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Taking Your University’s Brand International

For an American university, “going global” can mean many things. Most schools’ first foray into establishing an international footprint is, usually, an office or research center or partnership with a local college. But whatever brick-and-mortar presence a university has abroad, marketing remains a critical element of the new school’s eventual success.

When your college “goes global,” your job as a higher education marketer shifts from “creator” to “manager.” Here’s what that means:

1. You Have to Adapt to Local Input

If you’re in higher education marketing, your job — until now — has been to figure out what really motivates your stakeholders and then deliver it. But when your institution goes global, identifying what motivates the new, local population gets a lot trickier.

You’re not there. You can’t walk across campus and ask the School of Engineering, “Why do engineering students come here?” Your access to keen, real-time insights into your target audiences is narrower.

Applying what works here, in the States, to your new overseas audience—at least without a thoughtful, cultural analysis first—probably isn’t worth the resource drain.

Instead, your marketing needs to be more reactive.

For example: Presumably, your international institution will have a unique curriculum. (Robotics may not be your focus in America while it’s a core competence in your Japanese campus.) Let that inform your marketing decisions. Let the local team share their local insights, and be open to adopting their suggestions — as they’re the local experts.

2. You Add Value By Keeping the Brand Consistent

“Brand consistency” is just a fancy way of saying “walking the walk.” If your school has done the deep thinking required to develop a set of core principles, brand consistency is a breeze. It simply means you manifest those values in your public messages. You have a North Star to follow, a clearly defined path to trod.

For example, if your university prides itself on its approach to technical education, then your marketing messages should reinforce and expand on that principle. What does it mean to be good at technical education? Answer that question, over and over — in new and provocative ways.

Attempting to actually execute the day-to-day marketing efforts of your international campus is a waste of your time. Instead, your job shifts to managing the brand’s consistency. You become a reviewer instead of an initiator. You ensure that what your international campus is saying and showing is what your university would/should say and show.

A Note About Translation

You know by now that your marketing messages need to be translated into the prominent local languages — and that “translation” means a lot more than language. You have to have your ideas translated.

But here’s the thing: There are no shortcuts when it comes to translating.

You have to have employees on the ground, on campus, who are native to the area—who know the language, the traditions, the cultural pitfalls and opportunities your messages will encounter.

You cannot hire a U.S.-based translator, and you certainly cannot use a piece of technology to do it for you. If you’re unable to invest in a local marketing team, your university will almost surely make some mistakes along the way.

3. You Have to Build Flexible Design and Advertising Concepts

To the extent that your university dictates what its international campuses should say locally, you need to be on the lookout for design and advertising concepts that maintain some flexibility. This is tricky, because “flexible” often means “bland” or “one-size-fits-all.”

You need a marketing message that has longevity, that is authentic, that is broad enough to appeal to a wide variety of audiences. And yet, crafting such a message often means attempting not to offend anyone. And when your intention is not to offend anyone,, you end up with non-specific messages that are rarely compelling.

Your best bet? Emphasize the “authentic” part of your marketing efforts. Only create and approve marketing campaigns that — whether broad or specific, flexible or rigid — actually feel like what your university is all about. In the pursuit of crafting effective marketing campaigns abroad (from abroad) never sacrifice brand authenticity for the sake of a more “effective” marketing message.

Remember, your brand is “what people say about you when you’re not in the room” (Jeff Bezos). Imagine what they’ll say about your school when you’re not on the same continent. Better to hew more closely to your domestic brand identity than stray wildly from it in the pursuit of “local approval.”

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