I had the pleasure of speaking with Zach Busekrus, host of the Enrollify Podcast, about the secrets of building brand equity in higher education. Please enjoy listening to our conversation or reading the key takeaways below.
The Secret to Building Brand Equity in Higher Ed
Enrollify: I haven't known UNINCORPORATED for too long, but in the little time that I have known about you all, I've been very impressed by the work that you do, and your team is just a team chock full of exceptional people.
One of the ways I like to introduce guests to our listeners is to throw out a scenario that gives guests an opportunity to share a little bit more about who they are and what they do. So my scenario for you is you're sitting around your dining room table, and your 5 y/o kid asks you what you do at work all day. How do you answer?
ELI5: What does UNINCORPORATED do?
Ian: Part of what I love about that is you assume that most families sit around the dining room table these days! If they are not in front of a TV, on the couch with their plate on their lap, perhaps they're at the dining room table.
Anecdotally, I would respond I'm either babysitting or firefighting. I really help to make sure that everyone is taken care of. I have an incredible team. It's taken years to build this A-team. So I'm very proud of the team that we have now, yet they still need direction. They still need guidance. That would be more of the babysitting part.
Oftentimes, there are maybe even bigger challenges or bigger fires to put out. Within the educational system, faculty had to learn on the spot how to transition into an online environment.
I also might say, "I'm a secret agent, and I've been sent to this planet to make the world a better place." I do believe that based on the agency's mission. That's our true calling.
Enrollify: What more could you ask for in a career. That really does run the gamut in terms of roles and responsibilities.
Can you also give us the elevator pitch for UNINCORPORATED? What do you guys actually do? And from your perspective, what do you think you and your team do best as a leader and founder in the education space?
Need help transitioning courses online or branding new initiatives? Contact UNINCORPORATED today.
UN's Elevator Pitch
Ian: Great question. I'm a faculty member at Cal State, LA. I teach branding business practice and advanced design. We work on the elevator pitch because it's that one question that always comes up.
At UNINCORPORATED, we're a higher ed agency committed to building awareness and helping universities, colleges, and programs grow enrollment. We use design, branding, and marketing as our tools to solve these challenges.
We partner with deans, senior administration, and faculty who are feeling the pressure from the limited budgets and resources they have to build awareness or grow enrollment. And they're feeling stress because they don't have the in-house expertise to accomplish these big goals or put out these fires.
So we step in as experts and help guide them through the process. Growing student interest is one of our main goals. Designing brand and content is also a goal. In addition, we jump at the opportunity to launch a new program like a new degree program or a new course.
Our "Why" Story
Enrollify: What interested you initially about higher ed? As somebody who has had quite a career and done a wide variety of things, how did you land in the higher education agency services space?
Ian: It's curious because often you'll go through university, you'll gain a credential or a degree, and then you might find your way into academia and become a faculty member. It's difficult for a faculty member to go into the private sector and own a company or run a business. Conversely, if you are an entrepreneur, career professional, or a founder of a company like in my case, it's very difficult to then get into the education space and become a faculty member.
I feel really blessed that I can sit amongst other faculty members as well as be in service through the expertise that the agency provides to higher ed.
When I was young, I didn't come from a place of means and I had one pair of jeans. This is my why story. I had to wear that same pair of jeans every day. And of course, they'd get dirty. I would wash them in the sink at night. It would be winter outside and those jeans were cold and wet. I'd get on the bus, and I'd be so afraid that someone would touch my leg and know that I had just washed my jeans and couldn't dry them.
Everyone knew that I was poor. You could take one look at me and see. From that moment, I realized I'm going to do everything I can to excel in class because that's the one place I feel like I have an equal footing to my classmates. We don't come from the same financial means, but at least educationally, I could compete.
I went through high school, got straight A's, finished top of my class, and certainly wasn't the smartest kid in class but worked hard. To this day, I thank the University of Southern California for this. They gave me a full scholarship based on need and academic performance.
I landed in advertising, and ended up back at USC as a design director. I began to learn how universities worked and how the different academic units played with the student service units. My pursuit of education led me to move forward with an agency where I could support education. I believe it's the primary means for ascension. And if I can give colleges, universities, and academies the same gift that they gave to me, that's certainly a worthwhile cause and a higher purpose for the agency.
Enrollify: Thank you for sharing your story. There's always something especially powerful about hearing where people came from and what brought them to where they're at today.
During your time at USC, when you were leading design, did you learn any lessons that have impacted you as a consultant? Was there a particular story or anything that just comes to mind during that season of your life that has stuck with you to today?
