What 10 Things Can Higher Ed Learn From Other Industries?

Posted: April 24, 2024

Sarah Mullins Marketing Strategist

Higher ed tends to live in a vacuum. Use the same systems, provide similar email communications, attend conferences in the industry, and even use the same high-profile institutions as benchmarks to aspire to become. There are things higher ed does really well, but there are many things that higher ed can adapt by looking to other successful brands and industries. No, we’re not suggesting throwing out your entire playbook. But there’s a wealth of knowledge waiting to be discovered. Here are 10 things that higher ed can learn from other industries.

Cost has implications

Affordability is undeniably crucial in higher education. However, the language we use to market our institutions can inadvertently convey misleading messages about their value. As consumers, certain words trigger specific associations in our minds. Phrases like “fine dining,” “exclusive membership,” and “made with real leather” all create an image of luxury and expense. Similarly, emphasizing specific aspects of your university like its location in wine country, top-notch facilities, or high national ranking can lead prospective students to perceive it as costly and exclusive. Furthermore, the expectation of these promises, if not met by reality, can lead to broken trust and create disappointment. Just like receiving a low-quality item that was sold as a “high-end” product, students who find a mismatch between their expectations and reality may be less likely to consider the institution. 

The key takeaway? While cost is undoubtedly important, authenticity and transparency are equally vital. Avoid using language that implies an exclusivity your institution may not be able to prove. Instead, focus on highlighting your unique strengths and value proposition, ensuring they align with your actual offerings and affordability. By doing so, you can build genuine trust and attract students who are a good fit for your institution. 

You don’t have to be unique to be different

Toothpaste, pasta sauce, seltzer water, and streaming services all tell us this is true. There are dozens of choices, but people choose the story that resonates with them. Liquid Death is an excellent example. It’s water. In a can. But the personality and brand experience of ordering a can of Liquid Death over a bottle of water at a concert is just different. 

Simplicity is kindness

We have a saying here at VisionPoint that “clarity is kindness.” But simplicity is, too. When you Google a product, you’re taken to Google search results. Photos appear, you click on the product, you’re taken to Target’s website, you click “Add to cart,” you pay with PayPal because it remembers your information, and you pick it up in an hour. Higher ed inherently doesn’t work this fast, but anything that makes it simple can help prospective students who are conditioned for simple access.

Higher ed doesn’t work as fast as online shopping, but anything that makes things simpler can help prospective students.

Know your audience

Brands understand their buyers – they have it down to a science. They know where they shop, where they buy their products, the aisles they love to browse. They know where they’re spending their time on the weekends, what their goals are, and they’re keenly aware of their motivators (think: Target Circle sales and Amazon Prime Day). If someone asks you “who is [insert school name]’s audience?” and the response is “high schoolers,” it’s time to evaluate your target audience to get to the crux of their motivations.

Audiences are more than demographics

Companies like Mrs. Meyers and Everlane have precise target audiences. For example, the demographic for women’s clothing is women. But within the demographic, there are women who want to be cozy or feel confident. They might like brighter, whimsical wear, or they might gravitate toward cool, sleek cuts. Maybe they’re looking for a sporty vibe. The demographic isn’t enough here. Not even if we cut down the demographic further to women ages 18-24. 

Similarly, in higher ed we default to audiences based on demographics like “high school students” and “adult learners.” But within those demographic categories lie a lot of personalities, cultures, and mindsets. Some students crave community and traditional campus experiences like sporting events while others gravitate toward a more transactional experience, like wanting a quick-and-tangible degree. 

The demographic for women’s clothing is women. But within the demographic there are countless other considerations.

Just like Mrs. Meyer’s and Everlane tailor their brands to specific customer desires, higher education can benefit by understanding the unique needs and aspirations of different student groups. This allows institutions to create a more targeted and engaging experience that attracts students who will thrive in their environment.

Speed > (almost) everything else

Amazon and Uber Eats helped us develop a need for speed and convenience. We have dopamine to thank for that. Our brains are chemically wired to want instant gratification. It is what it is. Students and their parents or guardians also have the need for speed. When a specific brand is the first option delivered to us, they often win the business. Higher ed can adopt solutions such as automatic emails and text messages, FAFSA workshops, or on-campus Q&A days to offer in-the-moment solutions through the complex processes that are hard or impossible to change.

Eat, sleep, and breathe your brand

Companies that stay true to their brand are remembered. Coffee Dose is an iconic California coffee shop. Their menu, the decor, all the way down to the greeting cards they sell are all true to them. What if we translated an eat-sleep-breathe mentality to higher ed? Hypothetically, an engineering college that has a building shaped like an aircraft engine and a visitor center in the building with Legos for students and families to play with while in the lobby before a campus tour. How else can you invent wonder and on-brand experiences at your college or university?

What if we translated an eat-sleep-breathe mentality to higher ed? Like an engineering college building shaped like an aircraft engine!

Pick your battles

This one is easier said than done. But it’s worth noting that there are dozens and dozens of “things” marketing departments can do, but it doesn’t mean every marketing department should do them. Brands usually have larger marketing budgets, but they are precise in their marketing investment choices. 

Higher ed marketers are tasked with a cascade of “things to do.” Update this website, send out this postcard, film this video – each task requiring different sets of skills and job descriptions, inflating budgets and diluting priorities. If the budget is there, do it all, right? Not necessarily. We usually recommend scaling down, optimizing, and prioritizing what’s going to make the greatest impact. 

Real > Perfect

Gen Z wants to be told the truth. Simply put, they’re looking for dirt and a safe space to ask their questions. Through our research here at VisionPoint, we find that students code switch between higher ed settings (think campus tours and college fairs) and Reddit and other social media platforms when asking questions. Typically higher ed marketing avoids anything that isn’t polished. The reality is that students are going to find the information elsewhere, so why not give it straight from the source? Fully student-produced content, with all of its quirks in tow, captures the audience and gives a glimpse of the true experience students are looking for. 

Students code switch between higher ed settings and Reddit and other social media platforms when asking questions.

Customer service builds loyalty

We hear this a lot in higher ed, but it’s worth further emphasizing that customer service is critical. This story about a Patagonia customer service interaction is one of many. The brand is dedicated to building loyalty and trust. They aren’t concerned with selling another jacket. Unlike purchasing a new jacket, college is a deeply personal decision with lasting impacts. It’s where students invest their time, energy, and significant financial resources. Buying a jacket is frivolous in comparison to the investment in an education, but brands do customer service better.

Think about your favorite stores or restaurants. What sets them apart from the rest? Often, it’s a combination of seamless experiences and exceptional customer service. If one pizza restaurant offers online ordering and curbside pickup and the other requires you to order in person, chances are you’ll select the former unless it’s worth it and time is on your side.

In the context of higher education, negative interactions with staff, confusing processes, or a lack of responsiveness can leave students and their families feeling unvalued and unimportant, jeopardizing their initial trust and potentially swaying their decision. 

Every interaction, big or small, contributes to the overall perception.

Every interaction, big or small, contributes to the overall perception. By prioritizing excellent customer service throughout the decision-making process, you can show students and their families your institution cares, fostering trust and positioning yourself as the ideal partner in their educational journey. Customer service doesn’t have to mean giving someone a free jacket. It’s the time and energy felt in an interaction. Especially in high-stakes situations such as paying for college.

Don’t know where to start? We’re here to help! Fill out the form below to start a conversation with us about establishing your audience and ironing out your brand.

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