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Overcoming Obstacles to Establishing Brand Recognition in the Competitive CPE Market

The EvoLLLution | Overcoming Obstacles to Establishing Brand Recognition in the Competitive CPE Market
The market for professional and ongoing education is massive, including everything from full degree programs to videos on YouTube. Standing out and competing in this market requires institutions to be flexible, niched and focused on delivering a class-leading student and customer experience.

The continuing and professional education (CPE) marketplace is incredibly competitive. Students are faced with a massive array of choices and have more opportunities available to them than ever before. From accredited programs to one-off courses, from certificates to bootcamps, from MOOCs to EduPunk-style DIY learning, the array of CPE options students can choose from is astounding. As such, for institutions aiming to serve this growing demographic, it’s critical to stand out above the noise. In this interview, Lesley Nichols shares her thoughts on what it takes for CPE providers to stand out above the noise and reflects on the ingredients that combine to create a strong and attractive brand in this space.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are a few key characteristics working professionals take into account when trying to find a professional education provider to enroll with?

Lesley Nichols (LN): Working professionals are always striving for balance. Carving out time to pursue education in a hectic schedule of work, family, life, and community commitments poses a challenge for every adult. Education providers need to be increasingly sensitive to this challenge and create program paths and service models that recognize adult student needs.

While the University of Phoenix is no longer the powerhouse they once were, I still think there are so many lessons we can learn from their model. One of the biggest reasons for their initial success was their focus on customer service. Even something as simple as returning a phone call is surprisingly still an issue in our industry. In general, most adult students are seeking responsiveness, convenience, flexibility, and a provider who can serve as a partner to help them fulfill their educational goals.

There are a few key questions working professionals ask themselves, which any provider looking to serve adults should be able to answer:

  • Does this program fit my personal learning style (online, in-person, a combination of both)?
  • What happens when life intervenes and I need to take a semester off?
  • Can I finish my program quickly or spread it out over a couple of years to make it more manageable for my time and finances?
  • Will I fit in with my classmates?
  • Can I afford this?
  • Does this provider have a good reputation?

Finally, one area that is often overlooked for adult learners is Career Services. Higher education providers are accustomed to providing these services for traditional, residential students, but we often neglect to provide ample resources for adults because we assume they are already established in their careers. However, with widespread public scrutiny on educational return on investment, adults want to see an array of services to help them navigate career transition, re-skilling, professional networking, and planning their career growth pathways. The appeal of coding bootcamps is the accelerated length combined with hands-on/experiential learning that is designed to translate to the workforce. For career changers, spending several years in school simply isn’t an option in a competitive job market that wants skilled workers now. So now we’re starting to see higher education providers partnering, rather than competing with private bootcamp educational providers or creating new accelerated intensives and certificates to meet this market demand for quickly attainable skills and credentials.

Evo: How important is brand recognition for institutions in the competitive professional development and corporate training space?

LN: Brand recognition is critical. From a marketing and branding perspective, professional education uses the same consumer behavior logic all retailers follow when selling products or services to individual consumers. Consumers want to feel confident about a brand. In education, brand confidence translates into quality, reputation, and how a credential will translate on a resume to a potential or current employer. It’s no coincidence that graduating students invite family and friends to attend their graduation. They feel proud of their accomplishment, and the brand of the education provider plays a big role in that pride. Whether it’s a full degree, a certificate, or a training program, students will include this credential on their resume or LinkedIn profile for many years to come, forever associating themselves with their education provider.

In the corporate training space, partnerships between employers and education providers are often built on existing relationships and brand awareness. The CLO of the company might be an alumna/alumnus of a particular college, and having this relationship opens the door to a corporate training discussion. A CLO might feel internal pressure to choose the well known provider over the lesser-known start-up. But ultimately, all education providers who want to succeed in the corporate training space need a track record of being able to deliver results that positively impact the business’ bottom line or the strength of their workforce. During the recession, corporate training was one of the first line items cut from large corporations, government offices, and small businesses. Training is often viewed as easily expendable when financial times are tough. So it’s even more critical for an education provider to stand out as a trusted, results-driven brand who can provide a positive return on investment. The cost of employee attrition is high and often goes unmeasured. Keeping employees engaged and providing opportunities to keep their skills current can pay off financially in retention and improving overall business performance and productivity.

Evo: What does it take to establish a brand and reputation for excellence that will resonate with working professionals?

LN: I just did a Google search for “quality education provider” that resulted in over 300 million results. And we know that most internet users rarely go beyond the first 10 search results to find an answer. A brand is so much more than a tag line and a logo; it’s an experience. So simply proclaiming quality is never enough. Consumers have become more savvy at identifying marketing language and when to distrust a sales pitch. The best tool we have to establish a reputation for excellence is through testimonials and reviews by real students and employers. These success stories are always the best “proof” of quality.

One of the key tools we have at our disposal is content marketing. Prospective students want to know, “Can I do this?” The best way for an education provider to answer this question is by letting current and former students do the talking, by way of testimonials, success stories, video clips and quotes. In the age of social media, comment boards and review sites, consumers have a powerful platform to voice their experiences.

This can be a double-edged sword, though. We have to remember that if we don’t do our jobs correctly, sometimes those experiences are not positive. The recent scandal surrounding United Airlines’ treatment of one passenger is the perfect example of how a major company with massive worldwide recognition and millions of customers can see their carefully crafted brand tarnished overnight. Every point of contact is a chance to build and reinforce the brand experience or ruin it. All it takes is one unpleasant phone call or one poorly written email to lose a customer for life.

Creating and maintaining a reputation for excellence is a lifelong commitment to demonstrating dedication to the needs of the students we serve. Letting our students speak in their own words about the experience they had with our organization is the best way to build a genuine positive brand reputation or alert us if the service we’re providing is not up to par.

Evo: What are some of the key challenges to developing such a brand?

LN: One of the biggest challenges is simply being noticed when the number of communication channels increases every year. The much-publicized statistic about the eight-second human attention span now being shorter than that of a goldfish illustrates the difficulty in capturing the attention of a prospective student.

Most providers don’t have the resources to be effective in every channel. Traditional mass marketing is costly and often ineffective. Social media can be very effective to help build an audience and a more authentic brand image, however, it requires dedicated time and constant attention. Many institutions think it’s sufficient to employ one full-time social media position for the entire organization, let alone the number of FTEs truly needed to see measurable results. Professional and continuing education (PCE) units within colleges and universities are simply one department within a larger institutional microcosm. To build an effective brand, PCE units and the institution as a whole must work together. A rising tide raises all ships.

The other key challenge for any provider is that we are only one step in a student’s path. It’s no longer a student choosing to attend one or two colleges in their lifetime to earn a degree. Today’s educational landscape is far more nuanced. A student may pursue many paths throughout their lifelong learning journey, including classes, workshops, certificates and bootcamps. A student may attend community colleges, universities, professional associations, and private training providers, not to mention low-cost options like YouTube or With this many options, the challenge for education providers is to identify and communicate our special value proposition. Ultimately, our brand needs to evolve and adapt to a changing landscape to remain relevant for lifelong learners of today and the future. And our job, simply put, is to prove our worth to every student we hope to serve.

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