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Brand-building & Belonging: Standing Above a Sea of Sameness

To Navigate a Sea of Sameness

It’s hard to keep your head above water in a sea of sameness, where content crashes against you at every angle.

We can all relate to the frustration of an email inbox that never seems to zero or a social media feed stock full of posts you don’t want to see, but prospective students have it particularly hard during their college search process.

For many, especially first-generation students or those from underserved minorities, the journey from awareness to application to enrollment can feel like a turbulent time drifting alone in a sea of sameness – these students seek to anchor with a school that understands their anxieties and aspirations alike, but are buffeted by messaging that severely misreads them and their circumstances.

For this reason, it is particularly special when our higher-ed community comes together to discuss how to make our content work for the students we serve. I recently had the pleasure of attending two virtual conferences: Hannon Hill’s 2024 Cascade CMS User Conference & the American Marketing Association’s Diversity-Driven Marketing Symposium. Together, these two events illuminated a clear theme: institutions can build belonging while building their brand, safeguarding students from the sea of sameness by helping them find harbor in a school that makes sense for them. 

In this article, I will share my four top takeaways from these events and how they can help higher-ed marketers course-correct in a vast sea of messaging.

1. Contextualizing Cultural Intelligence: Marketing as Meaning-making

THE REALITY TO ACKNOWLEDGE: A textbook definition of marketing has been ingrained in us since our training: that marketing is the art and science of value creation. Consequently, considerations pertinent to diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice were historically put on the back burner, eventually justified by the business case for DEI or the financial imperative amidst rising social consciousness and diversification of the workforce and market alike. In recent years, cultural intelligence – a concept from management science, mostly emphasizing cultural differences and soft skills that compensate for them – has been grafted into branches of marketing. 

Cultural theorist and brand strategist Dr. Anastasia Kārkliņa Gabriel confronted the somewhat-fluffy definition and development of cultural intelligence in marketing. She emphasized the need for marketers to hone the hard skills required of a culturally intelligent marketer, namely:

  1. Tracking and analyzing movements, trends, and social forces;
  2. Necessarily evaluating their cultural and commercial outcomes;
  3. And utilizing those insights for the common good


As higher-ed marketers, we are responsible to seek understanding, not assumptions; to create shared meaning and cultivate community through content that is memorable, resonant, and relevant 

2. Starting with Why: Marketing Mission Statements

THE REALITY TO ACKNOWLEDGE: With skyrocketing screen times, it is apparent that the digitally native Generations Z & Alpha spend significant time navigating the digital landscape. As a result, many become acquainted with the voices and personalities of organizations and institutions alike virtually. It appeared that to get and retain the attention of these demographics, brands would need to send more messages and create more scroll-stopping experiences to be seen and heard. Amidst all this, algorithms have come to reward frequent posting cadences and high activity levels on social media. While helpful content continues to be rewarded, there exists lots of noise and clutter that fails to serve an explicit purpose and audience.

In light of this, Brian Piper, Director of Content Strategy and Assessment at the University of Rochester, underscored the importance of purposeful content that elevates the mission, voice, and perspective of the institution; epic content succeeds when tailored to your targeted personas, paying close attention to their priorities, pain points, perceived barriers, and decision criteria. As Piper synthesizes: “epic content marketing is impossible without a clear and formidable why: ‘Our institution is where [audience X] finds [content Y] for [benefit Z]'”

In his presentation, Piper recommended implementing pillar pages to make information more accessible.


The education and experience I am advancing may not matter to everyone, but it shouldn’t; ‘everyone’ is not my audience. As a content marketer, I’m called to articulate what is true, good, and beautiful about my institution, and that may not (and hopefully won’t) sound like the others

3. Examining your Identity: Institutional Authenticity & the Enrollment Cliff 

THE REALITY TO ACKNOWLEDGE: The world of higher education has been apprehensive with the approach of the enrollment cliff, a significant and expected drop in college and university enrollment, caused by a decrease in birth rates following the 2008 recession. In the keynote roundtable discussion on the demographic enrollment cliff, Jamie Hunt, Kristin Nichols, and Dr. Alison Turcio envisioned the impact this threat would have on institutions and predicted that the most successful marketers will be challenged to master technological advancement to create a personalized, frictionless experience for prospective students. With a national decline in trust of higher education, institutions are charged with restoring confidence in the powerful outcomes an education can deliver. 


Our institution can help flip the script on conversations around higher education, inspiring the next generation to excel in learning and life. As marketers, we have a duty of telling authentic stories that push the envelope on what is possible in our society

Source: The Chronicle of Higher Education

4. Lightening the Load: Content Marketing & Cognitive Load 

THE REALITY TO ACKNOWLEDGE: Just like computers, human brains have a limited amount of processing power. When the amount of information coming in exceeds our ability to handle it, our performance suffers. We may take longer to understand information, miss important details, or even get overwhelmed and abandon the task. As Ologie’s Dayana Kibilds  insightfully noted, 57% of seniors end up not applying to an institution because of a complicated admissions process. Unfortunately, this is when education as a ‘great equalizer’ can become a great inhibitor to social mobility.


My content is my greatest asset if we ensure that it is accessible to all. My work as a content marketer can change the trajectory of a student’s life, should my work serve to simplify and clarify the identities and opportunities within my institution


As trust in higher-ed seems to dwindle, higher-ed marketers are charged with articulating and illustrating the value of such an education in a way that is resonant and incisive.

Amidst a sea of sameness, the marketer helps the prospective student navigate the college search process, building a sense of belonging and brand affinity. There are real students and families behind these keyboards, seeking information that is actually helpful to them.

There is no time like the present to dial into your institution’s brand identity, messaging, accessibility, and information architecture. How did these takeaways resonate with you? Is there somewhere you feel inclined to start? We would love to hear from you and keep the conversation going.


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