A Meaningful Brand for NSU

NSUNorfolk State University is at a crossroads as it charts a course to rebuild its “brand” in the wake of the image hits it has taken over the past few years. The discontinuance of the school’s associate degree in nursing program due to low passing rates on the national licensing exam; the firing of a president; and, most recently, being placed on probation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), an accrediting body that oversees NSU and colleges in 10 other states, are incidents that have had a profound impact on how prospective students view the school.

The university’s marketing team is in the process of searching for an outside partner to help create a “unified brand identity.” But the team needs to be careful and meticulous in how it goes about the process. “Brand” is an enormously dynamic thing. There are two vitally different areas of perception to deal with: those within the university’s control and those outside of its control.

Brand standards—the colors and designs, what is said and how it is said by the university—can be controlled. Brand position, how NSU identifies itself as different from or even better than other schools, can be controlled. The physical properties—academic programs offered, facilities built or being built, as well as which are promoted, can be controlled. But brand image, the perception that students, prospective students and even those not connected with the university have of the school, is beyond the control of any school or company.key to branding

Brand image is the perception that lives within people’s minds and is formed based on the individual’s experience with the brand (or school). Forget about what the brand is saying, what matters is the experience. An appliance dealer can scream all day long that they have the lowest prices in town, but if my experience in the showroom is one high price after another, my brand perception is very negative. And brand perception, the consumer’s image of the brand, is all that matters at the end of the day.

The university holds what I assume is a fairly comprehensive proprietary study detailing the perception held by prospective and current students. Hopefully it contains opinions from alumni and those not necessarily connected to the school as well. The new outside partner will be privy to the information in that study, and it will be critical in creating a successful plan to achieve growth, particularly since enrollment has dropped more than 15 percent since 2012.

The brand message and the brand experience have got to align for NSU to be successful in building its image and building enrollment. Make no mistake, there are a lot of good things happening at NSU and a lot of truly positive momentum. The nursing program overall is vibrant, bolstered by a brand-new 140,000-square-foot nursing and classroom building. NSU will play the lead role in a $25 million effort to educate a new cybersecurity workforce at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), the school is ranked among the top 30 HBCUs in the nation, and new facilities continue to energize the campus.

campus aheadSo with all of that, NSU has to continue to focus on delivering an experience that is relevant to prospective students and relevant to the Hampton Roads community. The University is an educational system that sees the need, for students as well as employers, and is building programs and facilities to meet demand. That alone is a strong focus on improvement.

Do the research within the market. Pinpoint and focus on the careers here in Hampton Roads that are in high demand. Then find the academic programs that Norfolk State has built and is delivering in excellent fashion (cybersecurity vaults to the top here.) Build the brand position and messaging around that, so that the experience is one of a high-quality, in-demand education.

The next step in ensuring growth and sustaining the experience for the future is to focus NSU’s academic development on those needs and careers that are in high demand, but where the university is not quite ready to claim excellence. Admit that. Chart the course to achieve excellence. Communicate the steps that are being taken and manage the expectations of current students as well as future students. Readiness for the future is what higher education is all about. NSU is at a pivotal point of growth, and it starts with aligning the message with the experience. That will build a unified brand for Norfolk State University.

The Crowded Higher Ed Marketplace

Zero to bachelor’s in 2.5. Bring a spark, light a fire. From here, go anywhere.Higher Education Marketing, Higher Education, Marketing, Hampton Roads

Those college taglines are comfortingly familiar to Hampton Roads residents. On any given day you’ll hear a radio ad with one, whiz by a billboard with another.

Which one are you most familiar with? If you answered #1, stay tuned.

With 5 traditional universities (including 2 historically black schools, Norfolk State and Hampton University), 2 colleges (including the second-oldest in the nation, William & Mary), the world-renowned Eastern Virginia Medical School, and a robust community college system, Hampton Roads is spoiled for choice when it comes to higher education.

But the competitive pressure continues to escalate from for-profit schools, most of which are based outside the region altogether. Perhaps the best-known locally is ECPI, which is HQ’d here in Virginia Beach—and who belongs to that ubiquitous tagline #1. (Recently replaced with “The best decision you ever made.”)

And that’s pretty telling. You know ECPI’s hook—but do you know ODU’s? Virginia Wesleyan’s? (It’s #2 above) NSU’s?

If you’re struggling, it’s not your fault. Chalk it up to market saturation.

