Designing Better Higher Ed Brands

Why brand experience design is the key to connecting with prospective students.

By: Chris Huebner

Now more than ever, higher education marketers must grapple with a greater spectrum of touchpoints. Yet in order to be distinct and to provide a positive brand experience, the entirety of the customer experience must be planned — a daunting challenge, since the journey of prospective students includes experiences that are often managed by different internal teams, different vendors, and different agencies. 

What’s more, prospective students aren’t just evaluating their current experience with an institution, they are bringing with them brand experiences outside of our industry — and increasingly higher expectations. 

We know higher education is at a tipping point. And as experiences are flattened across many service-like touchpoints, understanding the relationship between what is communicated by the brand and how the brand is actually experienced can be effectively leveraged to produce real differentiation.

So, if brands are built through a collection of associations, then created and reinforced by marketing activities, the more marketing activities we align across experiences the stronger our brand. To get there, higher education marketers would benefit from a formalized approach: brand experience design. 

What is Brand Experience Design?

Brand experience design is the use of emotions and experiences to create better connections with consumers. It is based on the belief that brands can create a competitive advantage by building value-based relationships that are difficult for a competitor to replicate. It weaves together multiple disciplines to understand the logical progression of value as an audience sees a brand’s marketing and communications and then experiences its product or service. 

Whereas service design or customer experience design are concerned with ‘artifacts’ (what customers interact with) and ‘behaviors’ (how those interactions shape experience), brand experience design plans for how objects and behaviors translate from a brand perspective, strengthening the effects of brand communications and brand experiences.

Customer experience and brand strategy are usually planned and executed separately in higher ed: Admissions typically plans communications flows, customer journeys and web applications, while marcomm usually leads brand strategy, public relations and broader marketing activities.

Brand Experience Design for Higher Education

Higher education marketers will benefit greatly if they can remove that barrier to develop a plan for how the brand can be translated through strategic planning into experiences that reinforce brand meaning and produce value and drive brand outcomes. What’s key here is that “brand” is fully anchored in not only brand strategy (brand platform and pillars) but how product and service experiences along the customer journey reinforce the brand and produce brand outcomes.

A graphic design showing a diamond in the center, titled 'brand,' with four circles connecting with it, one labeled 'brand platform and brand pillars,' another 'brand attributes,' another 'customer journey,' and another 'products and services.'

Brands only have differentiation if customers perceive such a difference; experiences are the primary driver of that perception. Higher ed marketers can gain an advantage by applying the principles of brand experience design to unify disparate brand communications and admissions/enrollment management-related communications and experiences. 

More often than not, customer journey mapping encourages short-term, tactical thinking as well as a linear approach to defining customer interactions. That’s why it’s important for higher ed marketers to develop a brand design framework specific to higher education marketing, one that creates an actionable plan and extends the concept of customer journey beyond the short-term, beyond a narrower view from marketing and sales (or admissions) and interprets it through the lens of brand strategy and clearly aligned objectives.

Brand Strategy Framework

Brands are built through a network of emotions, knowledge and memories. In a sense, our perception of a brand is shaped by our own responses to brand experiences. Thus, it is crucial to identify the most impactful touchpoints and design brand experiences that leverage the correct combination of communication, service experience, or design.

If properly aligned, we will:

  • Bridge the gap between brand strategy and key touchpoints, strengthening brand experience
  • Align impactful messaging with important moments, where the most positive brand affect is likely to occur
  • Formulate a system to measure brand outcomes, enabling us to optimize the customer experience
A chart that can be filled out for brand experience design that specifies the audience, the brand position, and proofpoints to be mapped out across touchpoints that include media, moment, message and measure.

In Action: Brand Strategy Framework

Step 1: Brand Strategy

A brand strategy framework relies heavily, of course, on an institution’s brand strategy. We won’t dive deeply into that here, but the most important components found in most brand platform documents: brand essence, brand pillars, brand distincts/reasons to believe. As a brand platform is developed, measures must be put in place to ensure the objectives of the strategy are being met. Many institutions may have ways to measure the effects of brand strategy beyond enrollment data, including NPS scores, brand perception studies, and sentiment analyses. To this end, it is important that we incorporate the components of the brand strategy that align with key objectives and components that should shape marketing and communication activities. 

Step 2: Media

Next, we want to ensure that we’ve identified key touchpoints in the prospective student journey. While it would be great to tackle the entire mountain of touchpoints across the average journey, start with a manageable number that you’ve identified through web analytics, CRM data or qualitative and/or informal interviews. 

