How Colleges and Universities Are Looking Inward to Fight COVID-19

How Colleges and Universities Are Looking Inward to Fight COVID-19

Competition in the US education sector is fierce, particularly within higher education. Students face a myriad of choices when deciding on their next move – in state or out of state, public or private, big or small?

 Typically, advertising to prospective students and their families, as well as to key influencers in the college selection decision-making process (such as high school guidance counselors and financial aid advisors) is a highly proactive endeavor for colleges and universities. Students encounter advertising throughout their high school education careers that will steer them toward a certain type of school or specific university – a mix of traditional and non-traditional content will continue to ping the prospect with messages timed to coincide with key milestones like registering for and completing college admission tests, school application deadlines, and financial aid eligibility.


Looking at institutions that are successful at attracting students, it’s not just throwing things at the wall and seeing what sticks. The colleges and universities that hit their enrollment goals usually create and promote a unique brand position that can strategically differentiate the institution from its local or regional competitive set. Typically, these brand positioning narratives relate to institution size (i.e.,  large student body vs. small student body), academic offerings (i.e., college vs. university), academic reputation (i.e., national rankings), on-campus offerings and amenities, geographic location (i.e., large market vs. small market), and factors related to return on investment (i.e., on-time graduation percentage and job placement rates).

While marketing communications for these colleges and universities has never been simple, COVID-19 has completely upended existing strategies and caused the focus to shift. Not only are colleges and universities now navigating concerns over the risk associated with large gatherings of students on campus, student parties and social events, resident halls and housing accommodations, etc., but they also must address how they are tackling the pandemic to reduce and/or eliminate concerns among students and their families.


As a result, on the marketing communications front, educational institutions are quickly shifting from awareness- and brand-based external campaigns to those focused specifically on how the institution is handling COVID-19 on campus, many times with a purely internal audience.

 Crowley Webb, with a robust team of professionals specializing in research and brand development in the higher education category, has worked with Niagara University (NU) since 2009. Over our decade-long relationship, we’ve created a consistent brand platform and break-through creative campaigns aimed to get NU on high school juniors’ and seniors’ short list of college campuses to visit. After launching “Is it NU?[AG1] ”, a new multi-platform campaign in 2019, Crowley Webb and NU were hit with, dare we say it, an unprecedented challenge – a global pandemic.

To keep the school up and running during the pandemic, it was crucial to ensure students on and off campus were adhering to state guidelines designed to slow the spread of COVID-19. If one student were to contract the virus, the odds of it spreading with speed across campus would be great. So instead of reworking its external campaign aimed at prospective students, NU turned inward and developed a pure-play internal print campaign to promote wearing a mask, social distancing, and washing hands on campus. The posters shared images of staff, faculty, and even NU’s mascot wearing a mask and urging students to lead by example.


With no immediate end to the COVID-19 pandemic in sight, the way that colleges and universities communicate and with whom will likely continue to evolve. However, regardless of how prospective students are viewing higher education during this global health crisis, retaining current students by keeping them safe and offering peace of mind is paramount to the livelihood of these institutions. The only way these universities will remain financially and reputationally sound will be to keep students on campus safely and provide all the information and resources possible to do so. As such, it will be crucial to dedicate a more significant portion of the marketing budget to internal communications for the foreseeable future.


[ this article was written by Jim Hettich, CEO at Crowley Webb ]