Lessons Learned in Higher Ed
Ian: I would say it depends on who's listening and who we're talking to. From the agency standpoint, I learned how budgets were approved and how vendors were onboarded. We hired a number of external branding agencies to come in and support what we were doing internally on campus. Having that knowledge of what the process looks like in order to respond and win a Request For Proposal (RFP).
There's also a misconception that administrative bloat exists within the university system, and there are tons of resources to go around. I found the opposite. We had massive challenges like growing enrollment or launching a program or helping support a school, but we were very limited in staff and financial resources and time based on the volume of competing requests.
This led to greater empathy and deeper, almost immediate knowledge of challenges or problems faculty and administration are facing. We are ready to help navigate those parameters.
Enrollify: I love this idea of understanding the friction involved in working in this space. One of the lessons that my team and I have needed to learn with working with educational institutions as opposed to more traditional B2B or B2C spaces is that a lot of higher ed marketers and enrollment managers aren't motivated by incentives of your first month's retainer.
In higher ed, there's bureaucracy, there's procurement, the provost needs to sign off, and more. I would imagine it's been incredibly helpful to have seen up close and personal some of those challenges and barriers to understand the moving parts.
Ian: There's a level of fear built into being authentic, being human, taking some risks. Leadership is more willing to take big creative risks or stand behind what they believe in, what makes them different, and why others should care. So my practical advice to any dean or provost would be not to be afraid to take some of those risks. Don't let fear stand in the way of you expressing that unique value proposition or what makes your school program or campus experience truly unique.
Enrollify: Great insight. Across the board, I feel like more institutions fall into the camp of struggling to communicate their UVP and, or identify their unique value propositions. Institutions' target customer base is so vast that they're trying to appeal to a wider demographic, especially with the strategic interest to have a diverse student body. Is one of the reasons why schools struggle so much to effectively communicate and differentiate their UVPs simply because of their target audience?
Ian: There's a common phrase: you can't be everything to everyone because otherwise, you end up being nothing to no one. However, even though you're appealing or trying to cast this very broad net, there is something that makes your program unique. I think that there is a misconception that universities have to appeal to a broad group, and, for that reason, we're going to sound like every other college or program.
There's always something within your vision, within your mission, even geographically within your location, that can be an identifier. Those identifiers ultimately attract or filter out the right students.
Enrollify: We like to talk about breaking out of the four bullet framework, which is several universities' communication flows. For example, if you inquire, you're dropped into a five to eight email sequence. The emails give you the four things that are unique about our institution, but all four aspects are the same. It can be hard as a prospective student to discern what is actually unique about this program.
I think there's a temptation in higher ed to talk about marketing, branding, design as interchangeable, but there isn't necessarily a clear distinction that people understand, especially in branding and design. What is the difference between branding, design, and marketing in your own words?
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Branding, Marketing, & Design
Ian: Branding is the expression of who you are, what you do, and why you matter. And that expression can take the form of where you show up physically, where you show up mentally, where you show up in the digital environment, even experientially.
Design is often broken down into the visual aspect of that expression. It's the way that the brand communicates itself visually. We call it visual communication. In contrast, it can also be the execution in the way that you design your coursework, or the way you design the interior of your façade and what that kind of ambiance people feel when you walk into the student center. Design can execute for your brand, not just visually, but through those other modes of communication as well.
Then marketing is really about having a one-on-one conversation. It's distinct from advertising in the sense that advertising is like taking out the megaphone and broadcasting a very loud message to many people to catch who you can. Marketing is figuring out who is most interested in your message and how they think and feel.
I think to simplify, branding is how you express who you are, what you do, and why you matter; design is the execution; marketing is the conversation you have along these touch points.
Enrollify: Well said. I think about some of the best brands that I think differentiate themselves in sort of the mainstream space. I think about the difference in experience that I get from Trader Joe's compared to a Safeway or a giant grocery store like Kroger.
From a cultural standpoint, how do you see the experience component factoring into this framework?
Ian: It's all the touch points that have a cumulative effect on what you believe or think about the brands. I believe it was David Aaker who laid the foundation of what branding is and what a brand means. "A brand isn't what you say about yourself' it's what other people say about you." And you're going to form an opinion based on those experiences and the many places you touch or interact with the brand.
We've been doing some really innovative things lately where we've essentially taken brand ambassadors, such as recent alumni or student ambassadors, actually connected them with prospective students so they can hear from firsthand experience and ask questions. Letting your students be one of your leading brand ambassadors is a clear way that you could start to differentiate. Current students can help speak to the narrative and what makes it different.
