Place Branding in Higher Education

Leveraging your location may be your most important strategy toward growth. At the risk of broken-recordism, you are likely familiar with the four (or five) Ps of the marketing model: product, price, place and promotion (some add people and still others add position, though I believe position is informed by all the others). Whether you count four or five Ps in your marketing model, Place is an essential and often overlooked wedge of that pie. Where you are can be as important as what you deliver, how much it costs and how you tell your story. And your location has everything to do with your people and position. But, unlike the other Ps, you cannot easily change your Place. You can change your product offerings, you can adjust your pricing, and you can alter your promotional efforts. But you are, for the most part, stuck where you are. Online offerings aside, with notable exceptions, your campus is where it is and you can’t pick it up and plop it down in a more desirable spot on the planet. I’m not talking about study abroad, adding sites or off-campus learning experiences here. Of course you can extend the reach of your “campus” in many ways. But you’d be hard pressed to literally move your campus.

Placebranding is the practice of marketing a location to attract visitors and residents. You are familiar with this practice primarily through the work of your local convention and visitors bureau (CVB) or tourism office. You’ve probably seen placebranding efforts in all avenues of advertising, but especially to attract visitors during summer vacation season. In Indianapolis, for example, we are bombarded by messages compelling us to visit “Pure Michigan.”

You are likely utilizing placebranding for your institution, too. If not, you should be: your location may be the most differentiating element of the offerings that frame your market position. In this article, we’ll explore considerations related to incorporating your location more fully into your story. (Note: I don’t include online programs in this particular discussion.)

Rural versus Urban

About the time many private colleges were established in the later 1800s, many of their founders reacted to the apparent decadence of urban environments. This “anti-urban” thinking led many—particularly church-related—institutions to locate in rural, “safer” settings.

Today, according to the United Nations’ report, World Urbanization Prospects: The 2014 Revision, about half the world’s population lives in cities or metropolitan areas; in the next 25 years more than 60% will live in cities and some studies report far more. Evidence discloses that people are migrating toward cities. That might suggest people prefer cities; it’s more likely that they prefer being close to resources. The attraction of cities—“safe” or not—has certainly changed in the past 150 years.

Whether your campus is rural or urban or somewhere between, claim the advantages that you enjoy and offer because of your location. For example, your rural location may offer opportunities for science study in agricultural settings. You may have perfect settings near campus for natural sciences. Your location may offer advantages for athletic and recreation programs; you may have superior space for long-distance running and cross-country, for example. Your far-from-the-city setting may afford more opportunity to find quiet places for study or contemplation. Your students may find it easy to go for pleasant walks to clear their heads. A rural location may offer distinctive occasions for service learning in settings where student work will be truly noticed. You may be able to adopt entire communities in your campus-wide outreach endeavors. Greenville University in Illinois, as one example, launched GreenvilleSmart, an initiative to engage students and faculty to create and specifically support businesses in the rural communities. A dedicated facility on the main town square serves as an active hub and prominent symbol of the University’s commitment and cooperation.

On the other hand, an urban setting may provide easy access to cultural, professional and social engagements for students. Internships may be readily available and public transportation may provide avenues for students to pursue them. A large city typically offers more services that replace the need to include those on campus. Often cities themselves are diverse in ways that positively influence the campus. Metropolitan areas generally are home to several college and university campuses, ideally offering opportunities for exchange of resources, classes and social events. At Warner Pacific University, trustees considered moving the campus from central Portland, Oregon to a more suburban or rural area. Yet, it became apparent that the campus had not prioritized its distinctive setting as an opportunity to differentiate from its peers. By embracing its urban location, Warner Pacific developed programs and partnerships built on its urban location that has shaped and strengthened its market position to attract students and donors.

Click here to learn more about how RHB has helped colleges and universities like Warner Pacific strengthen their market position through placebranding.

The point is this: describe the assets that your location affords a student. A generic label of “rural” or “urban” will insufficiently serve to position you in the market. Be especially specific when describing opportunities in order to stand out. Reflecting your location in all aspects of your offerings, behaviors and messaging leads to a level of coherence your audiences will find irresistible.