The goal is to understand the context or media environment of the touchpoint, because the login experience of an application portal is markedly different than that of a landing page or a Snapchat ad. We want to move beyond simply describing the relationship between a prospect and a message and think through the entirety of the experience as it relates to other touchpoints.   

Thus, a link between a media and message needs to be developed. In this framework, that bridge is what I’ve called ‘moments.’

Step 3: Moments

Now is when we get granular about a prospective student’s journey, moving beyond simple funnel monikers like ‘consideration’ and ‘interest.’

Below are the four steps for creating the appropriate moments. 

1. Jobs-To-Be-Done/Need: Jobs-to-be-done (JTBD) identifies the core pursuit of a person as they interact with marketing activities or seeking a solution (a product or service) to a problem. I also used the term need because so many of higher education buying cycles are cyclical. Understanding when needs arise or emerge – and what may drive those needs – may also help inform ways to design experiences that create a stronger imprint of the brand. 

2. Rational Thought Process: Once we’ve established the JTBD/Need, what are the rational thoughts prospective students undertake as they navigate their search process? Some common questions you might ask to start are:

  • How do prospective students frame or evaluate this experience?
  • What may act as an anchor when comparing a previous experience with a competitor?
  • What might they miss out on if they don’t act?
  • What are key comparisons being made at this point (price, time, effort?)

3. Emotional Thought Process: Next, we want to explore emotional thoughts prospective students may have during this process. Some common questions you might ask to start are:

  • What state of mind is a prospective student generally in at this touchpoint?
  • What is the primary driver for this current interaction? 
  • What feelings does a prospective student bring to the interaction and what are they usually left feeling after the interaction?

4. Intended Action: Finally, what is the ultimate action a prospect wants to take at this touchpoint. Is it to explore scholarship opportunities? Find their assigned admissions counselor? Register for an open house? If the goal of experience design is to enhance value creation for both customer and brand, clearly defining the intended action is critical to identifying how you can elevate the desired action.

Step 4: Message

By now we should have a clear view of the mindset of a prospective student at key touchpoints along the customer journey. Now we must create value that aligns with our desired brand outcomes. To do so, we must understand that ‘message’ can be both verbal and visual — or in this case, the totality of the experience. For example, a brand’s take on personalization can be a line of customized copy in an email or the design of a custom web application. 

After you’ve decided on what proposition you must deliver, you need to choose an emotional driver that you will use to create your desired brand outcome. The experiences we have with brands hold much more power over how we feel about the brand and how we hold that experience in our memory — both having influence over our perceptions of a brand. 

One example of a successful brand experience is Lululemon. In 2019, Lululemon opened community-based experiential stores that featured a fuel bar, sweat studio and meditation room. The goal was to design a brand experience that strengthened the association between usage and daily ritual, anchoring the experience to the brand’s overall message of authenticity and attainability. Each moment in the store was planned around evoking specific emotions that the brand felt would build key associations.

Step 5: Results

Brands that can get experience design right experience four big benefits:

  1. Better Brand Recall: The more purposeful higher education marketers are with their brand messages at emotional moments in the prospective student journey, the more likely your brand will be remembered. 
  2. Mere Exposure Effect: Similarly, the more higher education marketers reinforce key brand messages consistently across each identified touchpoint the more impactful your brand strategy will become, enhancing the effects of your positioning. 
  3. Enhanced Satisfaction: The more seamless, consistent and well-branded your experience, the more likely you are to have a positive impact on customer experience — a key component of loyalty and decision-making. 
  4. Positive Word-of-Mouth: While market size is more often a predictor of word-of-mouth, satisfaction increases the likelihood a prospective student will share their positive experience. Similarly, it’s been shown that the more prospective students experience positive word-of-mouth, the more likely their perceptions will be positively influenced prior to purchase.

Why Brand Experience Design for Higher Ed Matters

Developing a unified approach to managing the expanding number of touchpoints across the prospective student journey will allow institutions to build a stronger brand and find new opportunities to differentiate themselves. This becomes even more effective if we broaden our scope and align each interaction with a brand’s integrated multichannel marketing efforts. Brand experience design creates a vital way to bring disparate campus-wide communications into a formal framework that translates an institution’s brand strategy, leading to engaged prospective students.

Chris Huebner

Chris Huebner

Christopher Huebner is a digital strategist at Up&Up, a higher education branding and marketing agency in Greenville, S.C. He has worked both agency and client-side, where he has planned and executed marketing and recruitment strategies across multiple program types and institutions.

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