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5 Ways Colleges Can Humanize their Brand During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Tim Brown — 19 February 2021


Campus life has become a double-edged sword for higher education institutions during the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s both a key selling point and revenue generator for schools, and a recurrent source of COVID infection that has forced a lot of college learning online.

Remote learning and the online social environment have become important parts of the student experience, even when campuses are open to students. But it’s harder for institutions to make personal connections with prospective and returning students in a remote environment.

With fall undergraduate enrolments down 4%, revenues under pressure, and schools criticized for creating a sea of sameness with their marketing, humanizing your higher education brand will allow you to make it more relatable and more approachable -- so you can connect with more students.

We often see the college we went to as a reflection of who we are -- and taking a human-centered approach to your marketing now will not only help you reach prospective students remotely and foster that connection when they’re studying, it could pay dividends for years to come. Here are a few options to consider:

1. Articulate your brand purpose

Brand purpose is the reason your institution exists, and it’s becoming increasingly important. Helping people understand the difference your institution is making in the world is not just a way to differentiate your brand -- it is a growing expectation.

A recent Accenture study showed almost two in three people want organizations to take a stand on “current and broadly relevant issues like sustainability, transparency or fair employment practices”. And the closer a brand’s purpose aligns to their own beliefs, the better.

Articulate what your college stands for, and how this impacts its actions and decision-making, so that students can see how this aligns with their own values.

Promoting brand purpose has not only been connected to a variety of benefits from influencing strategy to deepening loyalty -- it’s also a powerful motivator for employees.

There are a variety of tools you can use to enable employees and students to promote their own connection to a cause, such as online rendering tools and templates, that make it easy for people to create a personalized asset promoting a particular message within controlled guidelines.

2. Be empathetic

Just as the Great Depression impacted a generation’s attitudes to money, the pandemic could have a lasting impact on this generation of students. Students are feeling more isolated than usual, worried about not finishing their courses on time, they may be unable to work or travel, or they’re tired of complying with pandemic safety measures.

Higher education brands need to show their audience they understand their challenges in order to create a sense of trust that they can help deliver against their needs. It’s also important to strike a balance between acknowledging their challenges and charting a constructive way forward.

Focus on unearthing human insights about your audience’s experiences and emotions, and show your audience you understand how they feel if you want to get their attention.

In one example, a controversial student campaign from Boston University designed to encourage all students to observe COVID-19 safety measures -- “F_ck it won’t cut it” -- started by acknowledging how large parts of the student body were feeling about those measures -- before detailing the benefits of observing them.

“We can’t miss another semester. We can’t take another Zoom class.
“And we certainly can’t spend anymore time in our high school bedrooms,” the campaign states.
“That sucked, right? It’s on us.
“Carelessness will put us back to square one.”

For more information on managing your higher education brand, download our Ultimate Guide to Brand Management.

3. Be authentic

Few things humanize and connect us to others like sharing real stories about our struggles, our hardships and the lessons we learned along the way. “What doesn’t kill us may make us stronger as a group,” reports Psychological Science, quoting research that suggests shared pain acts as a “social glue” to promote solidarity and togetherness between groups.

One option is to share stories of students who struggled but then achieved success with some help from your institution.

At Northern Virginia Community College, for example, students can take part in a program called Rise Up, in which they create a short presentation for peers on how they've overcome challenges during the pandemic.

4. Share user-generated content

On the flipside, sharing a laugh also creates a sense of connection. While the pandemic has been a source of financial and social stress to many, like all crises, it has also sparked a rich vein of memes.

Social laughter releases endorphins in the brain and supports the “formation, reinforcement, and maintenance of social bonds between humans” as well as signalling safety and promoting feelings of togetherness.

If you’re looking to forge a stronger connection with your target market, consider creating or sharing funny content that’s relevant to your brand.

For instance, one tweet about a 73-year-old law professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law who wasn’t comfortable using Zoom or talking to an empty room and pre-recorded his lectures while addressing a Pinocchio doll in the front row went viral.

There are lots more types of user-generated content out there than funny memes and tweets, of course. Decide what sort of user generated content your brand should share based on the kind of connections you want to make with your audience.

5. Build community

Building community is more important than ever in a largely virtual educational world, in which many students feel disconnected from their school and from each other. Universities and colleges are finding ways to foster connections with, and between, students as the pandemic persists. Initiatives include creating virtual lobbies on Zoom where students and advisers can connect, taking the student club experience online, and creating virtual student unions where students can join discussion and access resources.

Many previously campus-based activities, from Open Days to concerts and other events, can also be delivered virtually as needed. Companies including Facebook -- which is going back to its roots with the launch of Facebook Campus -- are offering tools to help schools foster greater community feeling.

As the sector looks to bounce back from the pandemic-induced slowdown, it will be assisted by the Biden administration’s recently announced $35 billion fund to help colleges and universities cover the costs of implementing public health protocols, distance learning plans, and emergency grants for students in need.

The personal connections institutions can forge with prospective and returning students by showing them a human face will build resilience into those relationships as we look to navigate our way through this year and into the next.

At Outfit, we understand it’s not easy to quickly create connections with your students, alumni and administration staff. But, a tool that can help is brand automation technology. A brand automation tool will enable staff at your institution to create on-brand content at scale. We put together a document reviewing the return on investment of brand automation in higher ed. Download it today and discover how to quickly get campaigns in the market and build real, human connections.

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