It’s that time of year in higher education — especially for tuition dependent institutions — when marketers are extra busy trying persuade admitted students to take that final step to deposit and enroll. Students endure a deluge of specific information, from financial aid package explanations and scholarship possibilities to lengthy lists of majors, minors, courses, clubs and accolades as institutions make the case for why their offer is the best choice.
These details, facts and figures are absolutely defensible and completely logical. But (spoiler alert!) people don’t always make decisions rooted in logic and reason. In fact, decisions are made using a complex mix of facts and feelings that don’t always make sense together. That’s what makes branding so important, not just in the final push, but all the time. While facts matter, and it’s important to convey them appropriately, but as Daryl Weber writes in Brand Seduction, “The point is to capture and communicate the associations and feelings connected to your brand, not to check boxes.”
Define What Drives You
In order to help your audiences feel your brand, you first need to identify what associations matter most for your institution and what comes through loud and clear through the people, the place, and the work. For many institutions, this exists as part of a larger brand framework, embedded within brand drivers, value propositions, personality traits, or voice and tone.
How it’s labeled is much less important than how these ideas manifest in marketing, but developing a specific set of associations and feelings can bring clarity and focus to your marketing efforts. Most institutions must compete on emotional connections. Only a handful of institutions (despite the frequent selective classifications) can succeed based on being the biggest, most, best, only, oldest, highest-ranked, etc. Most marketers must find ways to elicit consistent and real emotional connections rather than hope that enough facts will make the case alone.
The first step is drawing out what those associations are, and then finding ways to “capture and communicate” them.
Hear What You Say About Yourself
Keeping content and marketing on brand can be a challenge, even for marketers. It’s even more difficult as you try to imbue the right feelings and the right associations with your brand.
A story about collaborative research, for example, might be perfectly on brand in many ways — great opportunities, serious scholarship, customized education. But does it engender the desired feelings most important to your brand? Do audiences feel a sense of empowerment, compassion, belonging or other emotions? It’s tempting to believe that audiences will get to these feelings simply because the story is on brand.
Take a deeper dive into your marketing efforts. See how often you are clearly communicating the emotional level of your brand, identify gaps, and make adjustments. As it turns out, what you say about your institution can and does influence what others think and feel.
Listen to What Other Say About You
The ultimate test of how well your marketing works is how your audiences respond. Even a well-executed comprehensive marketing plan does not guarantee audiences will feel what you hope they feel. So listen. Look at how your intent is or isn’t reflected in conversations. Is your collaborative research story shared mostly by parents and alumni? What does that tell you about emotional resonance that story created? On visit days, do admitted students talk about specific faculty or students as though they’ve already met, and refer to how they got to know them through a video series, social media posts, a web feature or profile in your print materials? Comparing these outcomes with your intent can be very revealing, quickly identifying any patterns of disconnect between intent and outcome, and giving you the insight you need to adjust.
Marketing and branding are about considering the whole picture. Understanding how your marketing efforts and audience’s perceptions intersect is absolutely foundational to successful marketing. But so is keeping perspective, recognizing the countless variables that can influence emotions, and embracing strategies that account for it all will make your marketing feel fantastic. That’s a fact.
Tim Jones in the Chief Communications and Integrated Marketing Officer at Beloit College in Wisconsin.