What Can Higher Education Learn From Gucci and Other Luxury Brands?

Posted: May 1, 2024

Sarah Mullins Marketing Strategist

Luxury brands must market their products to an audience that values exclusivity and quality. Building brand loyalty and differentiation is critical in the luxury industry. They want to build their reputation and protect the legacy they’ve built. So how can higher ed learn from these qualities? 

Think about your options when buying pasta sauce at the grocery store. You’ve got the generic brand, a budget-friendly option, an organic variety at a slightly higher price point, and the gourmet option – a sauce boasting premium ingredients like truffle oil – reflected in its significantly steeper price tag. Consumer behavior usually considers affordability as a top priority. But for some, the allure of the truffle oil outweighs the cost. They’re willing to pay extra for a perceived step up in quality, confident their pasta dish will be a tastier choice. However, imagine if that gourmet sauce costs the same as the generic brand. Suddenly, questions arise – is it genuine truffle oil? The doubt would linger, impacting the perceived value. That’s the uncomfortable truth facing many higher education institutions. Students fear paying for truffle oil and getting low-quality, canned tomatoes.

But first …

We must preface this conversation about affordability. Through VisionPoint’s market research and work with dozens of higher ed institutions, we know affordability is the default attribute students and parents/guardians report as the most important factor when selecting a school. 

Cost is top of mind for all audiences, but particularly first-generation college students and low income families. So as we discuss luxury, price, and value, we want to emphasize that we aren’t suggesting that higher ed start promoting itself as unattainable luxury. We’re pointing out the perceptions that exist and that students and families understand the “you get what you pay for” principle. Thus, institutions must consider how their brand messaging and positioning align with the cost of college.

Higher ed is inherently expensive

An education is always viewed as an expensive purchase, much like buying a car is always expensive regardless of the purchaser’s income level or car choice. Spending a sum of money on a used car or a brand-new luxury vehicle is an expensive investment. When institutions use language around affordability, we need to be careful. Promoting a $10,000/year tuition isn’t inherently affordable. But the value that’s gained is the important element of price to focus on.

No one knows how much college costs

When you go to the store to buy a product, the price is listed. Online? The total is listed in your cart. Imagine buying something when you have absolutely no idea how much it costs. The sales person says it probably won’t cost that much, but it might … Other than healthcare, higher ed is one of the most ambiguously priced items on the market, and no one understands how much they’ll really pay in the end, according to The New York Times.

Here at VisionPoint, we canvas countless higher ed websites and the number one item we struggle to find on a college or university website? Tuition. Schools use a variety of complex tools like calculators, Excel spreadsheets, PDFs, and a million caveats that make the process of deciphering cost impossible. This lack of transparency creates a significant barrier for students and families trying to make informed decisions about their educational investment. Without a clear understanding of true costs, it’s impossible to compare institutions accurately or plan for future expenses. 

Higher ed isn’t immune to price and value

Consumers bring pre-existing beliefs and expectations about price to every purchase decision. We’re conditioned to associate higher prices with higher quality. For instance, at McDonald’s, we generally expect the taste and experience to reflect the lower price point. Conversely, at a high-end restaurant, we anticipate the $20 burger to deliver a taste and experience that significantly surpasses a Big Mac.

Higher ed isn’t immune to this consumer concept. Harvard’s high price tag is synonymous with excellence, so the price tag is accepted. But if a low-ranked university charges top dollar? To the consumer, it signals it’s overpriced. A mismatched cost:value ratio creates a lack of trust. 

Sales can cheapen brands

Think about sales in retail. When a store frequently puts products on sale, especially for nonessential items like razors or soft drinks, it doesn’t necessarily erode trust in the brand. We understand they might be clearing out stock or offering seasonal promotions. But imagine a luxury brand, like Gucci, having a massive sale on all their handbags or suddenly seeing their products hitting the shelves at discount retailers. Suddenly, questions arise. Is there something wrong with the quality? Is the brand losing its exclusivity? The constant discounts chip away at the perception of inherent value associated with the luxury label. The same principle applies to higher ed. Universities that heavily rely on discounts or aggressive marketing tactics to attract students can unintentionally send a message that their degree might not hold the same weight or prestige as one from an institution with a more selective and traditional approach.

What can higher ed institutions do to mitigate the price and value challenge?

Just like a flashy logo can’t transform a cheap t-shirt into hidden luxury, a high price tag alone doesn’t guarantee a valuable education. The challenge for universities is to deliver an experience that justifies the premium cost. Here’s how institutions can bridge the price-value gap:

  • Focus on the “Luxury Experience,” Not Just the Label: Don’t oversell amenities or overpromise on cutting-edge facilities. Invest in what truly enhances the learning experience, whether it’s state-of-the-art labs, personalized coaching, or innovative teaching methods. Back up your claims with concrete examples. 
  • Demonstrate Career-Shaping Outcomes: Students are increasingly cost-conscious. Help them understand the return on investment (ROI) of their education. Showcase success stories of alumni landing jobs or highlight career services that connect students with real-world opportunities. 
  • Personalization Matters: Offer personalized learning experiences, such as dedicated mentoring programs or small class sizes. This fosters deeper engagement and demonstrates a commitment to each student’s success.

By focusing on genuine value propositions and avoiding inauthentic marketing tactics, universities can build trust with prospective students. Remember, students are savvy consumers. They’ll see through inflated claims and broken promises. Aligning your brand with a commitment to quality education will resonate far stronger than superficial attempts to be a luxury brand.

Schools are getting inventive

We see schools creating affordable elements to their education by:

  • Offering free laptops that are incorporated into the tuition cost.
  • Providing a flat rate tuition regardless of the number of courses students take.
  • Focusing on ROI, like the remaining amount students pay for college after covering tuition with internship/co-op jobs.
  • Waiving application fees.
  • Offering flat rates for both in-state and out-of-state students.

Ready to showcase the true value your institution offers? We’d love to discuss how we can develop a plan that attracts qualified students and strengthens your brand. Fill out the form below to start that conversation.

Contact Form

"*" indicates required fields

Your Name*
Email Consent
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.