Rebranding universities and changing the way they market.

Market Study

“Few, if any, have answer 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.”

Rebranding Universities. A Marketing Study.

Rebranding universities and colleges abound because they all feel the pinch. In the coming years, as the economy puts a damper on prospective students, rebranding will be mandatory.

Jobs are harder to come by for students. Student loans are scarcer and more expensive. And universities are cutting back on what they offer. It is business.

Rebranding universities. It’s a bad time to be young.

rebranding universities

All the messages seem the same

All the messages seem the same.

It sucks to be a college or university— although that is partly their own fault.

Instead of rebranding so they are emotionally intensive with students, universities claim the same crap. They all market the same messaging and leave the “brand” up to their sports teams. (Read a new article on how declining population will affect universities and their rebranding)

They don’t provide the “why” that would provide meaning and add value to those mundane benefits. Hard to call it university rebranding when it all turns out the same.

It’s time to peel back the layer for real this time. (Read an article on rebranding colleges here.)

Brand Identification

Brand identification with sports teams only works for the largest universities that appear on ESPN and conference networks. And, even for those lucky enough to be a major sports program, it’s scary to leave your brand meaning up to those unpredictable athletes and coaches.

Smaller university and college sports teams only have a small chance at meaning to local and regional prospects. But the large universities have not given much thought, even those who think they have already rebranded their U. Universities wake up and think about what their athletics mean, especially nationally.

The University of Kentucky men’s basketball team has a national reputation. A reputation as the home for the “one-and-done” players. The meaning is, “Is a degree [in higher education] important at all?” That’s a great university rebranding theme, don’t you think?

Not everyone is on the same standing as these pampered athletes. They have access to millions of dollars by jumping ship to the NBA.

Rebranding Universities is BIG business

Colleges and universities must consider their brand in the business of education. A that includes its sports teams, for better or worse.

Keep in mind that rebranding universities and colleges does not mean changing a just color palette, logo, or mascot.

Those might pass for r branding but they are just tactics.

Universities believe they are most important. These minor changes certainly live under the umbrella of rebranding universities and must be considered.

But rebranding is MUCH more. colleges and universities need to wake up to real rebranding. The kind that aspects attract more admissions.

Ask a few questions. Answer them with a hard truth. Forget for just o minute all the bullshit.

What REALLY makes attending your university more valuable than another?

Brand Strategy

Who does the student believe they ARE when they choose you?

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

That’s the questions that need answers when the decision to rebrand universities is made.

It’s not for the weak of heart. Lots of politics will try to hold you back or cloud out clarity with marketing jargon.

Turns out that is your damn advantage. That is if you are willing to tell the truth.

rebranding universities

Education is a business

Education is a damn business. So is rebranding universities

Why will a student take out exorbitant student loans to attend any university? And how will they ever be able to repay the loans or find a job after graduation?

How will a university help the student? Help them become the emotional self-reflection of who they believe they are (or want to be)?

Rebranding Universities means that colleges and universities must understand belief systems. The belief systems that control human behavior. Stop focusing on superficial crap that the colleges talk about.

A lack of focus kills the ability to steal market share from competitors. And you have competitors.

The University of Kentucky (we will pick on them again) has a brand of in-and-out. One they need to RUN away from.

It’s the trade-off they made for winning and making millions of dollars.  Basketball has brought its own reward (albeit, not a positive one for its brand). For Kentucky, alumni contributions overshadow any real brand. The ramifications of its current focus are negative.

Sorry Kentucky (but you are not alone)

The media has had a field day covering the school, and sports fans outside of the Kentucky fan base look down on the university.

In terms of men’s basketball, this is the norm. North Carolina, anyone?

Or if you are Alabama it’s just football.

Kentucky’s goal is money national recognition through basketball. This is why it must start paying attention to the results. How it the University of Kentucky perceived in the academic world by potential students.

(To some students, this approach might mean they are associated with a winner, a cutthroat version of their own self-reflection.)

Rebranding Universities is an option. Not a Name Change.

Can rebranding universities build student preference and steal market share? Yes.

A few already have.  This is why we are seeing the success of online and adult education.  Classes, degrees, and technical and for-profit universities is a trend that’s changing the industry.

If you have trouble calling higher education an industry you are already finished. Three of the largest enrollments in the nation come from these institutions.

The competition is fierce. Schools with focus and clear messaging are stealing market share. Everyone must act and build preference by rebranding universities through meaning. Forget all the crappy clichés and marketing BS.

Rebranding Universities. Private and State Schools.

The private and public university systems are the most massive, nuanced part of this study.

With each state supporting a public university (and, most times more than one).  A shit load of private universities as well — each with a different brand and student agenda. Look at the market as a whole, there is a desperate need for smart and exact rebranding universities as a strategy.

A University of Tennessee journalism student recently wrote that she was unhappy with Tennessee’s new brand theme line, “Big Orange, Big Ideas.”

She was unhappy with the massive amount of money spent around a stupid brand theme. This student begged for the university to focus its brands around the student, not the university or its color. Too right.

