Dissecting the value of a winning university marketing strategy

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In a tough marketplace, universities need to go above and beyond to drive up enrollment numbers.

At a time of cutthroat competition and budgetary pressures, there’s no denying the value and impact of an effective university marketing strategy to boost enrolment numbers.

As we have written before, to survive the current marketplace, universities today need to get comfortable with seeing students as customers and the business of higher education as a business in itself.

This mindset shift doesn’t and shouldn’t change the civic duties of higher learning institutions who will remain the world’s talent incubators and innovation engines.

Rather, what changes is the university’s focus on ensuring–and demonstrating–strong student outcomes. With technological progress exacerbating skills gaps and mismatches everywhere, prospective students want and need to know that their education investments will bring them real-world value.

And the onus falls on universities to find a way to prove that. These efforts go well beyond improving classroom instruction.


The value of a university marketing strategy

Marketing is the bridge between the university and prospective learner, and a powerful tool for universities to lure students into their fold. 

But putting aside higher education for a minute, we all know how an effective marketing campaign can help business bottom lines, whether it’s to save a firm from a massive PR disaster or generate interest in a flailing brand.

Remember when KFC ran out of chicken last year and had to shutter hundreds of its outlets as a result? Besides the obvious loss of business from the temporary closures, everyone’s favourite fried chicken restaurant had to contend with the prospect of the disaster potentially derailing its entire brand altogether.

In a clever twist, instead of a formal “we’re sorry for the screw-up”, the firm’s marketing teams chose wit and self-deprecating humour in their response. To lighten the seriousness of the issue and appeal to a mass audience with humility, they rearranged the letters of the brand’s name to spell FCK in print advertisements apologising for the mess.

Turning their brand name into a swear word was surely a risky strategy, but it paid off and even went on to win a number of Gold Lions at the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity.

KFC was also nominated for Brand of the Year at the Marketing Week Masters awards.

To attract students, universities need to prove the value of the qualifications they offer.

Higher education can wield marketing tools to drive the same results.

And unlike days past, they no longer need to rely on guesswork for audience psychographics–an arsenal of social listening and digital targeting tools offer up reams of data on those they’re looking to recruit.

With that added knowledge, there’s plenty they could do to drum up interest in their programmes.

And having grown up in an era of well-honed customer experience, today’s student cohort can appreciate a good, well-thought-out and customised marketing message that speaks to their needs.

A good university marketing strategy, therefore, could very well be a failing university’s saving grace. 

The hard truth is, many institutions need that extra help. Declining enrolment numbers caused by an increasingly saturated global marketplace, rising costs and demographic changes have forced more than a dozen colleges and universities across the US to merge, consolidate or reinvent themselves in other ways in order to survive.

Many have gone broke and shut down, while others are operating on budget deficits.

In such an environment, a strong engagement strategy could help not just with enrolment but also with retention and recognition.

According to a report evaluating digital marketing trends in US higher education: “Today’s consumers value their experience with brands as much or more than the quality of products, shifting marketing’s role from right product, right time, right person to creating seamless interactions across every touchpoint of their brand.”

“For higher education institutions, this means communicating with current and prospective students, alumni and donors at a much more catered and coordinated level in order to stay ahead in an increasingly competitive market.

“The good news is, a strong engagement strategy can help higher education institutions to meet and exceed their business goals like never before. That said, it takes a new commitment to delivering a great experience, a sound strategy and coordination across staff and technology,” the report by Salesforce and the American Marketing Association said.

To illustrate the kind of results a clever marketing campaign could deliver for a university, we look at the following case study from Harvard Business School.


The HBX rebrand

Do you know of or remember HBX?

Probably not. The platform was rebranded earlier this year to Harvard Business School Online in a marketing push to raise awareness on its courses.

We’ll get into why they did that later but here’s what happened in the three months after the January rebrand: enrollment to the Ivy League institution’s online platform grew a staggering 70 percent, according to The Harvard Crimson.

Web traffic, meanwhile, increased by an equally impressive 40 percent. Those soaring numbers are every marketer’s dream result and why businesses invest good money on marketing campaigns.

“It’s been literally a step-change in the number of people who can now find us and through that are applying,” Dean of the Business School Nitin Nohria told the student paper.

Some commentators put the success of the rebrand down to the growing popularity of online learning models. They’re not wrong to say so.


But is it the only reason?

Let’s dig a little deeper.

Once seen as second-rate to on-campus education, e-learning has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years. In terms of value, the global e-learning market is expected to surpass the US$300 billion mark by 2025. 

The breakneck pace of technological progress is what spurred this growth on, with employers and universities alike wising up to the power of e-learning to fix the growing skills gap crisis. 

