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June 22, 2016

As part of its rebranding effort, Lesley University has installed banners along Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge. (Lydia Emmanouilidou/WGBH)

Cambridge, Massachusetts is home to some of the biggest brand names in higher education (think Harvard and MIT). But the city also houses less well-known institutions, including Lesley University.

The small liberal arts school, founded in 1909, is perhaps most well known for its education program. But despite its reputation as a teachers' college, a few years ago, the university found itself in the midst of a sort of identity crisis. 

“There never really was what anyone would consider to be a cohesive Lesley University brand,” said Anya Woods, Lesley’s first-ever Creative Director. “There wasn’t one underlying theme that everyone could say ‘OK Lesley is this.’”

Over the past two years, Woods has helped Lesley rebrand -- change the way people within and outside of the institution think and talk about the university. 

As part of the rebranding effort, the school changed its logo and colors, and launched a new ad campaign with the tagline: “Lesley University: creativity doesn’t just have a place, it lives here.”

“There was a time when you could just cast a wide net and be all things to all people, but at the end of the day, we all know what we’re really good at and what’s probably a stretch,” said Woods about their target audience.

The new brand highlights the university’s strongest programs: the arts, education and mental health.

Earlier: UMass Boston Cuts Emblematic Of Funding Crisis In Public Higher Ed

By focusing on those foundations, Woods says Lesley attracts students who are interested in those programs, and will excel at the school.

The new brand is also proudly displayed on colorful banners along Cambridge’s Mass Ave, just outside the small Doble Campus.

One of the things that we have tried to do with the rebranding is take more ownership of this area and our campus,” said Woods, strolling outside Lesley buildings. “So you see, as you look up Mass Ave…, Lesley’s banners.”

The school also upgraded the materials it sends out to prospective and admitted students. For example, instead of your standard acceptance letter, students admitted to Lesley receive a colorful piece of paper that folds out -- layer by layer -- slowly revealing their acceptance.

“If you got on Instagram or Twitter you’ll see a lot of our prospective students will take a picture of this and post it with all kinds of hashtags and emojis because it is... this exciting moment, rather than your standard letter,” Woods said, while proudly unfolding the envelope herself.

At Lesley, these changes are paying off. 

During the 2015-2016 academic year, undergraduate enrollment was up about 25 percent, compared to the previous academic year. Officials at the school say they've managed to bring in more students without lowering admissions standards.

Lesley University’s Doble Campus in Cambridge. (Lydia Emmanouilidou/WGBH)

At the same time, the university says that by focusing its brand, it's managed to make cuts to its internal marketing spending.  

The atmosphere on campus has also improved, according to Woods. 

“You can walk between here and our other campus at Porter and see numerous people wearing Lesley sweatshirts, and that just wasn’t something that was happening before,” said Woods. “There wasn’t that sense of, ‘I love Lesley and I’m so proud to be here.”

There are skeptics who say the time and money schools put towards rebranding efforts are best invested elsewhere.

A recent study from the Chronicle of Higher Education shows that among baccalaureate colleges around the U.S., the average marketing budget is about $1.26 million, with the lowest at $100,000 and the highest at $7 million.

But in the increasingly competitive higher education marketplace, marketing experts say schools have to pay to keep up.

“Sadly, in some ways, but increasingly it’s sort of a cost of doing business because you have to keep changing, you have to keep evolving,” said Neal Kane, the founder and president of Libretto, a boutique communications firm in Boston’s South End.

Kane is really busy these days, working with scores of higher ed clients who want to convince students to choose their school over all others, and parents to write the tuition check.

“The overarching concern is that they have to keep evolving in the marketplace as that marketplace becomes more competitive,” he said.

Kane admits that not all schools that do a full rebrand will see the measurable results that Lesley has. But the investment still pays off.

“If it’s difficult sometimes to quantify the benefit of doing it, the costs of not doing it are considerable,” he said.

On Campus intern Shirley Wang contributed to this report. 

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