Increase Your International Appeal – Destination Marketing for Higher Education

You have a great school. You have smart, driven students and engaging professors. But is your institution a wonderful destination?

‘Destination marketing’ is a term more commonly associated with tourism. The idea is for a business to promote the more general attractions and advantages of its location, rather than to fixate upon the business’s own appeal.

There may be many advantages to studying in the city or town where your institution happens to be. These may be geographic, connected to the landscape, architecture, or travel connections.

Things such as cost-of-living, nightlife, and the value of the arts scene may also add appeal to your neighborhood. And just as importantly, the nature and culture of locals, students, and professors alike. What is it like to network, study, and live alongside the people in your destination?

Destination marketing is all about highlighting what’s unique about your community and highlighting the advantages of traveling and living in your hometown.

How does destination marketing relate to higher education?

International students have a huge decision to make when picking a university – particularly undergraduates, who are often as keen to get life experience as they are to get a specialist education.

And that decision will depend upon the destination as much as the school. So it's crucial that all of the institution’s ambassadors, from your professors to your corporate partners, and city, regional, and governmental agencies, are aware of the importance of positioning your university within a broader context.

Involving the whole local eco-system requires co-operation and communication about marketing in an organized and focused way.

This might involve the forming of a trans-agency marketing group that includes your institution’s marketing team, and representatives from local government, stakeholders, and even local businesses. You will need a clear mission and protocol up-front, but also the ability to compromise since there are many interests at stake.

Regular meetings will help your destination marketing strategy to flourish, allowing for both long-term development and short-term opportunism: capitalizing on a location’s fundamental strengths, as well as one-off events and news stories as they arise.

Fitting the image of the university to the destination’s brand

While the concept of marketing your ‘destination' may appear quite general, you will benefit from being precise in your strategy and branding. ‘Our destination is amazing' is not enough; an institution needs to identify a ‘narrative’ for its location. A narrative that is on-brand with the image of the university.

The island country of Greenland achieved this, utilizing dramatic natural imagery to convey a sense of adventure and of being a pioneer.

A college from the US Midwest might likewise build on its pioneering spirit, great spaces, and nature, a French university in a wine region can promote the local lifestyle, and a college from San Francisco will insist on its host city as a center of innovation and technology.

Ultimately, you want to create a bold, memorable image of what your destination (and by association, your school) is all about. After that, you can color in the details with each step of the campaign. Remember to make it clear what the connection is between the theme of the city and the benefits of your school.

Thankfully, marketers have a range of tools to connect with potential students using this imagery. Instagram is a particularly useful social media platform for destination marketing because it’s so visual and aspirational. Plus, those all-important Generation Z’s are using Instagram more and more, Facebook less and less.

A successful higher ed branding strategy: Iceland

If you’re looking for a good example of destination marketing done well, look at Iceland.

Programs such as Westfjord’s Coastal and Marine Management MSc benefit from association with Iceland’s image of nature and great spaces. The school’s color theme is not a million miles from that of the national tourism agency Inspired by Iceland’s website.

The beauty of destination marketing is that if you work in a wonderful place, half the work – nature, culture, geography – is done for you. The hard work comes with finding a structure for these raw elements so that they always lead back to the unique advantages of your university.

But it is hard work that pays off in increased cooperation with your community, stronger connection with the right students, and building on opportunities for and within your region.

John is a digital nomad and freelance writer for higher education and marketing publications. A native Englishman, he is always on the move but can most commonly be spotted in Norway, the UK and the Balkans.