School Branding – or How to Market a University

Girl in library

When we talk about branding and marketing, we usually speak about ways in which companies and other corporate organizations promote their brand and market their products and services. More recently, branding has also become a matter of HR and of one’s professional image (personal branding), but for the most part, branding is for companies.

Today, we will be talking about a different kind of branding which has appeared only relatively recently – school branding. Namely, starting sometime in the early 2000s, colleges around the world (mostly in the United States) have started branding themselves in order to attract students and funding.

The Need for Branding

Up until recently, there was absolutely no need for colleges to brand themselves since they had a steady demographic they could rely on. They could predict, with a high degree of certainty, how many students will come knocking on their doors at the start of each school year and they could plan around the tuitions they would charge.

Moreover, they already had their brands in place, brands which actually rank among the oldest in the world since European colleges go back centuries and even American colleges are older than almost all US-based companies. They have developed entire ecosystems surrounding their brands, with companies offering university admissions consultations and whatnot.

At the turn of the century, many colleges realized that a combination of factors appeared that was endangering the status quo.

The first of these factors was the fact that the population started getting older. This is a trend that is very observable in the vast majority of Western countries, as well as those that traditionally sent students to Western colleges such as China and Japan, to name a few.

The second factor was the emergence of online and for-profit colleges that started taking a piece of the pie, especially from colleges that are not household names.

All of a sudden, it became clear that something was to be done and the obvious solution was and has been branding.

Growing Pains

Colleges have definitely been trying their best to do their branding the right way, but it is almost too obvious that they are still experiencing some early troubles.

You do not have to be a branding expert to figure out what the biggest problem with college branding has been so far. Get your hands on a couple of brochures from different colleges and have someone cover up the name of the college and you wouldn’t be able to tell which brochure is for which college. They all feature beautiful yards and a few groups of diverse your people studying and laughing under a big tree.

Visit a few websites and you will encounter the same situation. Colleges look the same, the professors look the same, the students look the same. Whether it is a matter of colleges actually all looking alike or a matter of not wanting to risk it is yet to be decided.

One university that has been going in a different direction is Columbia University. They realized that they have a unique advantage of being the only Ivy League college in New York and they have been pushing it heavily since then.

Another problem that universities face is the fact that their many schools often have identities of their own and it can get tricky to have everyone send across a coordinated message about the student experience.


There is only one thing that is for certain when we are talking school branding – it is going to be around for a long time to come. The education market is very saturated and as the population grows even older, there will be even fewer students to pay tuitions.

We will also start seeing more imaginative and adventurous school branding efforts in the future. There has to come a day when the colleges will realize they are not setting themselves apart from the competition and they will want to provide something new to potential enrollees.

Another thing that we will also start seeing more and more of are consolidated branding efforts on the behalf of the universities – a unique message that is being sent across the channels and that is at least to a point unique.

Some universities might choose to go a different way and emphasize some of their schools that hold strong allure for future students. For example, the University of Pennsylvania might want to push Wharton forward as their sub-brand, one of the best business schools in the United States and the world.

It will be an interesting future and definitely one to keep an eye on.

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