Branding effects on higher education.

Case Study: How a rebrand improves higher ed enrollment.


Whether we’re talking about a big university or a small college, a public college or a faith-based organization, the Big Ten Conference, or the ACC — all of these higher education institutions have one thing in common — every one of them relies on enrollment to survive. 2020 posed new challenges to overcome for the higher education category. Since the pandemic hit, many students have delayed enrollment. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reports overall enrollment as being down 3.3 percent. Freshman enrollment is down 13 percent, and community college freshman enrollment is seeing a 19 percent decline.

Higher education enrollment is down since the pandemic.

When enrollment is down, faculty and board members start to wriggle in their seats. Meetings about the future feel different and less anticipatory. And the need for a tangible plan becomes imminent, regardless of the available budget allocated for recruiting or marketing. Not every school has a ton of money lying around to put towards marketing. Which begs the question, what do universities and colleges do when they absolutely have to get more students enrolled without a big budget at their disposal?

What we can tell you from first-hand experience is that, regardless of your budget, you have enough to make a positive impact. You just have to be focused about how you use the money you have. That starts with nailing down the opportunities that will create the most value.

Determine who you are

Just like in our personal lives, it’s hard to explain to other people who you are when you aren’t sure yourself. The same concept applies to higher education brands. So, what are the important blocks that build a college or university’s brand identity?

⇢ Digital user experience
⇢ Messaging
⇢ Imagery
⇢ Colors
⇢ Logos
⇢ Mascot
⇢ Merchandise

All of these things are what help students, alums, staff, and faculty build and show pride in the institution they’ve chosen to be a part of. For instance, if the people who have already committed to your school don’t feel connected to your message, colors, mascot, or merchandise, they won’t wear their school t-shirt or plant a bumper sticker on their car. They may not even recommend the school to their circle of friends — prospective students. That’s a problem...but a very fixable one. Your school simply needs to get to the core of who you’re representing.

Get the message right

We had the opportunity to help Bethel University find its own true brand identity. The goal was to dig deeper into who they are as a university and explain it to the public in a clearer, more impactful way. Learning more about their students and faculty was the first place we wanted to start because they ARE Bethel University. The insights we gleaned from those key interviews helped shape the new positioning of Bethel: Become You.

Become You

Why, “Become You”? We learned that Bethel’s student-base and prospective students consisted of many first-generation college students coming into their college experience from a different vantage point than many other schools. Our approach was intentional — creating a narrative that communicated partnership. Bethel’s faculty would be there, walking alongside students in those formative years of college as they figure out who or what they want to become.

The new Bethel message needed to be felt across every arm of their brand. Students enter a college or a university with excitement and anticipation. They want to feel like they’re a part of something bigger than themselves, and we wanted to help Bethel give them that. So we promoted "Become You" through as many tactics and mediums as the budget would allow.

We redesigned their logo and mascot, chose new fonts and colors, and helped their team create modern merchandise their students, alum, and faculty could wear proudly. We also designed a billboard with the new positioning displayed. But all of those changes are only part of the bigger puzzle. There were more holes to fill in order to get enrollment in particular: their website was losing prospective students.

Use fresh eyes to look for the gaps

Sometimes you’re too close to the problem to see the solution yourself. Bethel needed help to evaluate and identify the possible pain points for prospective students hindering them from enrolling. They have three colleges, and right away, we realized that those colleges being separated into their own websites was an issue. Those siloed pages needed to be integrated into one, united, modernized Bethel University brand website.

After an in-depth brand audit, we also discovered the potential for an even broader footprint for prospective students in the Middle Tennessee area. Our media team put a strategy together to meet potential students on the platforms they were already engaging with and utilized an omnichannel approach, both online and off to put Bethel on the radar of potential new grads all over the state. With a plan to get the word out, next, we needed to redesign and rebuild the website where prospective students would visit to formulate their opinion about Bethel.

Make a good first impression

Long before a student ever steps foot onto your campus, they will visit your institution’s website. New grads may have heard of your college or university, but it’s unlikely that they’ve ever seen the campus or had a chance to get a feel for what it would be like to be a student there.

