Your University Rebranded. Now What?

The starting line can be a daunting place. Especially if you feel as though you just sprinted part of a marathon to get there. After attending and reflecting upon the recent AMA Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education, it is clear to me that the majority of Higher Ed marketers understand and value the benefits of a market research-driven new brand identity. However, the predominant questions marketers asked in the #AMAHigherEd branding sessions was “We just finished a rebrand…now what do we do?”

The foundation for best defining your brand is significant market research that helps your articulate your institution’s identity. You get that. When it comes to branding I like to point to Heather Swain, Michigan State’s Vice President for Communications and Brand Strategy, who often uses ice cream as the analogy to explain branding. For Swain, the core differences in offerings among large state universities are little more than the flavor of ice cream and she believes, fervently, college marketers’ job is to protect your university’s flavor in the world.

I witnessed a slew of university marketing executives trot out their shiny new ice cream flavors at last December’s AMA Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education. Many shared how they brought the new brand identities to life on their websites, brand anthem videos and check-the-box communication materials. However, these are still just the table stakes.

Higher Ed 2.0 branding is more of a transformation of a way of thinking. It’s a year-round, show-don’t-tell approach to bringing the brand to life in ways that target audiences embrace, share and contribute to in their own way.

You are best off ditching the word “campaign” from your vocabulary. It implies a defined period of time, while your brand identity needs to permeate your way of being – with every touchpoint, with every audience target.

Since there are so many different audiences you have to consider, in this post, I’m going to focus on just one – prospects –to share insights and best practices on bringing your brand to life.  I hope some of the tactical best practices create a spark for you while reinforcing just how all-in you need to be in order to deliver on the brand promise you have created.

Bringing Your Brand to Life: Prospects Edition


Most rebranding efforts center on your website redesign as the first box to check. A design aesthetic and user experience that breathes your identity is a logical place to start. However, it’s just that – a start. We’re past the days of “set it and forget it” mentality.  Branding every department under the same look, feel and organizing URL principle is nice. So is the brand anthem video that folks will watch one time.  Personalization and customization are the names of the game, especially for undergraduate prospects, who will return time and again as they move through the prospect journey – if you give them a reason to.

Best Practice: Bucknell University

Bucknell allows users to customize the home page in a simple logic flow that invites deeper and repeated connections. The experience changes daily based on new news that lives up to the brand promise this journey will be unique. Their simple and elegant brand consistency for every program includes all the right hot buttons – paths from degree to career, personal stories of students and a host of other information for prospects to find.

Bucknell’s homepage features an option to customize the content based on your interests

Content Toolkits

Welcome to where things are going. The volume of content needed to support different stages of the prospect journey – everywhere from the website to campus visits is going to continue to explode. Don’t let it explode your mind.  Short form video should be at the heart of your content tool kit planning and informed by the prospects that know you best – the ones who committed to you. Find out what they wanted to know (and when) and let these answers inform the starting point of your content tool kit.

Best Practice: UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School.

CMO Michael Schinelli and his team did a brilliant job of dissecting applicants into 16 different brand personas. The connective tissue between the personas was a thirst for leadership development, of which their “Shaping Leaders & Driving Results” brand positioning emerged. Schinelli’s team created a video content toolkit that is used throughout the prospect journey, specifically in their email communications, tailored to the brand persona.  It’s had a significant impact on yield.  This is a microcosm of where I see video content toolkits going, but it’s one of the best tactical applications I’ve seen to date.

Social Media

– Brand voice and tone are critical in delivering on the brand positioning for starters.   So is authenticity. Avoid the #YourBrandIdentityHere approach. Really think about how and when a prospect would use your hashtag. It also involves taking calculated risks, which is always a challenge to that notion of having full control of your brand. Let’s take a peek at one of several success stories.

Best practice – Michigan State.