When you add up ALL higher ed advertisers, including those outside the region, a staggering $25.4 million is spent on higher education advertising in Hampton Roads each year, with an additional $80.6 million spent on marketing and promotion. That’s to reach an audience of 718,820 TV households and 1.5 million adults in Hampton Roads. (Nielsen)

In 2014, regional schools spent close to $3 million on higher ed TV advertising in Hampton Roads (Kantar). More than half of that $3 million was ECPI. In other words, excluding ECPI, local schools purchased less than 15% of all higher ed TV advertising in Hampton Roads last year.

You see, it’s not just about competing for enrollment anymore. It’s competition for airtime, for screen time, for ears and eyeballs.

And in Hampton Roads, that’s some pretty fierce competition. In fact, if you add up the total number of colleges, universities, trade school and tech school locations within Hampton Roads the options total over 250!

So, higher ed marketers in Hampton Roads face big hurdles to break through the noise and capture the attention of prospective students.

Aside from having the deepest advertising pockets—how do you stand out in Hampton Roads’ crowded higher ed marketplace?

Higher education is a service-driven industry—just like health care, real estate or banking. Any lofty ideas about the Ivory Tower or historic campuses need to take a backseat to deciding what your school excels at, and how to sell it.

Maybe start with recognizing that the average local student looks very different from even 15 years ago.

Hampton Roads is home to one of the world’s largest populations of military personnel, many of whom earn GI Bill benefits. Those are adult students whose needs are very different from those of 18-22 year olds. Students, Hampton Roads, Higher Education, Marketing

Many of them are pursuing education while serving full-time, or they are retraining for a new career and want to complete their degrees as quickly as possible. They’re looking for shorter semesters. (Hence the appeal of “2.5,” brought to you by ECPI’s 6-week sessions).

Incentivize military and adult students. Spotlight any benefits unique to military. Explain how your school can help with any red tape. Bear redeployment in mind: is the coursework portable? What are you willing to do to retain students or help them transfer? And what about those shorter sessions—can your school compete?

Student veterans seek out degrees in business, criminal justice and intelligence studies. Promote these programs if your school offers them. If they don’t, start a conversation.

Norfolk State is leading a $25 million effort to educate a new cybersecurity workforce. That’s a massive opportunity to connect with military and veteran students and help them on the path to a future career with local defense contractors.

Beyond the military community, consider the growing adult student population. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, between 2000 and 2011, enrollment of students aged 25+ rose 41%. From 2011 to 2021, NCES projects a further 14% increase.

Hampton Roads has over a half-million adults with “some college” education, and over 194,000 say they plan on going back to school in the next 12 months.

These students enroll for a variety of reasons—to join growing industries such as health care and technology, retrain for a new career after job loss or retirement, or to enhance their current career. Those goals don’t typically translate to a 4-year undergraduate degree. More students are seeking 2-year degrees and certifications, while many professional students want graduate certificates or master’s programs.

Find out what adult students want—and let them know you’ve got it. Don’t forget most of these students are working while in school, too. Regent University’s grad program just switched to two 8-week terms for spring 2015. That’s a good sign it’s listening to the needs of its MBA-seeking students, many of whom likely work full-time.

The smart higher ed marketer is also engaged with Hampton Roads’ top employers and tying those opportunities into their messaging.

Help prospective students envision themselves in a future career. Share real-life success stories (Regent University and ECPI have done this for years), or show that your school positions graduates to land the “hottest jobs” in “growing industries.”

According to Sonya Schweitzer, University Director of Marketing at ECPI University, “We’ve been using real graduates or students for our TV ads for quite a long time—testimonials.” She added, “Every effort is made to show graduates who represent different demographics, as well as making sure their stories are believable and represent the average student.”

Make the most of integrated multimedia marketing. Seventy percent of prospective students go to the college website first. But remember, the path to enrollment is long and winding and needs to include traditional media as well as integrated digital methods (online and social media marketing).

Schweitzer explained ECPI’s perspective: “Even though most people will have seen an ad or a billboard in this market, they will convert through our website, or search [marketing], at a much higher rate. We use social media to have a conversation with our prospects, as well as our current students and grads. It is a very strong selling tool for prospects who are researching who we are. They can hear it from people other than ourselves—unfiltered. That is powerful.”

Meet these prospects where they are, through targeted marketing such as programmatic buying, and through artful social media marketing. Aim for a conversation, a relationship—not just a one-size-fits-some banner ad campaign.


So, ready to graduate with honors from the Hampton Roads school of higher ed marketing? Look over your campaigns and make sure you’re not overlooking any of these opportunities. If you are, take some time to regroup, reimagine and revitalize. With any luck you can still enhance your efforts for fall 2015 recruitment.

And bear in mind that statewide, Virginia public college enrollment declined in 2014—for the first time in 20 years. Things just got a little more competitive.

If you have questions about anything in this article, feel free to post or contact me at jdelatte@seventhpoint.com