What Higher Ed Marketing and Branding Share With the Olympics

By Kaley Shorter on August 15, 2016
Higher Education Discovery Branding

Photo by Parisleaf: Woodchopping competition, Unity College, Maine


From the triumphs to the tall tales, there are some golden similarities between the marketing and branding of the Olympics and your higher education institution. Here are six that top the podium.

1. It’s all about the story.

What would the Olympics be without the stories behind the athletes? Oksana Chusovitina, the 41-year-old, 7-time Olympian, who plans to compete in Tokyo 2020 as well. Usain Bolt, the fastest man on earth (now more revered by his fellow Jamaicans than Bob Marley) and his wiley antics. It’s the storytelling that brings us together. We hear the back stories of these amazing humans, and we talk about them, share them on social media, and relate to them. Likewise, your videos, social media and personal outreach to students should focus on the grassroots stories of other students and recent alumni. That’s how you’ll capture their interest and show them what your institution can do for their lives.


2. Video and photography are the real storytellers.

Nothing says triumph like this:

Beatriz celebrating Brazil’s win over Sweden in E Group, Olympic Stadium, Aug 6, 2016. 


Don’t let your marketing photography fall prey to “three and a tree” (3 diverse students studying under a campus tree- alarmingly cliche and boring). Be sure your images and video tell the emotionally compelling stories that drive your students to make your institution what it is.


3. Everyone does NOT get a trophy.

It’s all about the best and brightest, whom we want to attract. That being said, there’s always room for first-timers and out of the box thinkers. Who would have thought that a little kid, Joseph Schooling of Singapore, whose mom took a photo of him with Michael Phelps 8 years ago, would beat Phelps this weekend in the 100-meter butterfly? (Depriving Phelps of his 23rd gold medal on the spot.) Or that a tiny Olympic first-timer, Simone Biles, would take 3 gold medals in gymnastics (so far)?

Remember that your best students don’t always come in expected packaging. They may have challenges with traditional learning methods, or they may come from backgrounds or other institutions not on your admissions’ typical radar. Be sure your marketing range reaches these prospects, too.


4. Watch your voice.

There’s been a lot of talk this year that the commentators’ scripts are outdated and sexist. Plan your message around your personas- the students you want to attract. What words do they use? What issues are important to them? This applies to everything from your advertising to your website, videos, blog, outreach materials, the way your admissions staff handles conversations, and what students can expect when they arrive on campus.

Watch with whom you partner, too. I’m not enchanted with McDonalds ever, but especially not when watching the world’s finest athletes. To imply that it’s emotionally compelling, or ok because of McDonald’s never-ending Olympic sponsorship, to eat junk food during the Olympics is actually not a far cry from preying on young people with credit card offers the day they step onto campus– that’s only setting them up for financial trouble, when some have pooled everything they have just to be there the first year. I’m just saying.


5. Refresh often, but stay true to your roots.

The Olympic logo has undergone a makeover every time the Games move, but as you can see, the essentials are still there: the diversity of nationality, and the oneness of humanity, triumph, and passion.



photo: www.criatives.com.br


Just because your school’s logo and other visual identity assets “have always been that way” doesn’t mean that a refresh of them isn’t a good idea, to stay modern and appealing to incoming Generation Z while instilling a solid sense of who and what your institution is. Current design invokes current thinking about your audience.


6. Build it & they will bring it.

You already know this, but like Olympian contestants, your students will continue to astonish you every year and bring honor and glory to your institution.



Stay proactive with the programs, courses, experiences and degrees your university offers, and your students will become the heroes of the next incoming students. They’ll break records, develop brilliant theories, do uncharted research, inspire and help millions both indirectly and directly.

Isn’t that why we do what we do?

About Kaley Shorter

A creative in her own right, Kaley has tapped years of journalism, CRM management, inbound marketing and customer experience shaping to launch Parisleaf’s blog to international recognition in less than four months. Kaley still makes it home in time for dinner with the family, disc golf and rocking out on stage at the piano.

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