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Different vs. Distinct: Why Distinct Brands Will Matter More Post-Pandemic

One scan across our industry’s press can paint an unsettling picture for any higher ed marketer. As Scott Pansky wrote at Inside Higher Ed, “Responses to the pandemic from many of our leaders — in both words and deeds — have fallen woefully short, amplifying a serious erosion of trust that grows on a daily basis.”

Trust isn’t all that has eroded. Over all, postsecondary enrollment is down 3 percent — traditional first-year student enrollment making up approximately 69 percent of that drop. And as more academic programs move online, so too are advertising dollars. Institutions of higher education are projected to increase spending on digital marketing, with for-profit colleges not far behind. It’s been no secret that for-profit colleges are continuing to ramp up advertising spend online, too.

Why Differentiation Often Fails

As marketers, our natural inclination is to differentiate our institutions from our competitors. Yet the more we uncover how this is applied to online environments and consumer behavior, the less reliable it becomes in practice.

For example, most brands share image attributes, meaning what we perceive as being different is rarely held uniformly by all buyers. Higher ed brands are no different. What research suggests is that most brands share patterned attributes that are indicative of their category — referred brands share a “brand prototype,” so as much as we want to position our brand as authentic and innovative, chances are many attributes are held uniformly by competitors, too.

Leverage Distinctiveness Over Differentiation

More often than not, our efforts to differentiate also fail to consider how consumer decision making evolves.

The more brands compete for attention across platforms, the more humans develop heuristics to reduce cognitive burdens. As higher ed marketers, we want to believe college search is driven by spreadsheets, but it’s more likely that students default to what’s familiar, reduce their experience and interactions to a feeling and then postrationalize the decision.

The truth — and why we must focus on becoming more memorable — is that what is easily thought of determines what we buy — or, in the context of college search, which colleges prospective students start researching first. Thus, the more difficult it becomes to be different, the more important it is to focus on how we communicate our brand. To create memorability, marketers must build and invest in distinctiveness across all advertising activities.

How to Build Distinctiveness

Distinctive assets should be thought of as brand elements that an organization makes a concerted effort to invest in over the long term. Logos, tag lines, colors, design elements, editorial decisions, brand imagery and branded characters are all distinct assets. The more assets the brand can effectively communicate/use in relation to competitors, the more likely an advertisement will trigger a brand when the consumer reaches for a category — or starts their college search process.

Distinctiveness is important because humans are hardwired for pattern recognition. The more distinct or memorable our advertising is, the more fluent our brand becomes. Not only does this create a host of positive advertising effects, but also the easier it is for our communications to attract attention in an increasingly competitive environment. As Phil Barden argued in Decode: The Science Behind Why We Buy, “the signals we send — from colors to shapes to brand logos — are recorded into mental concepts based on learned associates in memory.”

Below are five creative strategies to develop your own blueprint to distinctiveness.

  1. Brand prominence reigns supreme: There’s a lot of truth to “make the logo bigger.” A brand’s logo acts as an anchor for all branding activity and is the single most important contextual element online. In fact, when specifically examining online environments, people are rarely able to properly attribute ads to the correct brand. Always ensure your brand is prominent.
  2. Choose your colors wisely: As much as secondary colors provide a new creative outlet for old messaging, our advertising doesn’t wear out as quickly as we might think. Next to logos, colors are the most effective distinct asset — assuming they are employed strategically across all advertising activity. From “Hulu green” to T-Mobile’s pink, colors can cut through and create easily identifiable markers.
  3. Find a fluent device: Fluent devices are creative concepts (characters, product designs, sounds) that are used consistently to act as a stand-in for a brand — think Flo from Progressive or the Doritos triangle-shaped chip. Fluent devices quickly create familiarity, which enables brands to be identified much easier. For higher ed brands, distinct campus elements, unique imagery or a mascot can act as fluent devices for easier recognition in social media feeds.
  4. Design for distinctiveness: Whether it’s graphic elements or editorial decisions, purposeful design elements can be as powerful as any logo. Burberry’s tartan pattern, the University of Pennsylvania’s use of script and red strike and Arizona State University’s use of recruitment imagery that reinforces location are all examples of long-term investment in distinct design elements. The types of photos we use, the editing decisions or graphic design choices we employ can make our ads unique and easily identifiable.
  5. Words matter: Slogans, rhetorical devices and typography, through repetition, can also help higher ed brands stand out. McDonald’s “ba da ba ba ba” vocal hook, West Virginia University’s primary font and Drexel’s use of “Ambition” are all ways ad creatives use words to link back to the brand. Whether it’s words or sound, consistency is always key.

The fundamentals of good advertisements rest in the ability to create a connection to the brand. No matter how attention grabbing or how much we’d love to believe that prospective students are completely attuned to our advertising, if there isn’t a strong connection to the brand, it’s failed. An investment in distinct assets is a long-term investment in ensuring that our brand is memorable and emerges stronger amidst an increasingly competitive marketplace.


Chris Huebner is a digital strategist at Up&Up, a higher education branding and marketing agency in Greenville, S.C.

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