Insights — Universities are Big Brands (So Why Don't We Treat Them as Such?)

Universities are Big Brands (So Why Don't We Treat Them as Such?)

Thought leadership / January 27, 2023
Matt McFadden
Matt McFadden

What qualifies an entity as a big brand? Is it sheer size? Market cap or total revenues? Market share in their particular category? Societal impact? Large fan bases? Use or interaction in our everyday lives? Big brands, at some level, are qualified by many or all of the above. While we can't say that all the roughly 4,000 American institutions are big brands, most easily check many of these boxes, which begs the question — why don't we treat them like big brands?

One answer is relevance. Colleges and universities are not perceived as relevant in our daily lives by a large enough percentage of the American public. Part of this is the nature of higher education. It's only "used" daily by a small percentage of people, traditionally by those between 18-24 years old. And, used is in quotation marks because we all use higher education every day, but we struggle to see that because the product's "use" only exists for the user in the classroom or shortly after they walk out of it.

Whether it is our own degree, an affordable housenew ways to protect coastal residents in Oregon from a tsunami, or a life-saving vaccine, we all benefit from higher education every day. However, relevancy takes a significant hit when a large percentage of a population, and key leaders within it, tell you it's not worth the cost. Decades ago, college presidents were often the second (if not the) most influential leader in the state. Now, given a tumultuous political landscape, many presidents feel they can't afford a high public profile or to speak out on key societal issues their institutions are addressing, or they'll risk their funding. 

Relevance to the General Public

Many university systems are in the top 3 largest employers in their respective states, if not the largest. With sheer size comes the same brand awareness of larger consumer brands, often at a national level. But awareness doesn't directly correlate to familiarity, positive sentiment, or, most importantly, relevance. That takes a sizable marketing and communications engine, including a sufficient budget for paid media. Leadership at institutions, large and small, have long underfunded marketing and communications offices in staffing, technology, and advertising spending, to name a few areas of critical need. 

In 2021, marketing budgets across industries didn't rebound to pre-pandemic levels. Still, even at 6.4% of overall revenue (down from 11% in 2020 per Gartner), non-higher education industry marketing budgets far outpace colleges and universities (who, according to our latest Higher Ed CMO Study, currently average 1.06% of total institutional revenue).

A chart that shows marcom budgets as a percentage of institutional budgets.


That will come as no surprise to those in higher ed marketing - lacking marketing dollars may be the single biggest impediment to relevancy.

But, before institutions can allocate marketing dollars, they must understand what today's prospective students are considering regarding their college decision.

Relevance to the Prospective Student

In SimpsonScarborough's most recent National Prospective Student Survey, 68% of prospective students said that a college education is still very important, and over 80% believe college is worth the time and price tag today. So what is holding students back?

Besides the traditional considerations of cost, financial aid, and safety, 18% of students cited that they did not believe college was for them. In other words, nearly 1 in 5 students find higher education irrelevant to meeting their goals and aspirations. Those who say college wasn't for them represent diverse or underrepresented populations, neurodiverse, and nontraditional learners.

a screenshot of student quotes from our latest National Prospective Student Survey

As the number of "traditional" college-going students declines in the coming years, ensuring all students feel supported and represented is vital for schools to increase their relevancy. And while necessary for marketing and communications, the issue is much bigger than that. Marketing can not overcome poor brand experiences.

Relevance to the Parent

Parents have long been among the most significant influencers of their prospective students' college decisions. And for the most part, they are still encouraging their children to go, with 77% of students from the National Prospective Student Survey reporting their parents are either somewhat (20%) or strongly (57%) encouraging them to enroll in school. That still leaves nearly 1 in 4 parents who are not. Digging a little deeper into those numbers sheds light on a problem many schools face – a lack of male students. 63% of female respondents said their parents strongly encourage them to attend college, but that number decreases to 47% for male respondents. 

Then, there is our least favorite topic. Rankings. 

Per Niche, 83% of parents say rankings are very important, making only a small number of schools relevant. Since we aren't getting rid of rankings anytime soon, it's important to acknowledge the resource struggle they create. Leadership at many institutions will continue to invest in rankings improvements, diluting resources for other essential marketing and student experience efforts. And most times, these marketing efforts are directed at the small audiences who influence rankings, which does not help an institution's broader awareness or relevancy.

Big Brand Thinking

The issues surrounding higher ed's reputation, marketing, and relevance are plentiful. Not all schools are national brands, but many schools are the biggest brand in their state, region, or city. This is important to address because of the weight those institutions have but only sometimes acknowledge. 

Big brands focus on building awareness and building affinity through great customer experiences. A mindset shift toward thinking like a big brand will take time in higher ed. It took close to two decades for the word "brand" to be adopted on campuses (and in some places, that is still not the case). But, the shift in thinking is exactly what the industry needs.

Matt is a Partner and SVP at SimpsonScarborough. He's basically a non-fiction version of Ted Lasso and one of the leading higher education brand strategy experts anywhere in the country. He's played a key leadership role in SimpsonScarborough's evolution into a full-service, integrated agency but is likely more proud of the internal culture cultivated in the process. Matt earned his B.S. in Marketing from Auburn University and recently moved to Columbus, OH, with his wife and two daughters. Learn more about Matt and the rest of our team here.

Related Insights