The Art and Science of Branding, Repositioning Student Housing Communities

by Alex Tostado

When prospective college student residents and their parents first encounter a housing property, be it in person or online, the brand is undoubtedly one of the first things they notice. 

Along with the name of the property, they’ll notice the logo and color scheme, and gradually the story told by other aspects of the building as well, from amenities to design choices. Returning students will usually have heard about the property one way or another, and will have an idea of what sort of reputation it enjoys around campus.

Creating and maintaining a consistent, desirable brand is one of the paramount functions of student housing owners and operators, especially in today’s climate where there are usually many choices and discerning students carry high expectations into property tours. Student housing marketing agencies have in turn spent more and more time perfecting their brands in recent years, hoping to create an entity that aligns with students’ values. 

“It’s very important to establish your identity, understanding who your target market is, how you are unique and how you want to speak to the audience,” says Barbara Gretsch, co-owner and vice president of MSSmedia. “It’s really about building your perception among the customer base.”

Creating the perfect brand can take months of research to discern how to match it to a specific campus or student demographic. A crucial decision is whether to run a “local” brand at each specific property, or a “global” brand that can run at dozens of campuses across the country.

And finally, when a brand needs to be repositioned, either because of new ownership, a refresh or to hit the reset button on a property with a so-so reputation, the process begins anew. Repositioning carries its own challenges, with the added burden of changing perceptions of an established development. 

“Word of mouth is going to start with you having your brand presence and narrative played out on the channels where the current generation of college students spends their time,” says Gretsch. “Gen Z-ers are digital natives. You must make sure that your brand messaging is integrated into the platform and the spaces where these students spend their time.”

Brand Development

Alex Candia, director of student housing at Kayne Anderson Real Estate, says the goals are always slightly different for each property when it comes to creating a new brand. At the same time, the broader goal is always to build up a brand that will resonate with the audience, be they college students or traditional multifamily tenants. The brand must be complementary to the individual market.

The ‘Theory’ brand by Peak Campus has been applied to new developments at campuses including Syracuse University, seen above.

“A student in Austin, Texas, is different than a student in Gainesville, Florida,” says Candia. “It’s important to understand how the nuances of a brand will work in each particular market.Traditionally, the student housing industry has been a little bit generic in its approach. Within the last five years that has changed a lot, which has been great to see. At Kayne Anderson, we think that underestimating the sophistication of students is done at one’s own peril. Today’s college students are incredibly sophisticated.”

When a new media platform debuts, college students are always among the first to adopt it, making them leaders and even taste-makers for the general population. 

When setting out to create a brand, Big Eye Agency Account Manager Matthew Cummings will work with a developer as early as possible, showing up on campus three years in advance to begin the process of discovery.

The research phase includes understanding the demographics of a given campus, then visiting the school and the development site and meeting with architects, interior designers and other important stakeholders. 

“Student housing development has evolved to include all the new bells and whistles, definitely not what many of us experienced during our years in college,” Cummings says. “Our team’s focus was to highlight those features, but also to identify opportunities to find what resonates with students when they’re touring the property.”

One property Big Eye helped design is Aero on 24th, located near the University of Florida in Gainesville. A hangar for planes had been on the site previously, so the housing project used an airplane theme in combination with the property’s address. Both helped build a sense of place for residents.

“All of the creative concepts and marketing materials were inspired by the rationale of the name, but had a focus on flash and fun paired with nature and calm,” Cummings says. “Orange was used in the design as a nod to the university, and youthful lifestyle photography was thoughtfully selected to help attract students in the area.”

Big Eye invests thousands of dollars into developing a strong marketing campaign and a strong brand story, with employees staying on projects through preleasing in order to help staff understand the brand and sometimes even build a brand guideline describing what sorts of adjectives will and won’t work for the property. 

Global vs. Local

There are advantages and disadvantages to creating a unique brand at each property, as there are with running the same brand at multiple campuses.

SmartStop Asset Management’s YOUnion brand can be found at several top colleges, including the University of South Carolina, the University of Michigan, University of Arkansas, University of Nevada, Reno, and Florida State University. The emphasis at each is on providing a healthy learning environment for serious students. 

“YOUnion is a fanciful word that ultimately was selected as a resident-first brand,” says John Strockis, chief investment officer for student and senior housing at SmartStop. “It’s about the resident and supporting their academic efforts by offering blazing fast wi-fi, being close to campus and having powered furniture to promote engagement.”

Strockis said SmartStop spent a year working with an agency to study the demographics of modern college students and their parents before coming up with a brand that spoke to the resident the company wanted to cater to and support.