This student is too right. The brand of the public and private universities should always be built around the students who define themselves in context. Oddly enough, this also resonates with alum.

Who is the student?

But who are these students? What are their hopes, dreams and what will they become by attending school? What are the emotional self-reflection that matter?

A winner? The smartest person in the room? One who knows what’s important?

There are lots of emotional positions a university could take. But they don’t.

They settle for something clever of they promote what the university’s thinks is its prowess.  Some just retell the category benefits of being a university student.  Are any of these ideas different? Are any of the better? Give me a break.

Rebranding universities means promoting the emotional aspirations of each student.  What the student brings to the university and how the university can enhance those.

The University of Tennessee theme: “Big Orange, Big Ideas is a typically foolish mission statement.

Tennessee, with this, is celebrating the school’s color first. Why on earth would you EVER do that? Secondly, they wish you to know that the university has “Big Ideas.” Absolute craziness. But think about it. Are they the only ones doing it?

So, what Big Orange, Big Ideas say about the student?

Nothing at all.

The message here is all about the school.  Big and orange. And, because of that, it has big deals. Makes sense right. Find out who wrote that line and we will add their name to our competitor’s links. A badge of shame.

Tennessee gives itself a “pat on the back.” The theme should be about HOW Tennessee’s students have big ideas.

I’m not even arguing that it is an important idea. That is another discussion. But the Orange idea cost UT more than $60,000.


Kentucky and Tennessee are no different from all the large public and private universities in the US. They all masturbate.

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 benign action shots of its basketball team (whom the announcer boasts are in the Big East Conference).

Folks, we have ourselves the standard example of rebranding universities and their advertising.

At least Seton Hall has broken the mold by including a mildly effective, student-centric tagline.

“Seton Hall. Where leaders learn.” Its highlighting of New York City does give it some cache. But it is painted by numbers


Kent State as an example of rebranding universities?

Kent State University proves that tone and attitude matter as much as the message.

It’s more student-oriented. But this advertisement suffers from nearly disease. A series of bland statements.  It’s a matter of course in rebranding universities because they believe their own crap.

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 all show the banality of everyday university advertising speak.

And, essentially, they lack any concrete brand position because it is crappy execution.

If Kent State is “anything but typical,” its campaign should be too.



Any Google or YouTube search will do?

You can search Google for any state university advertising campaign and will find the same: stupid academic statements against a beautiful university backdrop. Then hold your breath for the hokey tagline that centers around the university. Not the student.

It’s a formula. But the formula makes poison.

Look at 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:

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?

Why so much of rebranding universities fails

These are some of the reasons why the process of rebranding universities fail miserably. The rebranding messages are the same.  The visual tone and attitudes and any attempt at reflecting the student are amateurish.

These examples of the university at a “macro” level have an infomercial feel to them. Forced sentiments, unnatural promises, and an overinflated sense of self. Where is the smiling, clapping audience in the background?

Think about it. In all of these examples, we are treated to identical tonal approaches and promises.

What student doesn’t say they have ambition? Which school isn’t one with ideas? I thought that’s what universities are?

Get in the Game. University Rebranding

If you are a college that doesn’t, it’s time to get out of the game.

Statements like these are as foolish as a Blu-Ray manufacturer selling that its machines have a play button.

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. Yet they all claim to be the result of university rebranding.

Why have these commercial atrocities become the standard for public and private school advertising?  Especially considering that it is a competitive category where so much money is on the line.

The essential argument

The argument that a university’s brand must hinge around the unique qualities and life experiences of the student is all that matters

When these ideas are central, a big preference-building difference takes place.

The University at Texas-El Paso (UTEP) has done something close to right.

Replacing the trite and passionless VO focusing on the school’s achievements with a story about children. Children with real hopes and dreams.

While its story focuses on the university’s space program (could be improved), the imagery, music, and tagline of “Dream Big” succeed.

These ideas are about the ambitions of the student. Then UTEP’s role in the fulfillment of your dreams is implied. Nicely done. This pushes this collegiate advertisement into a higher league.


In order to steal market share, you can’t claim the same position as your competitor.

That seems to be the problem, doesn’t it? Each representing a jellybean of the same color. Why would anyone have a preference over any other? Each tastes the same, and each brings the same result.

So, where’s the difference?

Rebranding Universities. Look at for-profit Universities.

For-profit universities currently have the strongest and most profitable place in the “business” of education. This despite a rash of bad press. And that is most certainly what these institutions are. A business.

Using aggressive advertising tactics and a well-skilled sales force they work. Currently, they have 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.

Visit Google or YouTube and type in the keyword, “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 you don’t realize that these schools lack proper accreditation. It’s a major downfall for these universities. PBS in its documentary College Inc. said these schools also lack the depth of degree requisites. They lack all that properly prepare students for the workforce.

For-profits strike a chord with low-income, potential students looking for a degree to change their life circumstances.

University of Phoenix

The University of Phoenix does.

A potential student follows 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:

rebranding universities

The brand of the University of Phoenix brand is hinted from the name (rising after being left for dead). It is a good brand, 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), you are ensnared.

