What Can Higher Education Learn From Jeep and Other Car Brands?

Posted: May 15, 2024

Sarah Mullins Marketing Strategist

While higher education institutions might seem worlds apart from car manufacturers, both industries share a crucial challenge: differentiating themselves in a crowded marketplace. Just as a car is more than just “metal, paint, and rubber,” a college experience goes far beyond “buildings, classrooms, and faculty.” Both industries cultivate brands that evoke emotions and aspirations. Cars represent freedom, luxury, or cutting-edge technology. A college experience can symbolize personal growth, a fulfilling career, or a vibrant social life.

But many universities fall short when it comes to marketing this deeper value proposition. We see countless institutions touting generic claims like “affordable tuition,” “high rankings,” or “state-of-the-art facilities.” This approach mirrors car commercials that simply boast about having four wheels and a comfortable seat. When thousands of institutions are saying the same thing, how do you truly differentiate yourself among the 4,000 institutions across the United States? The answer lies in understanding the deeper value and emotions students truly seek. That’s where higher education can learn a valuable lesson from the automotive industry’s marketing playbook. Here are four key lessons:

Sell the feeling, not the feature

We recognize Jeep as a tough brand that attracts outdoor enthusiasts and adventurers. They’re not just marketing off-road tires; they’re selling the idea of freedom to explore and the nostalgic charm of a worn-in car. Take their “Dents” commercial, for instance. It perfectly captures this rugged brand. 

Car commercials often aim to evoke emotions, like the dramatic and cool Lincoln ads with Matthew McConaughey or Toyota’s commercials depicting family road trips that foster a sense of belonging. Similarly, promoting course lists or campus facilities is like selling off-road tires instead of the meaningful dents. Instead, it’s important that institutions translate those features into the emotional benefits students crave. 

Ways car companies sell the feature and the feeling

Toyota: 

  • Feature: Reliability, Longevity (Think: Dependable family car) 
  • Feeling: Imagine passing down your trusty Toyota for generations. It’s a symbol of dependability and creating lasting memories. It’s the car that gets you where you need to go, year after year, with minimal fuss.

Jeep:

  • Feature: Adventure, Freedom (Think: Off-road exploring) 
  • Feeling: Your Jeep might be dented and scratched, but it tells a story of every adventure you’ve conquered. It’s the vehicle that allows you to explore uncharted territory and forge your own path.

Volvo: 

  • Feature: Safety, Security (Think: Peace of mind for families) 
  • Feeling: With Volvo’s safety features, you can explore the world with confidence, knowing you and your loved ones are protected. It’s the car that prioritizes your well-being and allows you to focus on the journey.

Ways higher ed institutions can sell the feature and the feeling

School A

  • Feature: Career Preparation (Think: Practical skills for the job market) 
  • Feeling: Imagine leaving School A with a resume filled with real-world experience from internships. You feel confident and prepared to hit the ground running in your dream job. It’s the school that equips you with the skills and connections to succeed in your chosen field.

School B

  • Feature: Mentorship, Networking (Think: Long-term relationships with professors) 
  • Feeling: The professors at School B become more than just teachers; they become lifelong mentors. They offer invaluable guidance and support, even years after graduation. It’s the school that fosters meaningful connections that can shape your career and open doors to future opportunities.

School C

  • Feature: Vibrant Campus Life, School Spirit (Think: Building strong connections) 
  • Feeling: Imagine cheering alongside thousands of fellow students at a football game, united by your school spirit. It’s the school that offers a strong sense of community, where you can build lasting friendships and create unforgettable memories.

Find your niche and own what you’re good at

Just like car brands specialize in performance, luxury, or sustainability, universities can identify their unique strengths and build their brand around them. Are you known for fostering social justice? Emphasize your commitment to community engagement. Do you boast a vibrant arts scene? Showcase your creative programs, alumni success stories, and the artsy activities available around campus. Are you located on a sustainable campus? Offer programs to live out your brand. Institutions that eat, sleep, and breathe their brand are the ones that end up standing out. 

Establish your target audience and don’t worry about who you aren’t talking to

Audience is an over-discussed topic, we know. But it’s important to find exactly what your students are interested in. We hear all the time, “but we don’t want to forget [insert audience].” Jeep does it. They speak directly to one audience, but remember – they aren’t excluding another. Jeep zeros in on the rugged, outdoorsy people. But there are certainly families, young professionals, and city dwellers who also purchase Jeep vehicles. By serving an emotion, you can attract those who truly embody the Jeep persona and also those who aspire to be outdoorsy but happen to live in downtown Chicago.

Build trust through transparency

Don’t over promise the “dream career” just like car ads never guarantee 60 mpg. Focus on realistic outcomes and transparent communication. Showcase data on graduate employment rates and student satisfaction. Partner with alumni to share their authentic experiences. Not every school has a ranking, and not every car has an eco-friendly certification. Your audience will dictate what you should share.

If you’re struggling to develop a differentiating brand or creative that cuts through the Sea of Sameness, VisionPoint can help! Fill out the form below to start the conversation with us.

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