It’s not only about Gen Z: brand in a rapidly changing higher education environment

Mark Minelli

It’s not optional. To be fully enrolled with students who have the best chance for success, colleges and universities need to be savvy about how they reach and market to Gen Z prospects. Numbers are important. Most admissions directors know how many applicants they need to yield the optimal number of students and those numbers can be daunting.

For generations, reputation alone was enough to secure a steady stream of applicants and, once enrolled, the majority of students completed their education and graduated. As competition for applications increased over the last several decades, admissions offices began targeted marketing campaigns to reach prospective students. Today, with more students than ever applying to college and enrollment trends changing rapidly, many schools, even those with stellar reputations and large marketing budgets are struggling to engage the best students.

To meet these new challenges, admissions offices are embracing new digital strategies and colleges and university leaders are beginning to think more broadly about institutional brand and consider students, their families, and alumni as customers for life.

The pace of change

Over the last two decades, rapid advances in technology and an increasingly diverse population have created profound changes in the workforce and economy. These developments have resulted in changing student demographics (increases in diversity, part-time and online students), increased competitiveness (more community colleges, for-profit institutions, low-residency and online options) and high student expectations (for exceptional experiences, employment and ongoing career services). Add rapidly escalating costs and it becomes clear that the higher education environment has undergone a significant shift. The rapid pace of change has created an almost constant need for schools to alter and adapt the way they operate. These changes create both opportunities to build brand awareness and the potential for confusion.

Generation Z

Today’s traditional undergraduate prospects, currently in high school, are among the first wave of Generation Z to reach college. Similar to Millennials in many ways they are highly social and connected. Unlike Millennials, they are not just digital natives, they are digital ninjas. Nothing escapes them. They are growing up in homes impacted by the recent recession and current political turmoil. They are realistic, globally minded, and independent. They are in charge of their lives and intentional about their choices.

Understanding Gen Z is clearly crucial to a college or university’s success. However, schools need to remember that both recent alumni and alumni from the more distant past are equally critical to the school’s future. Admission marketing targeted to Generation Z must stay on brand and reflect the school’s culture as demonstrated by how the brand promise is communicated to the entire academic community including aging baby boomers, who are likely a school’s biggest donor group.

A brand that stays true

A school’s brand is not a marketing campaign that changes with the seasons. A school’s brand is fundamental to the core identity of the school, it is why students attend. The brand is the mission, values and culture as expressed by faculty, students, alumni and administrators and embodied in the experience of attending the school. It must be seen, heard and felt by everyone the school touches.

Before “branding” was ubiquitous, schools that were rigorous about the quality of their education and built lasting connections to graduates flourished. School brands, largely unarticulated, perpetuated through the experience of attending the school and the connections alumni made after graduating. This is true for large universities, small liberal arts schools and specialty schools such as conservatories.

As colleges and universities realize they need to market differently, they have begun to think more intentionally about their brand. For the most part, this is a positive development, the more a school can articulate its brand and reflect it in communications across the entire school, the better they can build awareness and brand perception in the marketplace. Branding efforts can be wildly successful, but not always. If a school adopts a ‘brand’ that is based on what they think prospects care about and not what is true and authentic about the school, the effort will backfire.

Marketing campaigns built on these false ‘brands’ may initially attract applicants but if the experience doesn’t match brand expectations, accepted applicants will fail to enroll or they may enroll but not stay to complete their degree. Further complicating the situation, alumni who are exposed to a false ‘brand’ may become disengaged with the school and, in the worst case, become vocally negative about the direction they perceive their cherished school has gone — even when the experience and education at the school has changed little.

An inclusive brand process

A branding project that begins with listening closely to stakeholders while understanding prospects is less likely to fail. Gathering current perceptions and experiences from students, faculty, administrators and alumni is vital to informing the process, as is knowledge about the competitive landscape and changes in the industry. It is also important to consider where the school is headed, the strategic goals, changes in the education programs and/or delivery of courses. Understanding sacred cows – the school color, the team mascot’s jersey, the school motto – informs where things can change and where, if change happens, it needs to be done sensitively.

Synthesizing all that is learned into key themes and elements informs the brand idea – a singular idea that is unique and true to the school. Engaging students (tomorrow’s alumni), faculty (those who build relationships with students and deliver on the brand promise), recent alumni (tomorrow’s donors) and alumni supporters (current donors) early in the process not only informs the brand, it builds the support needed when new communications materials reflecting the brand are released.

Conclusion: back to Gen Z

While the way they communicate, get information and share knowledge is different than previous generations, many of the things that resonate with the Gen Z are values that hold true across generations. Finding those core values and communicating them effectively to today’s Gen Z prospects, recent Millennial alumni and older Gen X and Baby Boomers may require different messages and media but if the core ideas as articulated and expressed in the brand are true, applications will increase, awareness will grow and brand loyalty will flourish.

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Minelli, Inc. higher education projects include: Williams College, Wheaton College, Massachusetts, New England Conservatory and Babson College.