Insights — Be Real With Me: Brand Authenticity in Higher Ed

Be Real With Me: Brand Authenticity in Higher Ed

Thought leadership , Branding / January 29, 2024
Emily Barriball
Emily Barriball

In a strange turn of events, authenticity—the quality highly prized by Millennials and Gen Z—has become something of a corporate buzzword. Brands strive for it and build strategies, campaigns, and creativity around it… 

Yet, arguably, few have it.  

It’s a buzzword. Yet it’s deliciously easy for those who’ve grown up online to sniff out the imposters. They’ve spent much of their lives absorbing information, analyzing, and picking out patterns to determine who is real (and who isn’t).  

Being authentic demands a sort of vulnerable boldness, something few people, much less institutions, are willing to commit to. It’s hard. It takes the courage to admit that, perhaps, you are not for everyone, that you have some quirks, and that you’re going to draw attention to yourself—both affirming and critical. But it produces some of the best results because it is all these things. 

Because if nothing is new under the sun, then the only thing left is to be yourself. 

And in a saturated market with millions of demands on limited attention spans, standing out for who you are is key to thriving as a brand. 

Authenticity in Higher Ed Branding 

It’s no secret that higher ed’s general brand has been challenged by a myriad of issues, including a divisive political climate, audience cognitive dissonance, and mounting student loan debt. When faced with these serious topics, presenting the most neutral version of your brand to the public feels like the best option. 

Ultimately, that won’t drive enrollment, boost brand recognition, or get you where you want to go.  

At SimpsonScarborough, we’ve found that proudly claiming who you are as an institution—being an authentic brand—is when your potential comes to fruition. And we’ve got the data to prove it.   

A University’s Authenticity Comes Out of the Blue 

Boise State has grit. When faced with public misperceptions about who they are and what a college education is worth, they saw it as an invitation to show Idaho their genuine selves with the Out of the Blue brand campaign. 


It’s a campaign that confronts failure and challenges and how we overcome them to improve. It positions Boise State as the place to achieve your best. It’s wholly authentic. And it’s working. With a 28% lift in brand awareness (so far) and positive responses from Broncos and Idahoans, Boise State’s campaign has had a positive impact on the university, its wider community, and the higher ed industry. 

Montana’s Most Authentic Treasure 

Jenny Petty, University of Montana’s vice president of marketing and communications, admits that the creative rebrand concept initially scared her and her team. It was bold. It was different, especially in the higher ed space. But it captured who UMontana is at its core—a vibrant, playful, yet formidable institution, just like its mascot, the grizzly bear. 


Overcoming the initial apprehension, the UMontana team wholeheartedly embraced their new brand. The results? A 24% increase in applications and the largest first-year class in six years in Fall 2022. And the data is still rolling in.

A Polytechnic is Born 

Compared to Boise State University and the University of Montana, Cal Poly Humboldt’s circumstances were especially unique—they had the unprecedented opportunity to transform from a regional institution into California’s third polytechnic university. Taking on a new name and a new brand while staying true to your roots but also looking to the future... well, it’s quite the undertaking. 

Cal Poly Humboldt

But Humboldt doesn’t shrink from a challenge.
The resulting brand is distinctive and stands out for everything they are and will be. And students took notice—Humboldt saw an 86% rise in first-year undergraduate applications, a 52.8% increase in undergraduate enrollment, and a 6% increase in transfer enrollment, among other wins.  

Dig into Your Roots 

Authenticity is not a magic wand. It’s a long-term strategy that represents a deep belief in your institution and what it stands for. Presenting your institution’s authentic brand means accepting that you won’t be for everyone—but the ones you are for will have wholehearted buy-in.  

And your brand creative is just the start—when you provide an authentic brand experience from top to bottom, beginning to end, your institution and your community win. 

Emily helps brand stories verbally come to life, connecting them with audiences and authentically moving the brand forward. Whether it’s brainstorming big ideas or writing the perfect headline, she enjoys working on all our clients’ creative needs. When she’s not working, writing, or reading, you can find her dabbling in the kitchen, guiltily scrolling TikTok, or researching her latest special interest. Learn more about Emily and the rest of our team here.



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