I've also seen companies now helping prepare high school students or undergraduate students understand what their career goals are or where their interests profile them. Think of your high school guidance counselors who sat you down and said, "Oh, well, you're interested in these set of things, let's find a good match for you."
Some agency models are doing this one-to-one matching. If I'm an enrollment advisor at a major university or college, and I know the incoming student 's interests, career goals, and possibly mission in life, the experience is more authentic.
Enrollify: I look forward to learning more. I want to transition and talk a little bit about brand equity. Give us sort of a crash course on brand equity and why you think that a school's curriculum is one of the most important assets to build that institution's equity.
Who Drives Brand Equity?
Ian: Brand equity is the premium that you can place from a price standpoint on top of two items. So using your Kroger example, you have the generic version of milk. It costs $1.99 for a gallon. Then, you have the premium soy or almond milk.
They could very well be the same products at the surface. When we talk about brand equity, it's the premium that you can add on top of that baseline price due to the perceived value of the brand. You're getting a better product or in this case, you're getting a better school experience or college experience, or a better degree even.
Brand equity can be the tuition fee that you can charge compared to a trade school or compared to a certification through Coursera or Udemy. I am a firm believer that the faculty's research, mentorship, and curriculum substantiate the brand equity that is still applied to the college experience compared to other educational models or platform.
Break down the value of college. Let's say you have the network that you built. You have the social experience. Well, COVID-19 has done a nice job eliminating that. You have the skills training. I went to arts school for example. They taught me how to write a scene and take a quality photograph. Maybe they taught me how to use the pen tool in Illustrator and design a logo. This is skills-based training.
I often hear criticism of the mentorship, the guidance, the research opportunities, the coaching that comes from faculty; the experience that comes from working one-on-one with a faculty member across the entire course of your college education.
Faculty is still the premium driver for brand equity in higher education. Maybe faculty need to learn how to evolve and change, but that's currently where I see the brand equity of universities primarily being held still.
Enrollify: I went to a big state school with 30,000+ students. Trying as somebody who cared about marketing and has thought a lot about branding from a relatively young age, I was trying to make sense of it.
The closest I ever came to understanding that and really experiencing the tagline in action was through my relationship with faculty members. There were two faculty members from the School of Business. I did a couple of independent studies with them, and it was really through their guidance, membership, and knowledge base in their offices where I really came to understand that this is where innovation lives.
Innovation, thoughtful, new ideas are sourced here. I'm not finding them in the textbook that I'm reading through in Marketing 301, it's with Dr. so and so. I feel like there is a real lack of either awareness or resources. It really does seem to be experience first, programs and majors second or athletics first, programs and majors second.
From Ian's perspective, what would a successful recruitment program and marketing campaign look like that prioritize and leverage faculty thought leadership?
The Road to Faculty Thought Leadership
Ian: I think most of us who have gone through higher education, maybe even dropped out, would agree that somewhere along the way there was one or two faculty members that made a difference in their thinking and trajectory in life.
As a student of marketing, you know that marketing is really a give and get exchange. You have to give away something of value just like this podcast. Hopefully, people will listen to this podcast, get enough value from it, and want to look a little bit deeper into Enrollify or even start an UNINCORPORATED team.
Colleges could find a way to give away some of the curriculum and conduct a content audit first on what parts of the curriculum could we actually put into a consumable piece of media. Maybe it's a webinar, maybe it's say a PDF, or even a video series. If you can give and in exchange for that, get the prospective students interests, then you can start to really draw out is if this a good fit on both sides.
At the agency, we have a content marketing supply chain. You start with a two hour lecture and break that down into a transcript which becomes five or six different blogs.
From there, you have some pull quotes or possibly some diagrams within the text that you could design and post on Instagram. The supply chain is created from just a two hour lecture. Take any topic. If you're at the business school discussing brand equity and how it fluctuates in the market, take a solid lecture on that, break it down, and find a way to give parts of that away.
I think that will probably have more impact and a longer return on investment than what most universities do, or at least what they have been doing. Students don't want to see the stuffy old picture of faculty Evenstar and a long list of accolades and a long bio. Students don't care about that. They don't want to read someone's bio.
If someone were to take my lecture on how to win without pitching, taking from Blair Enns book, Win Without Pitching, and possibly digest that the way that they might digest that on a Masterclass or a Coursera. All of a sudden, students discover they would really like to work with this individual. They can see how this program could actually help me.
I think that's a very easy starting place for many universities. And we always go into this conversation with what type of content marketing can we do around your curriculum and around the thought leadership that you have in this subject. Use that to really build out your full marketing calendar and your editorial calendar.
