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Higher Education Branding: How Brand Design Can Help Institutions Stand Out

University brand identity design is more important than ever. In an ocean full of choices, schools need to differentiate themselves to recruit their ideal students.

Pursuing a college degree has always been noble, but in recent years has become more closely related to a commodity. Higher education allows students to gain knowledge and experience before entering the workforce, and is now a necessity for many jobs. With the market becoming more saturated every day, it can be a challenge for colleges and universities to stand out. 

As the gateway from high school to the working world, higher education transforms first-year students into citizens ready to take on the world. With the proper brand identity, a higher education institution is able to make that promise to students in a way that is unique.

What is Higher Education Branding?

At first glance, colleges and universities are only divided into two categories: state schools and private schools. While the classroom is difficult to distinguish from one institution to another, the environment, size, location, and resources of each school vary greatly.

As such, universities are more than their classes, athletic centers, libraries, and entertainment centers. The shared values, strengths, and traditions that each school underpins their education with is what gives them their essence, identity, and differentiation. 

Whether schools are associated with their sports programs—images of students and alumni cheering on their school’s team, or their academic prowess—faculty mentoring young professionals, all stakeholders come together by the invisible force of the school's spirit.

Higher education branding takes the intangible aspects of schools and manifests it in digital and physical work, spaces, and marketing. Branding gives schools personality and a shared sense of purpose to what others might see as just another school—bland, beige, and seen before.

Higher educational branding empowers schools to deliver their unspoken promises with a distinct visual identity. Whether through print materials, websites that meet users where they are, or higher education environmental design, branding builds price and trust by consistently delivering on the brand’s promise. 

3 Reasons Why School Branding is Important

From specialized liberal arts schools to the Ivy League and big State universities, higher education branding helps communicate the values of schools to students and their families. Their visual identities help set expectations of the college experience to students and interested recruits.

1. Consistency Builds Trust, Recognition, and Association in Higher Education

Consistency kills—that’s why McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, and every other commercialized experience does so well. These brands have a consistent message and a consistent product. For colleges and universities, that is a quality education, job placement after school, access to a tight-knit community, and more.

Branding unifies all the visual output and marketing materials of a college, so everything from the School of Nursing, The Center For Teaching and The Good Life, and The Bootsma Bookstore Cafe, (or your specific cafe, center, department, etc.) are all aligned with the institution's mission, vision, values, and visual identity. Each of these acts as a touchpoint in the journey that a college education offers.

Consistency also means simplicity. Using a well-defined color palette complete with usage guidance, typography specifications and examples, rules for logo use, and a brand identity guide bring harmony to a university’s visual identity. Schools or initiatives within a larger university still have room to assert their individuality, but they are all guided by the same underlying principles.

Think of different components as members of one family—they share many traits, but project their own personalities in small ways. 

For example, the Bootsma Bookstore Cafe uses the font IBM Plex Sans Medium and features a grid of custom-drawn pictograms or icons. These icons are also used in the Nursing Department wayfinding system, who uses the same font and color palette. The difference is that the icons are used seriously in one instance and playfully in another.

Consistency goes beyond school colors. Higher education inbound marketing campaigns and marketing collateral also need to align with the school's culture and values. Communicating these more profound parts of who they are is just as important as the visual identity. 

2. Higher Education Branding Creates Value for Schools

With many universities offering similar academic programs, it’s easy for choices to blur together in the minds of students, and authentic value can become obscured. Branding sets schools apart from their competition by highlighting what makes them unique. By investing in quality brand identity design, colleges and universities can show prospective students why they should enroll in their program over another.

Branding for higher education also earns schools visibility in the marketplace. The last thing a school wants to be is, “the best school you’ve never heard about.” That equates to a school whose identity, messaging, and marketing materials don’t align and are diffused in the market. Higher education branding can add value to a college’s market position by making it recognizable.

3. Branding Attracts the Right Students and Boosts Enrollment

Students are always 17–18 years old, adopting the newest technologies or trends, and always in a state of self-discovery which means the way colleges and universities speak to and engage with students is constantly changing. Because of this, one of the biggest challenges for schools is recruiting new students and student retention. To attract and retain students, higher education institutions need to speak in the modes of modern culture while still delivering what’s expected from them academically. The right branding and higher education marketing campaigns will recruit the right students from the first impression.

CWC Case Study — How a New Brand Boosted Enrollment

Central Wisconsin Christian Schools invested in a new brand identity just before the pandemic of 2020. After enduring a year never seen before by any school, they came back in 2021 with their biggest enrollment year in the history of the school—proof that their new brand outlasted the turmoil and paid off quickly. View their brand identity project by clicking here.

Nesting, Unifying, and Celebrating Brand Identities within Universities.

Colleges and Universities are wonderfully complex organisms that require complex design solutions that appear simple. From the brand guidelines that organize the raw materials of logos, colors, fonts, and more, a university’s identity is intricately woven through many departments.

With these design foundations, a brand identity can be expanded into photographic styles, marketing tone of voice, and department intricacies. Once a consistent brand is applied to the school at large, the same design principles can be applied to the college at every level. The most comprehensive and successful higher education identities take all of these things into consideration when designing a new brand.

By nesting all of a college’s elements under a single brand, all of the messaging and marketing efforts are unified in a single chorus. This gives prospective students a cohesive brand experience that resonates with their own values and professional aspirations.

The best higher education branding agencies know how to use a school’s brand as a launching pad for creating a suite of micro brands for programs or initiatives while remaining attached to the parent brand. 

Nested Higher Education Branding Examples

Trinity Christian College functions like many other colleges and universities—it has a suite of other brands affiliated with it. Each one needs to function under the main brand, while still promoting the college at large. Brands like the The Center for Teaching and the Good Life (Fig. 1), Boostma Bookstore Cafe (Fig. 2), , Foundations (Fig. 3), and The Table (Fig. 4), are all designed as a collective. Viewers can identify each one individually, but also see that they belong to a collection of visuals (Fig. 5).

University and College Branding Delivers the Message

Schools give students the space to learn, grow, and transform in their own ways. Students think about who they’ll be at the end of their college journey, and with solid branding, colleges can clearly relay their promise. With such a strong visualization, students are eager to start this phase of their journey.

In an ocean full of choices, schools need to differentiate themselves to recruit their ideal students. Work with a higher education branding agency that understands what it takes to develop and deliver a strong brand experience.
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Fig. 1. Center for Teaching and The Good Life Logo (color palette edited for this blog post).
Fig. 2. Bootsma Bookstore Cafe Logo (color palette edited for this blog post).
Fig. 3. Foundations Logo (color palette edited for this blog post).
Fig. 4. The Table logo (color palette edited for this blog post).
Fig. 5. Collection of nested logos that each relate to one another, building trust and recognition for the college.
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