Your website will be their first impression. What they experience when they land there will impact how they ultimately decide on whether or not your school will be on their list to visit — which puts them just a few steps away from enrolling. What message will your website send to these new grads? Is your image dated? Is it reflective of the education system you’ve worked so hard to build? Does your messaging accurately represent the ways you empower and educate students who attend classes there every day? Is it easy for prospective students and their families to navigate? If not, you can change that. But don’t start reaching out to web developers just yet. There are a few critical steps to take before you start rebuilding a website

Build it right and they will come

Rebuilding a website can almost be trickier to navigate than building one from scratch because determining which content is still relevant and migrating that content takes time. We highly recommend an agency partner to help guide you through the process. There are a lot of decisions to make that will directly affect the success or failure of the new site and any paid efforts made to direct prospects there.

Here are some of the big questions to ask yourself before you get started:

  • Have you clearly defined your target audience?
  • Do you have the right CMS for the type of content your website will host?
  • Are there new brand guidelines in place? Fonts? Color pallets? Design standards?
  • What is the main goal for your new website? What features should exist in order to meet that goal?
  • Do you have a clear path for how users will navigate the site that ladders up to the goal?

After we helped answer these questions for Bethel, we were able to take their 16 separate websites and combine them to develop one fresh, cohesive website centered around personalized features to drive applications and interest in the NEW Bethel. While the website was under construction, we created two temporary landing pages for all digital ads to direct to as part of a data capture campaign to drive enrollment by offering interested students opportunities to learn more.

Bethel’s website became a one-stop resource for all types of students. We added a feature called, “I Am” to tie back to their new mantra, “Become you” which allowed users to select how they identify — as a prospective student, parent, etc. The resulting content was intuitively customized based on their selection. The results were exciting.

Here’s what a Bethel alum, Chris K., had to say about the new site:

“This site represents the Bethel that I know and love. It makes me a very proud alum. #BecomeYou

How a newly branded website drove enrollment

The first step to any higher education application process happens online. That’s a fact. With enrollments down since the pandemic, higher education can’t afford to have any hurdles in the way of potential applications on their website.

That’s why the key pages that drive enrollment were our focus for Bethel. Those key pages have all seen incredible growth.

⇨ “Learn More” for the Traditional campus saw a 70 percent increase in submission.

⇨ “Learn More” on the College of Professional Studies increased by 30 percent.

⇨ 300 leads generated for the College of Arts and Sciences and College of Health Sciences (Nearly 10 percent of current undergraduate enrollment).

⇨ “I Am” page visits are up 706 percent

⇨ The “Application” page is up 1,547 percent.

⇨ “Admissions” page viewership is up by 84 percent.

Bethel University's Become You website has created pride in students, alum, and faculty.

The project started with rebranding and messaging, then it evolved into lead generation and paid media that all tied back to the new Bethel that exists online on their website. Their site now simply reflects who they always were as a University, and the culmination of all of these efforts has paid off.

Any budget is enough to create more pride in your brand

The website rebuild was just one piece of the puzzle we needed to solve to get enrollment up for Bethel, and, like so many small Universities, they didn’t have boatloads of cash to do it. They had to stay focused on the goal and which tactics would best support it.

“Become you” has implanted itself much deeper than simply on their website. Today, their President and leadership team regularly refer back to this positioning, reminding their faculty and students that Bethel is a place where it’s ok not to know who or what you want to be yet. It’s a place to learn exactly that.

Any strides you can make towards creating a brand that your students, alumni, faculty, and staff feel pride in will be money well spent. Your website is important, but only because your people are excited to send others there. Your t-shirt designs may not seem like they deserve much time or energy invested, but if no one wants to wear them, that’s a statement that means more than you might like to admit. Change happens over time. But it starts by staying focused on tangible tactics.

  • Higher Education
  • Advertising
  • Branding
  • Website rebuild
  • Growing Enrollment