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Brands, Millennials and Universities

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Organizations that create successful brands understand their customers well, and that extends to those of us who run organizations focused on higher education.

How well do you understand the "customers" of your university, and what do you know of their lifestyles and buying behaviors?

Named "Millennials" by researchers and authors Neil Howe and William Strauss, and described in their book Millennials Go to College, your customers were born in 1984 or later, and those on the leading edge are now entering your college.

They are close to, and "co-purchase" with, their parents. They are extremely focused on grades and performance; active in community service; demanding of a secure, regulated environment; respectful of norms and institutions; and conventionally minded, verging on being conformists.

Millennials Buy Brands


Millennials are attracted to well-defined and well-expressed brands because those brands strengthen their beliefs about themselves, provide a sense of comfort and home, confirm their sense of community with their peers and reinforce the order they see in their world.

According to Howe and Strauss, "With e-stores, chat rooms, and buddy lists, they are the first youth generation in which virtually any member can keep up hour-to-hour with the opinions and tastes of peers across the nation."

Brands appeal to Millennials' sense and sensibilities because they are a badge of trust; they communicate to others who these stundents are; they offer the reassurance that what the students buy will be accepted and embraced by peers and colleagues; they are an identification of source, quality assurance and risk reduction; and they simplify complex purchasing decisions—particularly expensive, life-critical decisions such as choosing a university.

A university will not be chosen by a Millennial unless it is a choice. Brands create choice. Therefore, to attract the best and brightest Millennials, universities need to tailor their brands to fit the world of the Millennials.

Building Your Brand

Building your university's brand is a focused, disciplined process that begins with a clear definition and description of the primary customers you wish to serve; the skills you must develop in your faculty, admissions staff, and the administration to ensure that you can make and keep your promise to your primary customers; and the benefits your customers will receive when they choose your university.

As a brand ambassador, you must take ownership of building your university's brand. Brands are built when they are expressed crisply and universally. Universal expression requires the alignment of all your key stakeholders, especially your faculty, your administration and your admissions staff. Successful alignment requires a demonstration of real and tangible benefits for all stakeholders.

Benefits of Owning a Strong Brand

There are many benefits to owning a strong, favorable and unique brand. We'll focus on three that will help ensure that faculty, the administration and admissions staff are successful.

The faculty wants bright, focused and passionate students who understand and appreciate the quality and nature of the education that the faculty is expertly and experientially qualified to deliver.

Clearly expressed brands, brands that understand and target a specific type of student, and brands that offer that student a specific set of benefits will attract those students whom the faculty is seeking. If these students understand your brand, then they will choose you.

University administrations today dedicate more time and energy to fundraising. Brands that have delivered on their promise to students will create loyal alumni. Loyal alumni will contribute to their alma maters financially and will take an active role in encouraging their colleagues to do the same. Alumni who have had a positive college experience will recommend that students who would benefit most from attending their alma mater learn more about the university and visit its campus.

Admissions staffs face a challenging environment today because there are so many colleges and universities to choose from. Thus, they need a way to differentiate themselves from the competition so that students, and their parents, can see them as a clear choice.

A strong brand will communicate to target students the reasons for attending a specific college and how it will benefit them. In essence, students will self-select, recognizing that the brand is the right one for them.

The pursuit of a strong, favorable and unique brand delivers sustainable, renewable value to all key stakeholders.

So What's a University to Do?

Begin by asking yourself a series of questions:

  • Can you identify and define your ideal student? 
  • Does this student know about your university and understand that you can deliver a set of benefits to them that can ensure their success both in school and in life?
  • What three skills must you have in order to deliver what you promise to this student?
  • Can you describe in a clear manner the benefits that you deliver?

If you can answer these questions, you have already taken the first step in distinguishing yourself in the mind of your customer. If you cannot answer these questions, then your prospective customers surely won't be able to either. And they will not be on your campus next year, or any year.

You can't be chosen unless you are a choice.


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Joseph Benson (benson.consulting@rcn.com) is a brand strategist with over 25 years of experience designing and implementing brand and marketing strategies for financial services, healthcare, high-tech, entertainment and retail clients.

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