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Why universities need a brand strategy for China

August 12, 2020 |   Ada Wang

Across the world, universities are struggling to contend with the COVID-19 pandemic, with varying degrees of success – and those with low levels of endowment, high admittance rates (i.e. short or non-existent waiting lists), low credential-to-cost ratios, a high dependence on full-tuition international students and weak brand equity are the ones most vulnerable to COVID shock.

Many universities, particularly those in places where the virus is not yet under control, are faced with an extremely difficult choice. On the one hand, they can remain open and offer as close to a normal university experience as possible, complete with in-person lectures and classes, giving them a better chance of surviving financially, but putting their students and staff at potential health risks. On the other, they can move everything online, ensuring everyone’s safety but risking a high dropout rate and reduced enrolments that threaten to bring the entire institution under. As Professor Galloway notes in his essay, “The economic circumstances for many of these schools are dire, and administrators will need imagination … to avoid burning the village to save it.”

While an overdependence on international students can be problematic, the fact of the matter is most universities can’t and won’t survive without them – and as the biggest international student cohort in every major market, Chinese students will remain of particular importance. It’s crucial, therefore, that universities look for ways to bolster their Chinese international student numbers and separate themselves from the rest of the pack in terms of their offerings to this demographic.

The current crisis has shown the flaws in taking a purely recruitment-focused approach that focuses on key times of the year. Instead, universities need a brand strategy that involves a year-round focus to steadily build up that ever-valuable brand equity over time.

Let’s take a closer look at why it’s so important for universities to have a brand strategy for China.

3 reasons why universities need a brand strategy for China

1. Universities can no longer rely on ranking alone

There was once a time where universities could rely on rankings alone to attract Chinese international students, but no longer. COVID-19 has thrown many things up in the air, and no one has any idea how these things will land.

While many countries, like Australia and the US, have offered a certain amount of flexibility to help accommodate international students on visas, in many cases there is still lots of uncertainty, and student visa applications have dropped dramatically.

There’s also rising political tensions, particularly between the US and China but also increasingly Australia and China, making parents and students wary about overseas studies and the possible risk to their children’s and their safety. Or as Galloway bluntly puts it, “Consumers generally don’t like to pay the rack rate at a hotel whose general manager harasses them and is a bigot.” Troubling stories of international students stranded overseas having to rely on foodbanks and charities in order to survive has also left students feeling less than confident about leaving their families and support networks behind and travelling to another country where they may be treated like second-class citizens should they fall on hard times.

Amid all this uncertainty and hostility, universities need to counter some of this noise to position themselves as welcoming and attractive places to study, where students will be provided with the necessary support to complete their degrees. A comprehensive brand strategy can help them do so.

2. It gives an opportunity for lesser-known universities to boost their enrolment numbers

With university rankings just one factor Chinese international students now have to consider, there’s opportunities for lesser-known universities to get a bigger slice of the pie by communicating all the other aspects that make their institution attractive to this demographic.

For example, the escalating health crisis in the US means that universities in countries like New Zealand, Australia, the UK and Germany, which have had some to a lot of success in dealing with COVID-19, may find themselves at an advantage, due to the relative safety of their campuses and their locations.

Universities that have also shown they can support their students and provide a good learning experience during these difficult times can also use those advantages to appeal to Chinese international students.

3. It helps bolster future recruitment

The advantage of having a comprehensive brand strategy is that brand equity tends to build on itself. This is particularly important now, with the cancellation of study tours and other recruitment events likely to stem enrolment figures for the next year or more.

As you build on your reputation and expand your reach with your brand strategy, these efforts tend to compound as your equity grows. This will place you in a much stronger position to face the challenges of the coming months and years.

Elements of an effective brand strategy for China

So how can universities create an effective brand strategy for Chinese international students? While each university’s approach will be slightly different, there are certain aspects that good brand strategies have in common.

An effective brand strategy for China …

Employs a year-round approach

As we said, universities have to move from a recruitment-focused approach, where you may run a big campaign or attend education fairs once or twice a year, to a year-round approach that doesn’t focus just on recruitment, but on the student’s entire journey. This takes a long view, where brand equity is built slowly but steadily over the year, and relationships are built with prospective students and other key groups over time.

