Promote your place: Why all higher ed. institutions need to market their location. Promote your place: Why all higher ed. institutions need to market their location.

Location, location, location. Yours has a lot to do with how you market your higher ed. institution. And it’s no surprise; you’re most likely inviting people to be part of a community and live there.

But what if you’re in a place that’s not inherently beautiful?

What if your institution sits somewhere that’s ordinary?

A great many institutions are found in unremarkable locales with uninspiring buildings and buttresses. (We can’t all be Oxford!)

Still, leveraging your institution’s physical location is imperative. Soon, your future students will be exhausted of online learning, starving for an in-person experience. How you market yours takes planning now.

No vibrant vistas or fancy façades? No problem. Because it’s not so much where you are that matters, but how your location shapes your institution’s character.

For ordinary higher ed. institutions, beauty is in the eye of the marketer.

It’s a given that your viewbooks and catalogues are packed with informative listicles and FOMO-inducing imagery. But marketing your institution effectively for the next generation of students (yearning for a normal in-person experience) will require more nuance on your part to stand out.

But beyond the listicles and imagery, it’s the ideas and language you use to describe your school that will speak volumes about who you are. These ideas ultimately convey your character — what defines you and why. Your location is overwhelmingly part of that.

Beyond the physical nature of your campus, your institution indeed possesses character-defining attributes that have great potential to give a show-stopping performance in your branding. Especially so if you don’t have much else to differentiate yourself by.

Take the University of Manitoba, for example. Most people think it’s in a place that’s cold, flat, and remote. They’re not wrong. But to build the university’s brand and increase enrolment numbers, they knew they had to evolve that common notion.

Manitobans are resolute in their resilience and proud of the prairies they call home — frigid as they may get. They own their so-called ordinary location with guts and pride that pulls students in from all across the country.

The idea that where you are shapes who you are became a sturdy, strategic foothold for an award-winning campaign.

How does your location define what your institution is all about? Lead with that and you won’t have to rely on listing your attributes. The attributes will sell themselves.

Your enrolment counts on your higher ed. institution’s destination differentiator. 

What school hasn’t relied on imagery of their campus as a way to stand out in marketing materials? You know the kind:

  • Three students sitting under a tree and studying. 
  • The campus library, serene after a fresh snowfall. 
  • A sunshiney bird’s eye view of campus. 
  • Beautiful mountains/lakes/city skylines — depending on the school. 

(If those scenes evoke familiar campaigns, can you really call them a differentiator?)

Thanks to online learning, those pictures have become borderline irrelevant. Without students being able to study in the library or gather with their friends, what are they good for?

But that won’t be the case forever, which means now is your time to plan.

To win the recruitment race in the years ahead, you need to treat your campaigns like you’re promoting a top tourism destination. Because when the kitchen has doubled as a classroom for the past few years, it will be a big deal for students to go anywhere.

The way you choose to differentiate your institution by its location will be everything.

Moreover, as we learn more about what makes Gen Z tick, we know that it’s not enough for them to be sold on how a place looks. These students are driven to connect themselves with places that hold similar values and beliefs.

What feeling, idea, or value does your location evoke?

Focus on the character of the place in which your institution exists. And dig deep for it because it has a place in your marketing plan, too. It may be the deciding factor that your prospective students didn’t know they were looking for.

Dig deep to find character-defining details about your institution as a destination.

If it’s not immediately clear to you how your environment influences your institution’s character, don’t worry. Just take a deeper look at your institution’s community and those who call it home.

You will surely discover that your dot on the map has imbued the character of the people who live and thrive there.

Tell that story.

Whether you’ve worked at your institution for two years or grew up in the community, you probably have a feel for the general zeitgeist of the population. But it’s going to take stepping outside your office talking to people to really get at the heart of the matter.

Here’s what we suggest.

  1. Talk to people in the community. Listen to understand the nuances in people’s experiences and stories. What makes them proud of their home? What makes them stay as opposed to moving elsewhere? Find a common pattern. 
  2. Talk to alumni who moved away after graduation. When we move away from somewhere that was special to us, we can look back and easily point to the reasons that place was unique. What do alumni miss about their institution and its community? What qualities or characteristics stuck with them after leaving?
  3. Talk to alumni who stayed in order to find success. Success doesn’t necessarily mean a big bank account and a new car every two years. It means something different to everyone. Find out what success means to the students who stuck around and why they decided to do so.
  4. Talk to alumni and donors who were locally raised. These stakeholders have seen it all. From growing up and dreaming about their post-secondary education experience to actually living it — what have they always known to be true about where they have called home?

This qualitative research will guide you to ideas of what your institution’s community is all about. For some places, it may not be all that different from what another community in a neighbouring region might say. And that’s okay.

It all boils down to this:

What are people proud of in their community?

What’s distinct about the way they feel about it, as opposed to what it looks like?

City, prairie, suburb, or town every neck of the woods lends itself to a different story and character. Tell your institution’s story well and you’ll evoke a feeling that overshadows wanderlust.

Ask any alumnus and they’ll assure you: It’s the feeling of the place that endures.