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How to Build an Overseas Brand Name for Your College or University

Looking at the Open Doors numbers tells us a great deal about brand names in college education. 20% of the international students in the USA are at 25 schools. None of these leading universities has a total enrollment of less than 20,000. Nine of these top ranked schools are in the Big 10 athletic conference, four in the Ivy League and three in the Pac 12 conference. Nineteen of the 25 play Division 1 football, 24 of 25 play Division I basketball.

Drill down a little further and you’ll see that 50% of the international students in the USA are at over 125 schools and 80% are at just over 350 schools. You can call these the sweatshirt schools, the ones that you see logos emblazoned on in Starbucks and malls and tourist hotspots worldwide.

If you are a school in the top 25, then life from an international brand perspective is great. Sports Channels put your school’s name and logo across the world and big events like bowl games and March Madness get you fans in all corners of the globe. Even if you are in the top 125, life is still very good because you have regional cache and good brand recognition. It certainly helps if your school is named after a prominent city or state.

For the rest, it’s trouble. There are over 2,400 colleges and universities and if you count trade schools, that number grows to over 4,000, all trying to grow their international presence and their international enrollments. How do the overcome the overseas brand dilemma – a brand will get you students and without students, you don’t have a brand.

The 4 P’s of International Student Recruitment

Perhaps the best was to think about building your international brand is through the “4 P’s” a marketing philosophy long popular with the advertising industry. This is a marketing mix of Product, Price, Promotion and Place. For a US college wanting a brand overseas, “The 4 P’s of International Student Recruitment” are:

  • PRODUCT – What is it you are selling: your school, your segment/category, a US degree or an American educational experience? Think about this in terms of your domestic advertising slogans, often viewed as clever plays on the history of mission of a school. How do these relate to an international student? One college has a slogan of “Your revolution starts here?” How will that play in China or the Middle East today?
  • PRICE – It’s not just the sticker price, it is cost of living, cost of travel and in today’s volatile currency market, the cost IN LOCAL CURRENCY. Where do you sit competitively, not only in against other American colleges and universities, but against foreign colleges and universities?
  • PROMOTION – If you get past the above two hurdles, now you need to need to spread the word. Do you advertise and promote it yourself, or through others? Do you rely on existing outlets like EducationUSA, Commerce Department fairs and trade tours, private tours, overseas fairs and international education expositions? Do you take advantage of the work of your faculty when they travel overseas? Do you leverage your study abroad students while they are in country? Where do you advertise?
  • PLACE – Often the most confusing P, place is about getting it into the hands of the consumer, making it accessible. Who guides students through the complexities of international communication? Where and when do they do this? What do things like “test optional”, “official transcript” and “personal statement” really mean?

For those who know the business, the 4 P’s are clear, and they are clear for each of their primary source countries. What works with one country or culture will not necessarily work for others, so your 4 P’s then get multiplied by the number of target markets and become a complex marketing plan.

This takes time, money and expertise. Local expertise it critical, something an agent can help you with. If you don’t have a physical presence in country, your agent can be the PLACE. They can help you with your PROMOTION – think about co-branded advertising where the two of you split the cost or having them attend fairs in your place. The agent can help you with building a successful marketing message that will localize the PRICE and PRODUCT branding. If you have not cracked the Top 125, you can still win with a solid marketing mix and the right international partners; it’s an investment in the future of your institution.

About the Author

Mark Shay is a business developer with a long history of success helping higher education institutions recruit students. In an illustrative career that has spanned three decades, Shay has served thousands of customers, ranging from individual faculty members and graduate deans, to university presidents and foreign governments. He is well known for balancing the non-commercial spirit of educators with the commercial realities of operating efficiently and effectively using technology to improve results. He founded, and has worked in leadership roles at two universities and IDP Education. He has recently started a consulting practice and is serving as an advisor to AAE.


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