Takes advantage of a range of digital channels for brand building

In a mobile-first country like China, where students and parents rely heavily on their own research as well as word-of-mouth, it is essential that universities have a strong digital marketing foundation that consists of key channels, most importantly a locally hosted Chinese website and an official WeChat account. Other channels you may want to explore include Weibo, Youku and Douyin.

Having a locally hosted website is important as many students start their research as early as 2 years ahead of their studies – a Chinese website allows you to establish a strong presence on Chinese search engines, which is often students’ first port of call when they’re researching. WeChat allows universities to communicate with key groups on a more personal level, effectively allowing them to meet these demographics where they live.

Targets prospective and current students, parents and alumni

While universities tend to place a large amount of their marketing focus on prospective students, there are other groups that are also key to a well-rounded brand strategy: current students, parents and alumni.

Current students are effectively a ready-made group of KOLs. They can give students an authentic insight into what it is like to attend your university, so giving them opportunities to virtually show their friends around campus, whether that’s by running events or giving incentives for social media activity can be very powerful. And you can bet that giving them genuine support in these trying times will go a lot further in terms of building brand equity than putting out ads of smiling students on campus.

Parents play a huge role in the decision to study overseas, with our research showing they are involved in the decision in 68% of cases. As parents often shoulder the cost of studying overseas, it’s important that universities also build a relationship with this key group so that, when it comes time to apply, parents are wholly supportive of their child’s decision to study at your institution.

A highly active alumni community can contribute to the health of the university in many ways: financially, in the way of monetary donations, and otherwise, via things like positive word-of-mouth and by taking part in things like careers events, conferences, workshops or mentorship programs. Alumni will be far more inclined to be generous with their money and time if the university makes an effort to engage with them on a regular basis.

Engages with key demographics on a personal level

An effective brand strategy is not just about publishing details of your academic programmes and posting pictures of campus life. The universities that perform the best, particularly on social media, are the ones that take the time to actively engage with their key demographics by answering questions and providing real feedback.

Not only does this communicate to people that the university really cares and is willing to address their concerns, but universities also get real-time, valuable insight into what’s important to these groups. This allows universities to build authentic relationships with students, parents and alumni, leading to positive word-of-mouth and organic brand awareness.

Consider how you can engage key groups on a more personal level, whether that’s by organising Zoom sessions for prospective students to ask questions of university staff or alumni, or building WeChat group chats where students can interact directly with each other.

Focuses on the whole student experience

Yes, students are there for an education, but they are also there for an experience, so it’s important to ensure your brand strategy communicates the entirety of the student experience. This may include things like student accommodation, campus events, student clubs, internships and other post-study work opportunities, student welfare and mental health support services, security measures undertaken by the university and so on.

As I said earlier, students are looking for more than just a good university ranking – now more than ever, they will be looking to things like secure accommodation options and support services so they can feel confident in their decision to make the daunting move of studying overseas.

Looks at other creative ways to bolster the university’s image and offerings e.g. partnerships

In these unprecedented times, universities have to think outside the box in terms of how they can engage Chinese international students and boost their reputation in China.

Partnerships, for example, can be very valuable, particularly in times like these. Having a study-abroad option within China, for example, has allowed students at universities like New York University to study in a campus-like environment in their home country until they are able to travel to the US. Partnerships like these can give institutions the flexibility to explore options such as these when faced with crises like the current pandemic.

It’s worth bearing in mind, though, that partnerships take a long time to build – again, universities need to take a long-view approach when it comes to their brand strategy. As recruitment expert Marty Bennett says, “Institutions that don’t already have a physical presence or partners [in China], they need to invest in those relationships now so that they can bear some fruit down the road. You have to play the long game on this, and it’s not going to happen overnight. China is not a market you can suddenly walk into. Several trips or all the social media investment in the world is not going to make you an instant player. You have to have a track record and have some clout there. If you don’t already have that, you need to be patient and your institution needs to be patient.”

Set yourself up for success

A brand strategy for China is not just important in terms of riding out the current crisis, but also setting yourself up for the future. Universities that take a long-view, consistent approach that effectively uses a range of digital channels and engages with all key audiences will be much better prepared to withstand whatever lies ahead.

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