4 steps to develop a visually distinctive story for your higher ed. brand.

Three students laughing while sitting under a tree. Drone footage of the sun setting on an iconic campus structure. A student in a crisp white lab coat peering into a microscope. You’ve been there, done that — and so has your competition. It’s time to tell a different story.

But perhaps you’ve already started by investing in a new brand strategy or visual identity. Now you just need to visually bring that story to life. And therein lies the challenge. 

And it is quite the challenge. Because telling a new brand story means doing more than changing graphics and stock photos on your website. It means finding a point of view that’s different from anyone else. It means capturing that point of view from multiple angles. And it includes finding a way to sustain that new brand story for years to come.

In essence, breathing distinction into your institution’s new brand strategy means doing things differently. Here’s how to start.

How to establish your higher ed. institution’s unique point of view.

Consistent colour boards and logo lockups are common deliverables that follow a new brand strategy. But have they moved the needle for you in the past? To get a different result — more students excited about enrolling, more alumni to show their school pride, more support for your capital campaign — you need to use different tools. And your brand’s language and imagery are going to be as powerful as tools get.

But discovering what your brand wants to say and how you want to say it is the hardest part.

So here’s what you do.

First, find a unique point of view that can be articulated through imagery and video. If you’re not sure where to start, do a competitive analysis. Whatever you see your competitors doing, don’t do that. Avoid cliches and stay away from what’s already being done. You have a different story to tell anyway.

When the University of Manitoba launched its Trailblazer campaign, the point of view was through that of children. The hero image is a black and white rendering of an Indigenous girl with a piercing stare, icicles clinging to her scarf and hat. A rather far cry from the ubiquitous backpack-clad, jovial students walking on campus in the sunshine. 

And yet, the stark images of the Manitoba prairie evoke possibility. Grit. Spirit. An unmistakable reflection of the people (and prospects) of the University of Manitoba.

The ad copy picks up where the visual story leaves off with the university’s achievements according to the children in each image. I am a trailblazer. I am a rebel

What made the Trailblazer campaign successful wasn’t the new colour scheme or revamped logo. It was the story of the people of Manitoba — proud of where they came from and confident in where they’re going. 

What kind of story does your institution want to tell?

4 steps for bringing your higher ed.’s new brand story to life.

Once you’ve determined your institution’s new angle, there are a few steps you must take to secure the integrity of your story. In doing this, you’ll maintain consistency throughout your image and video library, and most importantly, get the most out of your investment. 

Step 1: Hire a new photographer.

Like any artist, each photographer has their own expertise and voice. To capture your institution’s unique point of view, you need to be confident that your photographer’s voice can deliver your desired outcome. This doesn’t mean seeing if your institution’s staff photographer can roughly translate their photography into your point of view. Because as talented as they may be, even if you want a different look, you’re just going to get the same stuff you got before.

A creative agency can articulate your point of view and vet the photographers who are going to be able to capture it.

Tips for using student photography in your marketing.

We’ve all seen a version of the ‘three students under a tree’ photograph in higher ed. marketing materials. And when every school’s using the same type of imagery, it’s harder for any of them to stand out.

If you’re looking for ways to make your student photography feel more distinctive, start with our best practices guide.
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Step 2: Pick a hero image. 

Every story has a protagonist. Someone you’re rooting for. Your new brand’s story is no different — you need a hero. A hero image will be the singular element that conveys your look and voice. If your new brand story is based on strategic concepts such as inclusion and diversity, pay attention to that. It’s not going to be enough to put an ethnically ambiguous student in and nor is it sufficient to include one or two African Canadians on your website. You must think about and plan what story your hero image is telling.

Step 3: Aim for longevity in your images and videos.

Each campaign should last three to five years. This means you’re building up your library with story-consistent images over time. But if playing the long game makes you antsy, consider this: Brand recognition doesn’t happen overnight. It will take a while for your students, alumni, prospective faculty and staff to see your new visual identity and associate your institution with it. 

Strategically, this means planning to shoot your hero images to evoke emotion and letting that emotion filter down into the B-roll you’re going to need to shoot over the next couple of years. And this is where using the same photographer comes back into play. 

Because you’re shooting for the same emotional response, you’ll want to use the same color scheme along with similar lighting and subject matter. And don’t make the mistake of putting false hope in Photoshop to recreate those elements. It won’t be possible without sacrificing time and artistic integrity.

Step 4: Shoot for specificity.

You want to tell the story of your students learning. You want to tell the story of your professors being an open resource. And you want to tell the story of a donor’s investment making a difference. These B-roll shots (supporting your A-roll, or hero, images) are essential as you tell your brand’s story throughout your campaign. 

But you have to think about how you’re going to incorporate your brand’s unique visual point of view so they don’t look like just another higher ed. ad. That means you have to consider developing different contexts and approaches in ways that still evoke a response. Each photoshoot must have a pointed, definitive goal that seamlessly fits into your brand’s story.  

In the end, you want your visual library, built up over a few years, to bring voice and character to your institution’s visual identity. You want to be able to look at it from beginning to end, noticing the consistency in the details along the way. A creative agency can lend insight into the best way to draw out the desired outcome, time after time — and give you plenty of ideas along the way.

Your institution has its own story to tell. Invest in telling it the right way, in every way. We’ll help you discover the possibilities.

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