The Spartans’ brand guidelines associated with their now well-known “Spartans Will” campaign started with the prerequisite “do’s and don’ts” of the brand marks.  The iconic Spartan plume had previously been linked to the mark as a must. MSU’s agency pushed Heather Swain and her team out of their comfort zone to “free the plume” and leverage the iconic mark for the audiences to help shape the story of Spartans Will. Michigan State delivered the helmet icon to their target audiences through an app store, empowering users to shape the story by creating a halo of sorts on their images and stories. More than 66,000 people downloaded the app and more than 225,000 photos have integrated the iconic helmet image enabling audiences to define the brand in their own voice.

Want to be on the official #MSU Instagram account? Take an awesome photo. ✅ Use #SpartansWill. ✅ Done.

A photo posted by Michigan State University (@michiganstateu) on

Sneak peek: #MSU's new TV commercial will air during tonight's football game. #SpartansWill

A video posted by Michigan State University (@michiganstateu) on

What we're made of makes a difference. #SpartansWill

A photo posted by Michigan State University (@michiganstateu) on

@magggpieee is ready for spring. #SpartansWill #GoGreen

A photo posted by Michigan State University (@michiganstateu) on

Recruitment Events

College fairs, high schools, and other college prospect events tend to be littered with brochure wars.  Every school competes with a combo of glossy photos, flashy new brand positioning, and dueling infographics. The way you present should speak to your brand and clear through the clutter. If your differentiator is about outcomes, how are you bringing that to life? If it’s about experiential learning, you best be promoting your college in an experiential way. The medium is part of the message here. And one school set the early bar.

Best Practice – Regis University

The Colorado-based Jesuit school hung its brand positioning hat on experiences as their differentiating POV. They worked with Boston-based Primacy to create a Virtual Reality experience that brings you everywhere from the campus to the Red Rocks and a series of individual student philanthropic adventures (including a fundraising hike through the Grand Canyon).  Many folks are chasing the trendy new medium, however, Regis nailed it in terms aligning it to their brand in an authentic way. They’ve increased applications by 21% and the experience created such a scene at college fairs it forced the governing body of state college fairs to rewrite the rules on the use of V/R.

On-campus Visit

Closing time. You should know your on-campus conversion rates.  In general, getting a prospect on campus creates an 8-10X likelihood of them applying and more than three times the rate of saying “yes” to you, based on a 2016 StoriedU survey.  You can have the snazziest collateral and marketing materials in the world, but you must deliver on the brand promise here like no other place. If you hang your hat on your diversity, yet a quick look in the cafeteria shows different ethnicities clustered at their own table, you’ve got major issues.

From the moment you step foot on campus, everything should live that promise. From the way you welcome people to the subject matter of the tours to the admissions presentation, prospects have wants and needs – here are their top five from our inaugural 2016 survey. This is where you need to ditch the stats and facts and convey the emotional ethos of your brand in a way that makes the experience unique and memorable.

Best Practice – Northwestern University

CMO Mary Baglivo had completed in-depth market research and a comprehensive rebranding effort. Her team was armed with the differentiating positioning of “And is in our DNA,” a nod to the unique duality of their student population.  They realized the on-campus prospect experience needed to be in sync and they turned to my agency, TeamWorks Media, to help create the red (actually purple) carpet treatment. From the moment you sign-up for a visit online through the campus tour, we collaborated to create a seamless narrative that delivered on the promise. An arresting lobby film, a choose-your-own-adventure interactive wall to an admissions auditorium presentation that is a fun, highly personalized and customized show, all stitched together to attract the right fit students.

I hope this post provided a framework for how to think about bringing your brand identity to life and offered some creative spark from colleagues that are doing it well. If you’ve got questions or case studies that merit sharing, please feel free to hit me up at

About Jay Sharman

Jay Sharman is the CEO and founder of TeamWorks Media, a purpose-driven marketing company in Chicago’s West Loop. TeamWorks helps not-for-profit and higher education clients combine purpose and profit by creating innovative marketing strategies... More about Jay Sharman »

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