Leveraging a University’s Brand Identity as a Key Differentiator in Online Higher Education

Online learning blossomed at the turn of the millennium. It experienced a slow but steady rise over the next 20 years, with 1 in 4 college students taking at least one online class by 2012 and more than half of students taking online classes by 2022 after the pandemic hastened the trend, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. 

This steady increase in the number of students preferring online education modalities over the past two decades spurred a race among practically all higher education institutions to build their own online learning revenue streams, as they attempted to increase their online enrollments as much as they could to counterbalance the sharp decline in the number of traditional learner enrollments. 

As universities began to allow prospective learners, particularly adults seeking flexibility, to earn a degree without ever setting foot on campus, they also started to rethink their brand messaging to attract the modern student, all while jockeying for elbow room in the increasingly crowded online market.

Everyone’s in the game, and schools don’t even have to be in the same arena to play. For example, online Master of Business Administration (MBA) programs aren’t just competing with their in-state rivals — they’re competing with every business program in the U.S. And while the volume of students seeking online programs remains steady, an abundance of options has empowered them to be more selective. 

Ultimately, it’s often the university’s brand voice that makes the difference between success and failure in the online marketplace. 

What Is a Brand Voice in the Online Space?

In the realm of online higher education, a university’s brand voice is a pillar of its identity, reflecting the institution’s unique culture, values, and mission through the tone, style, and language it uses in communications. This voice is more than words on a webpage. It’s the embodiment of the institution’s personality, tailored to resonate with its audience.

Components of a Brand Voice

Maintaining Consistency Across Platforms

In a university’s online spaces, where digital touch points are numerous and varied — from websites and emails to social media posts and virtual tours — maintaining a consistent brand voice is pivotal. Consistent messaging reinforces recognition of the institution’s brand, fosters trust, and helps the university build a reliable reputation. It ensures that, regardless of how or where potential students interact with the university’s digital presence, they receive a uniform experience that echoes the institution’s core values and messages.

Addressing Students’ Priorities

Today’s students prioritize flexibility, affordability, and applicability of a degree to their career goals. An effective online brand voice communicates these elements prominently, addressing how the institution meets these needs. For instance, highlighting flexible course scheduling options, competitive tuition fees, or career-relevant coursework can significantly influence a prospective student’s decision to enroll.

Establishing Reputable University Brand Identities

Universities with well-established brands leverage their brand voice effectively to enhance their stature and appeal. The University of Florida, for example, uses a confident and authoritative voice that reflects its status as a leader in research and education, emphasizing its innovation and community impact in its messaging. The university’s brand voice is consistent across billboards along Interstate 95, their social media content, and the institutional ads that play during football games.

The Role of Creative Discovery in Branding

The creative discovery process is fundamental to developing your university’s brand voice. This involves evaluating the university’s values, mission, and personality to find the core elements that will resonate most authentically with your audience. 

To gather these insights, all relevant stakeholders — including faculty, students, and alumni — need to be asked strategic questions such as: 

These inquiries help peel back the layers of your institution’s identity, forming a foundation upon which you can construct a compelling and differentiated brand voice. 

The Process of Translating Values Into Voice

Transforming a university’s core values and mission into a tangible brand voice is a nuanced process that requires a thoughtful translation of abstract ideas into concrete, engaging language. 

At Archer, we use immersive discovery to learn our partners’ mission and build their brand architecture, which articulates what the university stands for and how it positions itself in the educational landscape. Then, we develop unique value propositions (UVPs) and creative messaging themes to highlight the distinct aspects of the university that will appeal to potential students. 

Storytelling across channels plays a crucial role in this context, providing an opportunity to weave the university’s values into narratives that emotionally resonate with the audience. 

For example, a university known for quality academic programs might emphasize aspirational messaging about student outcomes and success stories. Similarly, a school that prides itself on community could highlight small class sizes, engaged faculty, and extensive student support services. 

Elements of Crafting a Unique University Brand Voice    

When developing your university’s brand voice, you should address several key considerations to make sure you’re capturing the unique qualities of your institution:

Strategies such as audience segmentation and targeted messaging are essential to ensure your brand voice effectively resonates with people in various demographic groups. Through tailored communications that meet the specific needs and interests of each group, you can enhance prospective students’ engagement with your institution and strengthen the overall impact of your brand. 

Partner With Archer to Elevate Your University Brand 

A strong brand voice isn’t just a nice-to-have. It’s a strategic requirement in the highly competitive realm of online higher education — turbocharging students’ engagement and propelling recruitment in a saturated market. An effective brand identity fosters trust and forges a deep connection with prospects, guiding them from being merely interested to committing to enrolling. Over the long haul, a consistent brand voice cultivates recognition and loyalty, turning students into lifelong advocates. 

If you’re serious about elevating your university’s brand voice to stand out in the competitive landscape of online education, contact Archer Education today. We’ve helped hundreds of our higher education partners transform their values and vision into a compelling brand identity that resonates with prospective students — and you could be next. 


Forbes, “2024 Online Learning Statistics”

National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics, 2013

National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics, 2023

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