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Overcoming The Higher Education Identity Crisis: 5 Effective Brand & Marketing Strategies

Rebel Staff,

Take a look at any higher education marketing. We bet we can guess what you’ll see. 

  1. Staged imagery of students gathered in intimate groups or walking around on campus. 
  2. Vague verbiage that speaks to why their school is the best. 
  3. A call to action that immediately pushes students to “Enroll Now!”

How’d we do? 

Over time, this approach has somehow become higher ed’s “recipe for marketing success.” Why not? It’s dependable and safe. 
Here’s the issue: There are over 4,000 higher education institutions in the United States, and you could probably swap the school logo between most ads and not spot any significant differences. In a rapidly declining enrollment landscape institutions are trying to be everything to everyone. Despite their best intentions, higher education is experiencing a core identity crisis across the board.


The pandemic acted as the catalyst for a massive cultural shift for universities and students alike. Students became increasingly isolated from the factors that made them choose their school in the first place. With the homogeneity of the online class environment and virtually no on-campus activities, schools were left with little to leverage in terms of competitive differentiation. The response was sort of a failure to respond. Without a plan B to fall back on (because who had one for the pandemic?), many institutions seemed to put crafting their messages on hold, opting for nearly placeholder imagery and language.

Higher education institutions are often labeled as laggards as they fail to embrace change and innovation in real time, relying on tradition instead. As the pandemic’s impact slows down, we’re seeing institutions trying to simply “go back to the way things were” as they describe program structure and on-campus expectations, and in the general messaging they convey. 

Instead, they should be asking the hard questions: How can we adapt to the post-pandemic environment? What makes us different? How can we improve our student experience to meet their needs? 

First and foremost, higher education needs to understand that their student audience is now questioning everything. The pandemic caused both traditional (those seeking a four-year undergraduate degree) and post-traditional students (working professionals and adult learners seeking graduate degrees and certificates) to become more anxious, apprehensive, and financially aware. As these prospective students look for answers, they’re willing to reject conformity and re-evaluate what’s important to them—including what their education should look like. They’re asking questions like: Who am I? What’s the ROI of an education? Do colleges really care about me? 

In short, students no longer just trust what you say; it’s about how your brand makes them feel, from the first interaction to the last.


Good news. Just having read this blog brings you one step closer to building a stronger brand identity and marketing that resonates. But we know starting a dialogue with leadership can be hard. Rebel Interactive Group is here to help. Submit the form below and we’ll send you nine strategic frameworks that can help you facilitate those initial conversations.

Learn more about our education industry expertise here.

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The apprehension surrounding higher education is causing institutions of all sizes to feel the pressure. As a result, they’re quietly beginning to partake in rebranding efforts.

At Rebel Interactive Group, our work with higher education clients — offering services from strategic enrollment planning and brand positioning to advertising and creative support — has been revealing several trends and needs in this changing industry. Here’s what we’ve learned.


Rebranding won’t be accomplished in a single session with university leadership. The most productive branding conversations we’ve had are ones that include stakeholders from all levels; not just the administration, but the people who interact with the brand the most, including faculty, staff, students, and parents. Get ready for radical honesty (and be open to it).


To stand out in a sea of sameness, you need to figure out who you are and what makes you different, then articulate it well. Before a recent brand workshop with a public university, it became clear to us that stakeholders were leaning toward the safe, typical “higher ed brand recipe”—the exact opposite of what they needed to do to stand out. So, we created a brand-focused exercise designed to eliminate groupthink and have participants vote on the future direction of the brand: bold or supportive. With the space to explore what the brand could be, rather than what it has been before, participants unanimously agreed to be bold.


The worst mistake a university can make is to speak at your students rather than with them. Approach marketing with genuine, human-centered messaging that addresses what the audience cares about — personal experiences and outcomes. Highlight the campus community and student support. 

Be proactive about gathering content. With the power of communication platforms like Zoom and Teams, you only need 15 minutes to speak to a current student or alumnus about their experiences at your institution. Do the same with your student’s parents and other key influencers. Transform their words into multipurpose marketing content — from podcast audio ads to video ads. 


Students are challenging the value of traditional degree programs. In response, institutions need to make structure programs to meet their needs and the needs of the evolving job market, exploring alternative degree and certificate programs. Start with market research on in-demand careers and industries. We’re seeing, for example, that innovative programs surrounding cannabis and brewing are on the rise, while nursing and data science have seen a resurgence of interest.


It’s not enough to engage in bolder, more impactful brand and marketing efforts. You have to consistently implement the strategy, take risks, and track performance. A/B test new messaging and variations constantly, exploring different iterations of messaging and visuals that may resonate. Utilize hard data to make decisions and tweak collateral accordingly. Be dynamic.