You don’t have to be the parent of a child getting ready to go off to college this fall to understand the myriad challenges this presents. All you need to do is read the news. Given the COVID crisis, colleges and universities – schools on every level – are desperately trying to determine how to make the learning environment a safe one.

Colleges and universities, however, have an added burden – how will the current situation affect their standing as brands and, specifically, their brand value. Students and parents are being forced to ask the most critical question relative to any and all brands: “If it’s not providing what I want, why should I pay for it?”

College and university brands, like all brands, exist in your head. When you think about one brand or another, the associations you link with the brand are set free. You react in some way as a result of how these associations make you feel. To be successful, college brands, like all brands, must be based on something that makes them uniquely different in a way that is relevant to the people they want to attract. They must do what it takes to create positive associations – and deliver on them – such that people will see a good reason to want to pay for one particular brand over another.

While it may seem counterintuitive, the classroom experience is not the most significant factor in differentiating one college brand from another. Rather it is the school’s reputation, which is built on a considerable array of factors and experiences, inclusive of the academic bona fides. It’s the dorm life and the socializing, the sports and theater groups, marching bands, the library, and local amenities, the size of the student population, not to mention the time-honored traditions, and the general ambiance and features of the campus, itself. College reputations are built over time, reinforced one generation of students after the next, the consequence of numerous attributes and influences, tangible and intangible.

As a result of the pandemic, however, the array of factors that colleges have routinely leveraged to build hard-earned reputations are being reduced to a single factor – the classroom experience, or more probable, how the class content is delivered online. Every college and university brand is now being forced to compete for “buyers” on the same playing field. To make a simple, yet evocative analogy, it’s the equivalent of destination vacation spots competing for tourists on the basis of the hotel room alone rather than the totality of the assets of the region.

The bottom line question for colleges, relative to their ability to sustain their brand reputations? Given this new, one-dimensional playing field wrought by the pandemic, how do they show proof of an experiential difference that is worth paying for? How can they communicate and, more importantly, deliver unique benefits that relevantly differentiate their college brand?

Like many aspects of brand management, the question is easy. The solution…incredibly challenging. Let’s start by looking at a few of the issues, beginning with what we’ll call the “waterfall” effect.

While Yale, Harvard, and their ilk are likely to maintain their global reputations as premier centers of learning, schools with lesser brand recognition and affinity may face demand destruction. As some students decide to take a gap year, tier-one schools have a ready and eager group of students on their waiting lists willing to pay for a chance to attend these institutions, in spite of it not being a normal academic year. There is always an audience for “luxury brands.”

Second or third-tier schools, on the other hand, don’t have the waiting lists, or the deep pockets of the top-tier brands. This means they will be under increased pressure to lower their costs, resulting in the difficult task of convincing students to accept a less-than-optimal value proposition. Absent all the collateral perks of college life, students will rightly ask why they should pay top dollar for a mostly virtual experience.

In addition to the fact that schools at the very top of the pyramid will be afforded the luxury to pick and choose from the very best, they also have the resources to quickly and vastly improve the technological quality and motivating value of their online offerings. As well, they can assume an increasingly hybrid teaching model which includes both offline and online classes in the future. More so, they have the ability to offer more diverse courses in math and science as well as pre-professional training, which is increasingly seen as a necessity for tomorrow’s workforce, another differentiator that well-endowed colleges and universities can implement.

The fact is, in the case of any major market disruption, the weaker brands are the first to get into trouble. No matter the category – retail brand, consumer product brand, hospitality brand, or educational brand – it’s a matter of survival of the fittest. Those with the most money on hand, along with significant ancillary resources, have what’s required to innovate and transform, to change things up for the better, and they have the workforce to help them do it faster.

Time and money have always been a key to sustainable brand success, and have always made it possible for the strongest brands to shift ahead of the competition to meet consumer needs. The innovation required to create differentiation in a post-pandemic environment will be very difficult to achieve for those college brands staring at lower enrollment levels, facing staff layoffs, and rolling budget cuts.

The impact of the pandemic will resonate through all parts of society, but higher education may feel it more than other sectors. Essential to success in this new marketplace will be the ability to differentiate one’s offering to students who have never known a world without technology, and families who are zealous to provide their children an advantage in an increasingly competitive world. Institutions with a global brand and a strong legacy may emerge relatively untouched, and may possibly benefit. In contrast, schools with high operating costs, low endowments, and limited STEM or pre-professional capabilities, may have trouble relevantly differentiating themselves and may be regarded more like commodities, not what any brand wants to be considered. The forces of change have only begun to impact a relatively stable universe.

The unfortunate truth for colleges and universities is that COVID-19 will make real the notion of survival of the fittest, in terms of brand equity. For students, it’s that it will likely widen the gap relative to the notion of educational equity more than ever before.

In collaboration with Allen Shapard, Activation Partner, Metaforce.

Cover image source: Vadim Sherbakov