What higher education can learn from strong digital brands

What can colleges and universities learn from digital brands like Dollar Shave Club?

As brands, colleges and universities occupy an interesting space. We don’t like to talk about our students as customers, although some would argue that we should change our mindset. Many of us in academia also would prefer to not think of our enterprises in business terms of any sort. But as branding takes on a more prominent role in higher education, there’s also a shift in perspective among administrators, communicators, marketers and faculty that acknowledges the importance of branding and marketing. That shift has led to a greater appreciation for brand management as a function to help influence and shape audience perceptions of our institutions.

Much of that shaping has been focused on attaining “mind share” for our brands — that is, creating marketing materials and messaging about our institutions, then flooding our customers (er, students) with said messaging and collateral so that we become “top of mind” when they’re ready to make a purchasing decision (read: apply to college).

Traditional higher ed marketing studies focus on mind share questions like, “When it comes to outstanding colleges in [NAME OF STATE], which come to mind?” or “When you think of the best colleges for [TYPE OF MAJOR], which come to mind?”

Some new research outlined in a recent Harvard Business Review article suggests that the mind share approach to market research and brand building may not produce the results we desire.

As the Internet has given rise to new business models, so is it also giving rise to a different approach to branding is emerging.

Where traditional brands focus on positioning their brands in the minds of their customers, digital brands focus on positioning their brands in the lives of their customers. Furthermore, they engage customers more as users than as buyers, shifting their investments from pre-purchase promotion and sales to post-purchase renewal and advocacy.


In their HBR article, Mark Bonchek and Vivek Bapat disucss traditional and digital brands in two categories: purchase brands and user brands. Think Airbnb vs. Hilton/Marriott, or Gillette vs. Dollar Shave Club.

While it would be easy to lump all traditional brands into the purchase category, there are exceptions, write Bonchek and Bapat.

“We suspect that the nature of their products, culture, and business model leads them to more of a usage mentality,” they explain. “They think of customers less as one-time buyers and more as users or members with an ongoing relationship.”

The authors outline these key differences between purchase-focused brands and their usage-focused counterparts.

Purchase brands:

  • Focus on creating demand to buy a product
  • Emphasize promotion
  • Worry about what they say to customers
  • Try to shape what people think about the brand along the path to purchase

Usage brands:

  • Focus on creating demand to use a product
  • Emphasize advocacy
  • Worry about what customers say to each other
  • Try to influence how people experience the brand at every touchpoint

The higher ed hybrid

You may be wondering where higher education brands fit.

As I mentioned at the outset of this post, higher education occupies an unusual space in the arena of brands and branding. It seems we straddle both the purchase brand and usage brand categories. Much of that has to do with our customers (there’s that word again).

When recruiting prospective students, we’re still very much in the purchase bucket. But when we’re courting alumni for gifts or other forms of support, we act more like a usage brand. And when we’re interacting with our current students, we seek their repeat business (come back for another semester) but also want to sell them on the experience.

Higher ed could learn a lot from usage brands — particularly as consumer perceptions are shaped more by the digital realm. The authors’ research indicates some positives for making the shift to a more usage-focused style.

“Survey respondents show more loyalty to usage brands,” the write. “They had stronger advocacy in the form of spontaneous recommendations to others.  And they showed a higher preference for usage brands over competitors, not just in making the purchase but in a willingness to pay a premium in price.”

In these days of tighter budgets and scarce resources, positioning our institutions as resources that provide a high value is not a bad thing. Nor is building a customer base that will advocate for our institutions.

Image via Swatch & Review.

Author: andrewcareaga

Higher ed PR and marketing guy. Communications director for Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) in Rolla, Missouri, USA. Slow runner, mediocre guitarist, lover of music and puns, and an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan. I blog and Tweet about #highered, #music, #gocards and #random stuff.

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