A global as opposed to local brand brings with it several advantages. The same logo and themes can be used at multiple colleges and don’t have to be reinvented each time a new property opens. SmartStop flies its YOUnion managers to its home office for meetings, and can use the same security badges and shirts across the country. 

In some cases, the parents of a student at one school carrying the brand will recognize it at another school when a younger child enters college, or a student transferring from one school to another will choose to stay within the brand.

SmartStop Asset Management’s YOUnion brand can be found at several top colleges, including the University of South Carolina, pictured above. The property features an outdoor amenity space with televisions for students to gather.

“It’s not easy to find the right name, and you’ve also got to make sure the domain name is available,” says Strockis. “Our goal was to build a national brand, and we’ve already had a student at our Florida State property transfer to YOUnion @ Ann Arbor in Michigan.”

Jessica Nix, senior vice president of marketing and leasing at Campus Life & Style, agrees that economies of scale are a big advantage for global brands. 

“A national, multi-site brand enables you to stamp-and-repeat in each market and get deep economies of scale on purchase and partnerships, along with simply being easier — not having to reinvent the wheel for each new deal,” she says. “If your company was in rapid growth mode where you need to brand or rebrand many assets quickly, or you wanted to leverage every ounce of buying power you have, then a consolidated brand may be for you.”

Whether local or global, Mixed Media Creations Founder and President Susie Carter says a brand must be both authentic and realistic.

“There’s such a trend toward personalization,” she says. “Students have to truly believe you’re authentic and real. Your beliefs and values have to align with their beliefs and values. They can find out so much about you [online]. So much of marketing has to do with how they communicate with your brand.”

Carter says everything comes back to a foundational “brand blueprint,” which is created with market research, studies and interviews to create a brand’s voice and identity. 

“Students will select the property that they feel best represents them,” she says.

Casey Petersen, chief operating officer of Peak Campus, says sister company Peak Development aims to build one to three high-quality student housing projects per year. 

Peak’s Theory brand has been applied to new developments at campuses including Syracuse University, Georgia Tech and North Carolina State University. Petersen says the properties carry similarities reaching beyond just a shared brand name.

“We feel those projects had a similar product offering and similar positioning in their local markets,” he says. “There are efficiency gains and economic factors to consider. When we deploy an existing brand onto a new project, we are not starting from scratch. The marketing lead time is more scalable in terms of creating the brand guide, brand story, logos and signage. We have these things ready to pull off the shelf and are able to quickly refine the brand message based on the personality of the project and the local market.”

On Repositioning

One challenge to running a global brand is what to do when it comes to repositioning. If the property is a one-off, that’s a simple proposition, at least in relative terms. When it’s part of a series things get more complicated.

Nix says her company likes to “flip the switch,” choosing a specific date to go live with the reworked brand.

“All new brand elements are presented to the public at the exact same time and we never look back on the old names, logos or other branding elements,” she says. “After identifying a buzz-worthy brand approach for your community and its market, the details of launching the new brand is critical. Assess everything that represents your brand. This includes signage, your uniform program — the salesmanship and language used by staff — all the way to how you choose to represent your community through marketing.”

Strockis says there are benefits and risks to repositioning, especially when it comes to the name change. 

“Kids are sharp, they have very good memories and they kind of worry, ‘why are they changing the name of the building? Were there problems before?’” he says. “That’s one of the risks. No matter how good your social media, your marketing and your build-up to the brand is, it takes longer for prospective students to buy into that brand and to come back and renew for a second, third or fourth year.”

Strockis predicts that the pace of rebranding will accelerate as the student housing industry consolidates and brands become more homogenous. 

“In student housing this is just getting started right now,” he says. “We’re going to see a lot more rebranding as time goes by.”

Whether repositioning or rolling out the brand for a new-construction property, interviewees for this story agreed that understanding the audience is paramount. 

Michael Huereque, executive vice president of Agency53, has presented on the topic of understanding the psychology of consumers, including the psychology of color, purchase intent, aesthetics and emotions. 

“For us it’s a lot more important to really understand the intent behind what we’re designing,” he says. “Why do we use certain shapes or a certain font?”

He adds that the location matters a lot too, and that marketing in Nashville will look much different than it does in Dallas or Denver.

“People who have kids will know what their favorite food is, what sports they like, where they go to shop, what they’re afraid of, what their hobbies are. That’s not by accident. You spend your entire life watching your kids grow up,” he says. “It’s the same thing when you’re branding an asset. You use social listening tools, do the research first and take the time to understand who they are.”

— By Haisten Willis. This article was originally appeared in the March/April 2020 issue of Student Housing Business, a sister publication of REBusinessOnline.

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