Enrollify: What role then do you think faculty play in student recruitment and marketing? One of the friction points is faculty are really busy. Not all of them are willing and/or able to talk regularly to prospective students. The more thought leadership you put out under your brand, the faculty's personal brand, the more likely prospects are going to want to talk to that individual. In the framework that you've laid out, do you think it's essential that faculty members are a part of the student recruitment process?
Ian: One question you asked was if a faculty is too busy, how do you still use their thought leadership in order to recruit students? That's one of the great upsides to working in Zoom delivering online courses. You can record a lecture and your marketing and communications team or an agency like UNINCORPORATED can go through and groom some of those highlights. We can use this to then leverage content for a more robust brand awareness campaign or a more robust student recruitment marketing campaign.
Another question, should faculty be enlisted to help support the efforts of a university and student recruitment? Heck yes, definitely. I think most faculty want to at least be featured prominently on the program's webpage, but they may not know exactly how they could support it.
They are probably not well enough equipped to take their research, writing, and points of view and put that into a marketing plan. I think they should be folded into the overall strategy of student recruitment. But no, they're probably not equipped to just do that right out of the gate. The other factor that's at play here is they're under direct fire. People are saying faculty are slow to adjust. They're basing their courses around learning outcomes that don't relate.
I see all these stats about hard skill or digital jobs that faculty aren't preparing the youth for in jobs. They feel almost on the defense. We should reach across and say, you are really important to this university's brand equity; you're really important to what makes this course and school special and unique; you are one of the main reasons why a student should come here; let's work together to bring out some of your thought leadership so that we can best prepare these students for their career or possibly for a higher education beyond the graduate level.
Enrollify: I have one final question for you before I let you go and you can take this in whatever direction you want. I'm curious from your perspective, how branding and good distinct differentiation can save higher ed?
Branding: The Savior of Higher Ed
Ian: I'll give you one specific place where branding can help. Branding can help save colleges or universities by guiding them through the process of why they're still relevant today. We see this not just in higher ed, but in the open market with different brands as well. You are so intimately involved in the day-to-day operations of your organization, your company, or your school that you're kind of living in this fog. A branding expert can come in and say, "These are the places where you're creating confusion for your students. These are the places where you're creating confusion even within your dean's cabinet. These are the places where you're creating confusion with your faculty. So let us kind of alleviate some of that fog, clarify your message, give you a one-liner or solid brand narrative that we can follow now and bring university forward out of that fog."
I'd say the short answer to this is branding, design, and marketing can help save education by bringing them out of this fog that they're in right now. How do we respond? How do we stay relevant? How do we compete? How do we message what our unique value proposition is today?
I'll give you another example of this. One of Malcolm Gladwell's theories is that it's not just about hard work that makes you an outlier or leads to success; it's the right time at the right place.
The entire time we were going through this COVID-19 experience together, I didn't see a single university, and this is what I'm trying to remind students even today in class, that came out and said, online learning at home stinks. It is so different compared to how you're learning in class. But guess what? You are the first generation to transition into this new norm to learn how to learn online, interact online, sell yourself, and communicate through this environment, the strange environment of a microphone and a camera.
Students now are going to be set up for success in the next 10-15 years, even in the next two years. Branding can help clarify or pivot a message like that. Why didn't a university come out and say, education at the highest level is still critical? And not only is it critical, but if you're thinking about taking a gap year right now, forget it. This experience you're about to have on online learning is the exact thing that's going to differentiate you and set you up for success. You're the first generation to know how it's done.
Enrollify: Wow, that was so beautifully said. And I think you're right. I have not seen anyone craft messaging that's even close to a sentiment like that. There's a lot more. We got to wrap this one up for sure. But Ian, I think what we have concluded is that we just need to do another episode because there's a lot more to unpack here.
Before we jump though, if folks want to get in touch with you and learn more about UNINCORPORATED, or just want to have an exploratory conversation with you, what's the best way for them to get in touch?
Ian: I make myself available to anyone that wants to jump on my calendar for 15 minutes. I love meeting people and hearing their challenges. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can go right to the website and fill out the contact form at unincorporated.com. If you Google my name, you're going to see every single social platform. I've done a pretty good job branding Ian Evenstar. Of course you can find me that way as well. Thanks for including me, thanks for believing in higher ed and giving us a space to really draw out ways that we can support the mission of higher education.
Enrollify: Of course. Well, sir, thank you as always for your time and we will circle back and get you on the show again soon.