May 14, 2024

Move Past the Jargon: Effective Brand Strategies for Liberal Arts Institutions

Higher Education Library of books

Liberal Arts colleges and universities typically make the same 3 claims:“We are just as academically rigorous as [insert any Ivy League college].”
“We have some of the country’s most innovative programs.”
“We transform students into leaders.”

Yet, these same colleges struggle to sell prospective students on the value of their education (which also happens to be as pricey as their competitors).

The challenge lies not in making these claims, but in effectively communicating them to your audience. To bridge this gap, colleges need practical strategies to make their promises more tangible and relatable to prospective students.

Push10 Branding agency researching and strategizing how prospective students apply for higher education in library


The first exercise I recommend is Mind Mapping. This is a creative brainstorm tactic to turn a vague claim into several tangible ideas and “scenes.”

For example, let’s say you were breaking down the claim that you transform students into leaders. Using the mind map, let’s unpack that. The first layer of bubbles are clarifying questions, like “What is a leader?”, “What does that transformation look like?”, and “How are we transforming students?”.

The second layer is your various answers to these questions. For example, to the question “What is a leader?”, you might write down “Someone who takes initiative” or “Someone who lives by example.” Write down as many thoughts as you can think of.

The third layer is where you push yourself creatively. In this layer, I want you to imagine a “scene” in a fictional movie that visualizes each of your answers. For example, in your answer “A leader is someone who takes initiative”, you might imagine a scene of an alum seeing an area of improvement in their workplace, taking the time and energy to research the problem, and then proposing it to their team.

The fourth and final layer identifies the feelings that scene evokes. In our previous example, I might say it evokes “pride”, “confidence”, and “satisfaction.”

As you can see this exercise will help you visualize the claim you are making. Hopefully, you can use these visuals to communicate your claim more tangibly.


What better way to test your claim than to ask the students and alumni themselves?

Survey research is a great way to gauge the opinions and feelings of a large group of stakeholders. As a rule of thumb, surveys should consist of 80% quantitative questions and 10% of qualitative questions. The shorter it takes to answer the questions, the higher the completion rate.

So, for example, if you claim that your college is “academically rigorous”, you might ask questions such as:

Scale for how higher education academic programs are rigorous

For participants who indicated that they agree their college is academically rigorous, include a qualitative question like:
Open ended survey question for higher education institutions for prospective students

You’ll be delighted to see all of the interesting student perspectives. But as a step further, you can use the survey results as a compelling statistic, and the open-ended responses as material for new messaging.


I’m not kidding. Reddit and similar forums have a wealth of first hand accounts, perspectives, and questions from today’s college applicants. Take r/ApplyingToCollege for example. It has 1.1 million subscribers and manages hundreds of posts a day. Posts like this:

Branding Agency Strategists Research and Strategy survey for higher educationOr this:

Branding Agency Strategists Research and Strategy forum on reddit for higher educationOr this:

Branding Agency Strategists Research and Strategy forum on reddit for higher education

I mean, come on, how can you not browse Reddit? There are so many posts showing student’s thoughts behind college decisions and sharing what they are looking for. It gives us an up-to-date pulse on college reputations and student goals.


Okay, I gave you some really good starting points to look beyond the same old claims you and every other liberal arts college are making… but how do you actually create messaging strategies from these tactics?

It’s a lengthy process, and understandably so. Colleges and universities enlist agencies like ours precisely because its complex and takes time. If we had to provide the nutshell version, here it is:

We identify the claim: “We are academically rigorous.”

We draw key insights from in-depth research

Research tactic: Mind Mapping

Key insight: You know your college is academically rigorous when you need to lean on your professors, the writing center, and deans to get you through your courses (as you should).

We identify opportunities from the insights:

Insight: You know your college is academically rigorous when you need to lean on your professors, the writing center, and the Dean to get you through your courses (as you should).

Opportunity: Talking about the systems in place to support students succeed, and showcasing video testimonials of students talking about how often they use those services.

Final Thoughts

If you feel like your liberal arts college or university struggles to prove the value of its education, I implore you to try some of these exercises and see the difference it can make in your brand and marketing.

And if you’re ready to invest in an expert team of strategists and designers to help you reimagine your brand –  contact us, we are always happy to jump on a call and learn more about your specific challenge.