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Higher education marketing strategy during the pandemic

Allen Adamson and Allen Shapard of Metaforce explain why colleges must differentiate their learning experience to prove their brand is worth the money.

7 min read

Marketing Strategy

Higher education marketing strategy during the pandemic

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When you think about what it takes to create a meaningful “college experience,” there are many factors that come into play above and beyond what happens in the classroom. It’s the dorm life and the new circle of friends, the myriad opportunities for extracurricular involvement and the cheer-filled athletic stadiums, the physical attributes and amenities of the campus, itself, not to mention the passing down of long-held campus traditions from one generation to the next. 

College, university life, is a collection of experiences. And universities and colleges have long been able to differentiate themselves through unique “brand experiences,” leveraging them in order to gain the attention of prospective “buyers,” the prospective students. The value of one college brand relative to another, inclusive of the emotional connections it engenders, plays a major part in building and sustaining loyalty and, notably so when it comes to alumni involvement and endowments. 

Enter COVID-19 and the dilemma it is posing for higher education institutions, public and private, large and small. It is a crisis for many reasons, not the least of which is the ability for a college to keep its recognized brand promise and to demonstrate proof of its brand value. Given the constraints posed by COVID-19, in addition to everything else colleges and universities must contend with, is that the pandemic has reduced the meaning of a positive college experience from multiple factors to one: the quality of the online teaching.

This singularity of dimension will make it incredibly difficult for colleges and universities to do what they have always done in the marketing efforts for their brands. Instead of being able to draw attention to the array of factors that distinguish the totality of what makes their institution unique, they are all being forced to compete on the same one-dimensional playing field.


As many colleges and universities struggle to open in the coming weeks, a key question will surely surface as to the actual value they are providing potential students. In most cases, the schools will be relying on virtual classes, although in some situations they are bringing some or all students back to the campus (primarily to watch classes online). This situation cannot proceed too long without tremendous upheaval in the traditional college model given the forces at work. There are going to be challenges and opportunities which arise, with the “winners” being the more adaptable and innovative.

To date, most colleges and universities have approached the COVID-19 situation with a combination of resignation and reaction. They reluctantly closed their doors in March as the virus spread throughout the nation, shifting classes online to try to finish the semester with some sort of continuity. Unfortunately, many professors were not adequately trained to use video technology with wide-ranging (and sometimes disastrous) results.

Consequently, many schools opted to offer their students pass/fail grades rather than the traditional grading system. The desire to return to the past methods is manifesting itself in the complicated plans that colleges and universities are now presenting to try to get students back to campus, even if it is to quarantine in dorm rooms and watch courses online. One institution which recognized the change in the overall experience is Williams College, which is offering a discount on tuition to reflect the overall situation.

One of the biggest challenges for these schools during the COVID-19 crisis is that their student bodies are composed of men and women who are completely different than prior generations of students. These are students who have never known a world without technology. They enjoy rich content video games, numerous social media platforms, websites and apps. Consequently, they are an extremely discriminating audience who expect a certain level of quality, especially in the video experience. As current students have demonstrated, they also have a short attention span, which makes engaging them for long periods of time, even in normal situations, challenging. Thus, a college or university needs to grapple with this important fact.


Unfortunately, most colleges and universities have not yet recognized the opportunities afforded by technology. They are repeating the pattern which was undertaken by the early Hollywood filmmakers. In essence, the first silent films, and even “talkies” were based on filming a stage play. Similarly, colleges and universities today film a professor giving a static lecture. The opportunity for schools to stand out, to engage students, and offer value in a remote learning environment, is to use readily available tools to enrich lectures so that they are multimedia presentations. 

As a start, by adding some bells and whistles, they will provide students at least some of the exciting experience which resonates with them at relatively little cost to the college or university. In essence, these schools need a video producer to increase the production value.

To provide such an enhanced lecture will also require professors to think creatively how they can present their information in a new manner. While this may be hard for Luddites, it may prove energizing to many faculty, as it will not require excessive attention or commitment if appropriate producers are provided. 

In this age of digital transformation, it actually is important for any college or university to have faculty well versed in the basics of technology. This needs to be one of the core expectations of the job, given the changing needs and behaviors of the target audience. 

Further, it will signal that the school is truly a thought leader in the field of education. One side benefit from this change will be the likely improvement of online courses that had been offered before COVID-19 by colleges and universities as a secondary activity to their on-campus experience.

“A critical first step”

If the COVID-19 virus continues to impact our society, schools that want to maintain or enhance their brand equity will be required to think creatively. Without key assets to flaunt, such as new facilities, sports activities, on-campus networking and socializing, schools will be forced to rely on the remaining assets that distinguish them: their faculty and the mode in which information and knowledge is transmitted. 

If they choose the status quo, they will increasingly have trouble justifying their value to many economically challenged families. They may also reduce their brand equity based on the expectations of their students for an exciting and engaging learning experience. There will be enormous pressure put on them to figure out how to use technology to capture the uniqueness of their institutions, and the distinctiveness of their brands, absent the customary factors.

By investing only a small amount to increase the production value of their online courses, and by providing media training for their professors, innovative colleges and universities can demonstrate leadership in a challenging environment. Going above and beyond, reimagining, the usual boundaries of the expected virtual experience is a critical first step. 


Allen Adamson is co-founder and managing partner of Metaforce and an NYU Stern adjunct professor. He is a noted industry expert in all disciplines of branding. Allen has worked with a broad spectrum of consumer and corporate businesses in industries ranging from packaged goods and technology, to health care and financial services, to hospitality and entertainment. He is the author of “BrandSimple,” “BrandDigital,” “The Edge: 50 Tips from Brands That Lead” and “Shift Ahead.”

Allen Shapard is an activation partner at Metaforce and an internationally recognized expert on marketing, communications, and corporate social responsibility/purpose. He has spent the past 25 years working with companies and institutions such as PepsiCo, Cisco Systems, Samsung, Honeywell, KPMG, the Nobel (Prize) Foundation, the Mayo Clinic, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the UN, to increase awareness, influence and revenue.