A few years ago, in a study for University of South Florida, we discovered that students outside of Florida were attracted by USF’s Tampa location. No surprise, especially coming from northern US participants. What did surprise us was the multitude of responses indicating that proximity to a major airport was a primary consideration. The ability for those coming from a distance to easily reach campus from the airport (and have family visit) measured as important as access to beaches.

Your most significant message related to your location will likely be accessibility. How readily can students get to your campus? For some students, a long and winding road to campus may hold appeal. But being too far off the beaten path will limit your ability to attract many students. As Lawrence University seeks to reach prospects in Denver, Colorado, the new direct flight between their home in Appleton, Wisconsin and Denver influences strategy. With that advantage, the message and recruitment effort for Lawrence becomes less complicated for this new market.

A few words of counsel on this point: first, be sure you offer clear directions to campus in your promotional appeals. Second, be certain your signage supports visitors. Use road signs to build anticipation of arrival. Third, and most importantly, be sure you have adequate and clearly marked parking for visitors! Nothing hampers a sale like that last minute search for a parking place.

Natural Resources

If your campus location is favored by exceptional natural resources, be sure to bring these to the fore of your message. The earth’s landmarks help families to form a mental picture of your location; and, they serve as added value to your message, since families can plan vacations to include visiting your campus.

A few campuses that immediately come to mind are University of Puget Sound, perched perfectly between Mount Rainier and Puget Sound, Pepperdine University, handsomely overlooking the Pacific or Paul Smith’s College, located in the Adirondack mountains, who promotes the benefits of “destination education” as their window to a distinctive positioning.


The relationships your college or university has with neighbors informs your ability to effectively placebrand. Healthy, cooperative partnerships and mutually supportive management enhances the climate—and the word of mouth—that surrounds your efforts to craft a strong market position. If your neighbors speak highly of you, your visitors will take note. They will take even more note of negative talk about you.

If your president is helping to lead community initiatives, if your students are regularly seen helping throughout your city, the synergies between the college and the city that houses it will be more evident to the community—for the right reasons.

The issue of town/gown is, indeed, complex. Look no further than the pejorative “townie” label for residents in smaller communities. The university relationship to the city needs to be carefully negotiated with respect to brand equity. If a college acquires the brand association of a small town, it will be burdened with the top-of-mind thoughts of what it means to be in small-town America. There is, however, a right way to do this. For instance, a College should be known for its intellectual contribution to its immediate surroundings: future teachers doing field work in local schools, faculty members as resources for local media outlets or even the campus itself acting as a place to convene meaningful discussions by attracting internationally known speakers and performers.

Tell the truth

30 minutes from the heart of NYC is not the same as 30 minutes from the heart of Indianapolis. One is urban; the other is not. Be honest in describing your campus. Don’t claim to be in the city when you are not. And don’t claim to be suburban when you are many miles from town. On almost every campus map, we read how close campus is to a metro area. Rather than stretch the truth, find the advantage of your location and speak to that.

If everyone packs up on the weekend, don’t give into the temptation to talk about vibrant social life. If weekends are quiet, don’t claim there’s “so much to do.” If your institution is at odds with your local community, don’t describe how well students are welcomed and treated in shops and restaurants near campus. If it’s tough to get an internship in your community, talk about internships in students’ hometowns.

Be honest. By clouding your location message, you can damage your trustworthiness.

Survey your surroundings

Given the similarities of product offerings, one of the clear and few distinctions between colleges and universities is location. With a few exceptions, no other school occupies your physical space (many institutions occupy your virtual space). Even with another school down the street, your specific location offers advantages. Find the details that distinguish you from others in terms of place to articulate your market position. To help, here are a handful of questions to ignite your thinking:

  • What makes this location distinctive?
  • How is this location different/better than other locations?
  • What are the resources of this location that give advantage to students?
  • Why was our college or university founded in/moved to this location?
  • What about the history of this area informs what we offer?
  • What happens in this location that does not or cannot in others?

Contact us to discuss how to leverage your institution’s location.

  • Spread the word
Rick Bailey

Rick is the Principal and founding partner at RHB.