You probably know by now; my daughter just completed the arduous 18-month college admissions process. For those of you with kids younger than 17, I can tell you it’s all that and more – the stress, the family tension, the hard work, the ups, the downs, the waiting, the relief, and the tears of pride.

Added bonus: The marketer side of me enjoyed studying the stacks of mail this epic shopping expedition brought to our home, trying to guess at the thinking behind each piece. I have to admit to being so intrigued by some college solicitations, I opened letters not addressed to me before my daughter got home from school.

It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in, you can always pick up ideas by studying someone else’s marketing. Let’s start with this: Colleges call it recruiting. It’s marketing. But most colleges sincerely seem to care first about making sure the student finds the school that’s right for them. Wouldn’t it be great if customer needs were always at the forefront of important purchase decisions?

Now, aren’t you curious what I learned? I’m glad you asked!

Branding is so much more.

Nationally recognized colleges leverage the heck out of their school colors, football prowess, marching band, and mascots. School spirit represents an enduring part of the college experience, but branding a school is like nothing else. We’re talking about a brand that will ultimately be printed on resumes and hung on an office wall. A brand image is built from an accumulation of memorable connections, not just superficial devices.

Schools looking to stand out in their marketing tell stories. For example, Willamette University not only shares student and faculty achievements, they enthusiastically celebrate their annual red-light-green-light game – a Guinness World Record event! Elon College tells about their acorn-to-sapling tradition that commemorates student growth.

Be authentic – you be you.

Expressing a brand’s personality is harder than just using the right logo, font, and colors. Personality is a reflection of the brand, but also of your target audience. For colleges, speaking the language of youth is important. It’s also a mine field. The college decision is usually shared by parents alongside their kid. Parents don’t want to come away with the impression that they’re paying big bucks for parties and frisbee on the quad. But students aren’t looking to spend four years in Dullsville.

Messages aimed at young people can take on the tone of that generation, but be warned: If you want your content to sound like it’s written by a Millennial, you probably want to have it written by a Millennial. Kids have finely tuned antennae that can detect “fake cool,” and you’ll lose credibility fast if it looks like an adult is trying too hard. Groovy? Let’s move on…

Don’t be a copy-cat.

Every industry has its marketing conventions and publications, and it’s smart to study what everyone else is doing, but you’ve got to figure out how you’re going to stand out. So much college marketing looks like it was torn from the same playbook. Mailer after mailer promised to help my daughter along her journey to the future, where she would change the world. Every school had their version of a “Guide to finding the right college for you.”  And the infographics! Don’t get me started.

Use your data. Know your target.

College is a long-term relationship sell, and schools have a unique opportunity to gather enough information to make personalization easy. With that in mind, I was surprised how many schools missed the mark. Three basic data points; gender, field of study, and current residence; are enough to customize and make the message more relatable to the individual. For example, why send a post card featuring a young man who did an internship on Wall Street to a theatre major? Save the postage.


One thing a few schools really got right was social media. It’s an undeniable fact: Millennials live on social media. The most effective use of social media was after the applications were done and the admissions were in; schools began connecting prospective students with each other to build community and excitement. One thing about marketers: They have control-freak tendencies. But the most effective social media showed a light touch by the marketing department. The channels are set up, counselors were in the wings to answer the big questions, but the community was built by students talking to students.

I know; you’re not a college marketer. Thank you anyway for indulging me and reading this through. I hope you learned something you can apply to your own business. I think this counts as “thinking outside the box,” so give yourself points for that.

If you’re looking for fresh thinking for your brand, give me a call!

Copyright 2019, Liz Behlke