic hardships, in 2011, the USA Today reported that: “More than $470 million in new money poured into major-college athletics programs last year, boosting spending on sports even as many of the parent universities struggled with budget reductions during tough economic times.”

Love it or hate it, this ongoing flood of money continues to spew into university athletic programs — and a direct extension of that can be seen through advertising.

For example, the following commercial for Boston College’s football program seems to rival the production value of the preview of, say, Avatar or Gladiator. Anthem like music, football superstars and a ruckus crowd to boot — any potential student would salivate to be a part of this energetic scene even if the ad is targeted to ticket holders.

Sadly, if you search the internet for a commercial focusing on the college itself, you can’t find anything but the outreach to ticket holders to Boston College’s athletic teams. Tells you something, doesn’t it?

Outside of school advertising, ESPN, CBS and other sporting networks generate school awareness with their own advertising featuring many different universities (those with a good team, of course).

Like the following example entitled “Dancing Coaches” by ESPN:

Or their University of Alabama, “Roll Tide” advertisement:

It’s hardly worth mentioning the difference in quality and rebranding focus these athletic commercials possess over the standard university advertisement. Teams can easily help to reinforce a rebranding effort, and the fervor and focus of a coach, as well as their players, can go a long way when defining a brand even if the ads are designed to attract viewers.

It’s important to note that college athletics hold a powerful position in attracting students as they speak to the experience of attending and how students define themselves.


Higher education, as presented, has many nuanced facets: state and private colleges, technical and community colleges, and for-profit universities, to name only a smattering of the few components.

What has become apparent is that there is no single market leader when it comes to rebranding in education — the strongest positions are the for-profit institutions because of their model, not necessarily their brands.

University market studyWhen rebranding, schools must be cognizant of their reason for existing — the student, their betterment and the future they can cultivate. If rebranded well, as seen in the television commercial for UTEP, a university can be the place where “big dreams” can become a reality. But if done poorly, they are simply a poor man’s infomercial.

This University Market Study shows that Universities must also find that highest emotional intensity that makes students covet them. At the moment, there few if any universities that speak to who you are as a student of that university on an emotional level beyond messages taken by competitors.

Universities must also find that highest emotional intensity that makes students covet them. At the moment, there few if any universities that speak to who you are as a student of that university on an emotional level beyond messages taken by competitors.

The major problem universities are having in rebranding themselves is they rarely present anything other than a category benefit. Even UTEP’s “big dreams” has an expected quality. It’s not positioned against anything else so does not offer a true choice.

Few, if any, have answered the question why those benefits are important to the prospective student. The ones who uncover that and aggressively market it will see their enrollment increase.

To hear more about the brands of higher institutions, and how we can help rebrand yours, please contact us at: or call us at 336-389-9315.

 Here is a link to an article in University Business where Tom Dougherty was interviewed for his expertise in the category