Harvard is one of them, only as an elite institution that prides itself on its long history of tradition and heritage, it never really made a big show of it.

Fact is, brand Harvard has never quite been synonymous with online learning. Nohria himself has admitted to fervently saying in 2010 that Harvard Business School would never go online in his lifetime.

Harvard University
Brand Harvard was never really synonymous with online learning.

Forced to wake up and smell the coffee, however, the school decided to explore digital learning to supplement its traditional offerings.

HBX was launched as a unit of the school in 2014, around the same time Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) were muscling their way into the mainstream of higher education. 

That the unit was named HBX was no coincidence; the launch was taking place just under two years after Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s “MITx” was renamed “edX” following a partnership with Harvard. The use of “x” was to denote the platforms were digital learning extensions of the school, as HBS Online executive director Patrick Mullane explains in Business Because.

The elite schools’ jumping the “x” bandwagon meant that online learning had finally arrived.

But it wasn’t yet widely accepted as an adequate replacement to campus learning. While its true HBX was already attracting something like 8,000 participants a year (an estimate based on 2017 enrolments), it was after the rebrand when interest in its courses well and truly exploded.

The 70 percent spike that Harvard saw this year was based on a quarterly comparison of enrollments in the first quarter of 2019 and the fourth quarter of 2018. 

As such, crediting the increase entirely to soaring demand for online learning options would be simplistic at best. The world didn’t just suddenly wake up to online learning, after all–the market has remained on a steady growth path for more than a decade now.

The success of the rebrand, therefore, is largely down to the marketing genius of Harvard’s teams.


So why did the strategy work?

Going from HBX to Harvard Business School Online was no inconsequential name change; it was the likely result of a deliberate strategy to leverage the power of brand Harvard by a team that knew exactly the kind of clout the name carries.

“Harvard Business School Online” may be a bit of a mouthful but it’s a name that resonates better with prospective learners, not least because it’s clearly an offshoot of brand Harvard. 

Wherever you go in the world, brand Harvard is often regarded as synonymous with higher education prestige and academic excellence. Have a Harvard qualification? You’re set for life, as the assumption goes. 

The school reportedly debated the name change for a year before going ahead with it, motivated by an objective to increase the platform’s discoverability and to be clearer about its ties with the wider Harvard Business School.

As Nohria in his interview with The Harvard Crimson explained: “Most people did not know that HBX was actually associated with Harvard Business School. We said, ‘You know, we’re proud of it, so why should we not put our name on an education experience we are proud of?’”

There’s more.

Harvard’s marketing team also shrewdly tied the rebrand to the release of a survey on the experiences of 1,000 participants who had been through HBX programmes and said they were the better for it. 

To provide context, here are the findings that Harvard publicised in a press release

  • 96 percent say it led to personal betterment
  • 91 percent say it improved their professional life
  • 90 percent feel it made them a more confident leader
  • 90 percent said it increased their knowledge of business terminology
  • 93 percent believe it bolstered their resume
  • Half reported increased attention from recruiters
  • One in four have gotten a promotion or title change and more than half say it led to an increased scope of work
  • One in three were able to transition to a new field

“Harvard Business School Online has allowed us to extend the reach of the school to people wherever they are in the world,” Nohria is quoted in the release as saying.

“Through this innovation we have brought much of what is special about the HBS experience to life online, helping us to achieve our educational mission in an entirely new medium.”

As the final push to really drive home its campaign message, Harvard broadcasted the rebrand on social media, the very playground of their prospective student recruits.

In a Facebook Live video (see below), Mullane and the school’s Public Relations and Branding Lead Michele Reynolds discussed the entire rebrand and the survey findings, offering answers to questions prospective learners would have likely asked or would have wanted to know after learning about HBS Online. 


As we mentioned earlier, universities not only need to focus on delivering better student outcomes, they need to prove that they’re actually doing it.

Knowing this, Harvard didn’t need to wait around for students to ask those questions. They simply intuited they would and stayed ahead of the curve by providing them the answers.

In one fell swoop, the school raised awareness and generated interest in its online courses, and was even able to demonstrate, through data and live discussions no less, how earning one of its certificates would lead learners to career advancement. 

As the icing on the cake, the school also adapted the Harvard brand narrative to changing times, going from an institution that doesn’t believe in online learning to one on the cutting-edge of a fast-growing trend. 

And with a 70 percent spike in enrollments plus 40 percent more site traffic after just three months, the rebrand effort was a clear success.

Higher education specialists Quacquarelli Symonds recommends three rules for effective university marketing: focus on careers, use your channels correctly and don’t be patronising. As far as engagement strategies go, the HBX rebrand is one that checked every box in the marketing playbook.