You’ll need to follow the “Learn More” link to get anywhere on the site.  And it could prompt some anger, but clicking on it prompts the visitor through questions like, “What’s your degree interest?”

“What’s your level of education?” as well as location.

Then you are brought to a form letter which, looks like this:

rebranding universities

Any user coming to this form can either exit immediately or complete the form. But many complete it with the hopes that they can find the answer to their questions about the University of Phoenix.

University marketing study

The University of Phoenix has a catch

Here is the hook. Completing this form gives Phoenix a telephone number, which allows the sales force to call you. Whenever they want. Phoenix now 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. They make educational and career promises.  This reels in many financially struggling adults.

Their goal? For you to believe that their university is the answer to your prayers. (Rising like a phoenix?)

What about federal student loans?

These degrees cost more than in-state tuition at a university.

For example, undergrad programs are currently $550/credit + $90/course tech fee.

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.

Additional Costs

These costs do not reflect additional expenses like books and graduation fees. Surprise!

But it works for them. These schools (while only accounting for 10% of the nation’s total college student population) account for 25% of federal student aid. And they make up nearly half of all student loan defaults.

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-profits 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 commercials are evocative, personal and inspiring. Who, after watching, wouldn’t also want to be a “Phoenix”?

Emotional Messages

They are the most emotional ones in the market.

Maybe they are better because they realize they are a business. And they act like it.

It’s one of the reasons why Phoenix has the largest enrollment in the nation. They have more than 300,000 students enrolled annually.

How about Walden University? It is 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 good is the following advertisement for Kaplan University:


What makes the campaigns good?

They are great examples of universities rebranding for better positions.

There are two points about this for profits.

The brand messages are generally directed at the older student. Much more so than private or public universities. The focus is more on their aspirational end results rather than the college experience.

Their production values are much better than those of non-profits.

That makes a difference like other industries.  Battling with lower production values is a losing strategy. It contributes to an unprofessional brand. It becomes the message context.

(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.


For those attending for-profit colleges, the real promise does not translate to jobs in the real world.

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.

Students were not as successful in the employment arena. When compared with similar students at other types of schools, the research found.”

“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.

 Technical and Community Colleges

The brand strategy technical and community colleges are similar. And they need to be included in any rebranding universities study (despite not technically being a university).

The US Department of Education met to focus on a new action plan for post-secondary students.  As the Washington Post reported, “The plan is sure to be met with enthusiasm by community-college leaders across the country.”

“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. Those who graduate within three or four years of enrolling.”

Community Colleges

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

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

rebranding universities


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

Interesting Examples

This tarnished outlook is the impetus for the heightened enthusiasm.

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.

Northeastern Technical College pinpoints the need for a technical college: “NETC was my pathway to an internship…”

rebranding universities


The focus here is the student, and secondly, what NETC can do for you to become the success you have always dreamed of being.

However, it describes the category benefit of a technical college.  It does have a different model (and also attracts a different kind of student).

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? It’s at least speaking the reason why being a caregiver is important emotionally to the student.

But it only shows the student in her desired field:

rebranding universities


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

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


But there are problems

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 (as an example of rebranding universities) is to uncover the reasons why those careers are emotionally important to the student.

The prospective students don’t know what career they would choose.  An emotional self-reflection that goes beyond the simple definition of that career would make them covet that school over others.

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.

Rebranding Universities and College Athletics

You can’t have a rebranding universities study without talking about athletics and college sports. It is 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. It helps to generate enrollment. When George Mason made the Final Four in 2006, its freshmen enrollment increased 20 percent.

Despite our economic hardships, in 2011, USA Today reported this. “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. It is a direct extension of what can be seen through advertising.

Boston College’s football program rivals 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. Clearly, it can be part of universities rebranding strategies.

Boston College Ad


If you search the internet for a commercial focusing on the college itself, you can’t find much. But you can find 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 features many different universities (those with a good team, of course).

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

Boston College Ad:


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


The difference in quality these athletic commercials possess over the standard rebranding universities advertisement is easy to see.

Teams can easily help to reinforce a rebranding effort. 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 attracting viewers.

College athletics hold a powerful position in attracting students as they speak to the experience of attending and how students define themselves. But it may be that is because nothing else of consequence is invested in.

Rebranding Universities. Conclusion

Higher education has many nuanced facets. State and private colleges, technical and community colleges, and for-profit universities.

What is 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 their brands. There is an opportunity for rebranding.

Schools must acknowledge their reason for existing. The student is royalty (the alum is related to the royal family too) What matters is the future they can claim.

Universities rebranding done well as seen in the television commercial for UTEP, a university is a place where “big dreams” can become a reality.

But done poorly, they are simply an infomercial.

This Rebranding Universities Study shows that colleges and universities must also find the highest emotional intensity that makes students move.

There are universities that speak to who you are as a student of that university on an emotional level. The messages are the same as those taken by competitors.

Highest intensity

Universities must find the highest emotional intensity that makes students crave them but there few 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” have an expected quality. It’s not positioned against anything else so does not offer a true choice.

Few, if any, have answered the question of 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

Read about predicting the power of your rebranding message