There’s no doubt that higher education is in the midst of challenging times. Moody’s recently rated the sector’s outlook to “negative,” a downgrade from 2015’s “stable” rating. Costs are rising. Competition is increasing. Endowments are down. And demographic changes that many knew were coming are here, with the number of high school graduates not expected to increase until 2024.
But that urgency hasn’t translated to most higher ed branding and marketing strategies. Look no further than any large, public research institution, and you’re sure to find a brand built around the same elements as its competitors—best in something, global, diverse, multidisciplinary, hands-on research, public mission, and service. Over time, telling the higher ed story through the traditional full-time, four-year lens or the research-dominant impact story has contributed to a narrative that—as cost rise, willingness to pay falls, and government funding sours—is an echo chamber falling on deaf ears that is resulting in further lack of trust and support.
Enter the idea of the challenger brand. Developed by U.K.-based strategy firm Eat Big Fish, a challenger brand is defined as having “ambitions bigger than its conventional resources” and willing to “do something bold, usually against the existing conventions or codes of the category, to break through.” These brands are not typically the leaders in their category. Rather, they’ve decided to challenge convention, their industries, or the customer experience. Think brands like Vice, Warby Parker, or Airbnb.
Recently, Eat Big Fish shared three challenger brand strategies. Using these archetypes, let’s look at some of higher ed’s most successful challenger brands:
1) The Missionary: Defined as a challenger that is a force for good, motivated by a bigger purpose, the missionary brand doesn’t run from its ideals. An example from the corporate world is REI.
It’s easy to consider faith-based institutions as “missionary” brands. Our research with more than half of the nation’s Jesuit institutions shows that ties to faith are generally neutral in terms of impact on an institution’s brand—that is, they neither add or detract significantly to impressions of or desire to attend a college or university. But the Jesuit messages of “women and men for and with others” and “teaching behaviors that reflect critical thought and responsible action on moral and ethical issues” are clear differentiators for a generation of “plurals” that may be the one to solve today’s societal issues. So it’s easy for us to think of our client, Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, as a missionary challenger. LMU is thriving despite shadows cast by its much larger neighbors, UCLA and USC, in part because of the university’s keen ability to show how students, faculty, and alumni experience its values and social justice mission in the world’s creative epicenter.
But missionary brands don’t have to have a religious connection. Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) has reinvented itself as a challenger brand whose purpose is about “challenging the status quo and providing the best support in higher education.” This has led to the university being focused on providing access through innovative programs and degree completion for America’s working adults with some level of college completion. SNHU’s online education program serves more than 80,000 students, and they have furthered commitment to their purpose through their new College for America program, which awards accelerated degrees based on proven competencies and a project-based approach.
2) The Real & Human Challenger: a brand that puts its people front and center. Eat Big Fish points to this great video from Harry’s Shave Club.
This would seem to be a place that higher ed might have an advantage. There are tons of terrific stories and people on every college campus. And many of them look and feel just like most of the rest of us normal humans. But the problem for most schools is that marketing efforts fall back on platitudes, making the institution come across as unapproachable and not rooted in the real world.
Not so at NC State University, whose brand strategy, Think and Do, is clearly challenging the ivory towers and traditional ethos that exists at nearby competitors UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke. Think and Do is plain speak—and it’s not just talk. NC State supports the brand with real people who demonstrate that the university is a place rooted in practical, real-world solutions. Videos we created with our partners at TheD4D show how NC State supports veterans and the agriculture industry and makes firefighters battling wild fires safer, among other human-centered stories. And here’s a recent example of not being afraid to lean in on pop culture moments that people are talking about as a NC State professor talks about the science of the Black Panther.
3) The Next Generation: New times call for different approaches, and these brands question the relevance of competitors that approach their industries in same old way. Think PayPal or Audi.
It’s hard to consider “new and next” higher ed brands without immediately thinking of Arizona State University (ASU), where they went so far as to call themselves “The New American University.” Under President Michael Crow, ASU has re-positioned itself as a clear challenger to the status quo. ASU actually rewrote its charter to say it had become an institution that would be measured “not by whom it excludes, but by whom it includes and how they succeed,” bucking the arms-race for elites through a model focused on access and growth. This focus has led to innovative partnerships with Starbucks, EdX, and an online program that is challenging other schools in markets around the country.
Not to be outdone in the desert (and in bitter dispute with ASU), Grand Canyon University has challenged conventions, shifting from a private Christian institution and shedding its non-profit status to get out from $20 million of debt and risk of closing. Now it is the only for-profit with a Division I basketball program as it seeks to regain non-profit status. GCU has enjoyed a complete turnaround through its challenger status. It has frozen tuition throughout the past decade and now has more than 19,000 students on its physical campus and nearly 70,000 pursuing degrees online.
Whether your college or university is ready or willing to be a challenger brand is another question, but it’s one worth asking as higher ed institutions struggle to distinguish themselves in a rough sea of rising competition, sinking investment, and public distrust. Even if your institution is not situated to take a big risk, it should be thinking about how it can take a stance.