Blog 🏛️ University 28th July 2023

How to Differentiate Your University's Brand For International Student Applicants in 2023/24

Profile image of James Leach
James Leach

James is senior content marketing manager at BridgeU. He writes and directs content for BridgeU's university partners and our community of international schools

How can I ensure my university stands out from the crowd?

When it comes to international student recruitment, this is a complicated question.

A diverse and growing global population of international students will, in turn, have increasingly diverse needs and ambitions.

Furthermore, institutions worldwide must adapt their marketing to meet the needs of Gen Z international students – the most digitally native, tech-savvy, brand-aware generation in history.

This is especially the case for those institutions with a less recognisable brand, who often face an uphill struggle to compete with their more highly ranked counterparts.

As well as brand awareness, higher education institutions worldwide also face the challenge of brand differentiation. Now more than ever, higher education marketers must find new ways to differentiate their offering from that of their peers.

Again, this is especially the case for universities in emerging international destinations, as well as challenger institutions in more established countries.

Higher ed marketers must rise to the challenge of creating a compelling, authentic and unique brand story. This brand story must, in turn, speak to the unique academic aspirations and personal values of prospective international applicants.

But a competitive market also means that even those universities that do have clearly defined brand differentiation may still struggle to tell their unique stories to their best-fit students.

So how might these brand awareness challenges differ by institution? 

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A highly ranked university with a recognised brand

If you work for an institution with both national and global brand recognition, then it’s likely you don’t have a problem attracting students. Your biggest challenge is more likely to be converting your best-fit students to enrol. 

But having greater brand recognition doesn’t mean you can rest easy. After all, you’ll still be competing with universities with similar brand recognition, both nationally and internationally. 

You’ll still need to ensure that your international school outreach is tailored to your ideal candidate students if you’re to ensure they commit to your institution. 

A smaller university with less brand recognition

If you work for a university with a less recognised brand name, then your main focus will likely be getting students interested in you in the first place! 

It may be the case that awareness of your institution’s brand is stronger with domestic students – but you struggle to gain any traction with prospective applicants.

You may have marketing goals that are contingent on your building brand awareness in key recruitment markets around the world. But where to start?

You may also feel that you face an uphill struggle in defining your core differentiators, compared to those highly ranked universities that possess a more well-established global brand.

But no matter the size and profile and type of your institution, there are a number of strategies you can employ to ensure that you’re attracting your best-fit students.

Let’s explore a few of these strategies in more detail. 

The importance of destination marketing

BridgeU’s work with international school students has taught us the extent to which location can be a deciding factor for students weighing up their high education options.

For example, students in more established international school markets like the UAE are more likely to fit the profile of so-called ‘third culture kids’ who may hold citizenship in another country.

Since these students have attended secondary school in a large, cosmopolitan international city like Dubai or Abu Dhabi, they are therefore more likely to consider studying at university in cities with a similar profile, such as London in the UK, or coastal cities such as Los Angeles and New York in the USA.

In a competitive landscape, it’s therefore never been more important for you to think about how you can market the country, city or region in which your institution is based.

Why is marketing the wider locality/setting of your institution so important? Remember that, as well as looking for the right university and/or degree programme, international students are also weighing up a place that will serve as their home for the next three, five, even seven years of their life.

If you want to help your university stand out from the crowd, it’s important to tell a more holistic story about the life students can expect when they arrive on campus.

Showcasing your flagship degree programmes

Differentiating your university’s brand to international students means thinking about the degree programmes that make you unique.

But this is only the half the equation. It’s also important to consider how a particular degree programme aligns with how students’ higher education aspirations and career goals (see Strategy 2).

 Degree structure & core modules

Because international students consider institutions and programmes in multiple countries, promoting the overall structure and components of your degree programmes can be a useful way to set you apart.

For example, your university may have a standout liberal arts programme. 

But how many prospective applicants are aware that the degree comes opportunities to take a year in industry, or that your faculty has a great track record for helping students get jobs in the creative, media and digital sectors?

Don’t forget that international students often need help comparing and deciding between different university systems.

For example, a student considering pursuing a medical degree in the USA may not be aware that undergraduate medical degrees are not offered at US institutions.

So, for example, if you’re a UK or European institution, you’ve got a golden opportunity to showcase your university’s undergraduate degree programme that could help applicants get there faster!

Career outcomes

 How does your university/faculty work with international students to ensure they can secure a suitable, well-paid job after graduation?

Career prospects are increasingly important to international applicants weighing up the ROI of studying at university in another country. So how can your course/programme help students realise their wider career aspirations?

Promoting the diversity of your international student community

Peer-to-peer marketing is becoming increasingly important for universities looking to attract more international undergraduates.

It’s not hard to understand why. International students are going to feel more reassured about studying at university with peers from similar backgrounds.

Of course, many of the universities we work with already showcase the diversity of their campuses.

However, it’s important not to just count on the headline stats. For example, just saying ‘our campus plays host to international students from 137 countries” is useful to have in a prospectus or a brochure.

But international students may sometimes want more social proof that students from their nationality or demographic are represented on campus.

So don’t forget the importance of showcasing relevant student societies on campus.

And, perhaps more importantly, consider how you can make international student alumni and current undergraduates integral to your marketing strategy (if you’re not doing so already).

Talk about your university’s unique history and heritage

No one university is alike. So don’t miss a valuable opportunity to discuss the unique history and heritage of your university, its campus and the ‘why’ of your institution.

It’s helpful to tie this back to the destination marketing we discussed earlier in this section. How can you tie your university’s history and heritage back to the local area in which you’re based? 

And how can this feed into a wider narrative that will make your campus feel like an attractive place for an international student to call home?

Once you’ve settled on what makes your institution unique in the international context, it’s time to think about how to deploy your marketing channels and tactics effectively. 

We’ll discuss this in a later blog post…

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