It was the pioneer of contemporary higher education, yet when we began working with University of Phoenix in 2004, it was one of the most misunderstood schools in the nation.

The university enjoyed a culture of innovation, but as unscrupulous for-profit schools flooded the market, it became the poster child for diploma mills. The problem was magnified by the fact that government regulators were questioning the university’s recruiting practices. And its banner ads and TV infomercials didn’t help the situation. Although they had a high level of name recognition, the University of Phoenix needed to attach a positive image to that name. We helped them develop a first-of-its-kind brand campaign designed to communicate the role that the University of Phoenix could play for students seeking a meaningful education and successful future through a non-traditional university.


  • Brand strategy
  • Creative ideation
  • TV production 
  • Print production
  • Banner production
  • Brand ambassador campaign
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The Goals

Our primary goal for this brand campaign was to turn around the negative perceptions of a challenged school. Previously, the University of Phoenix had never had a brand campaign, so integrating their existing efforts in digital marketing and recruitment with our new cohesive brand campaign was imperative. Our focus was to effectively communicate the true value of a degree from the University of Phoenix and inspire potential students to build a brighter future.

The Challenges

Because the market for online universities became heavily saturated in the years following, the University of Phoenix became lumped into the diploma mill category, making students feel that their education would not be personalized or valuable. While that was the primary challenge we had to overcome, we also had additional opportunities to improve, including:

  • Altering the public perception of the university to reflect the positive impact it can have in the lives of students
  • Creating a clear and positive brand for the University of Phoenix
  • Communicate the feeling that the university also operated on a local and personal level.

The Solution

While the rest of the category was talking about flexible schedules and online classes, we turned the category on its head by portraying University of Phoenix as a credible alternative to traditional colleges. As such, our messaging spoke directly to the university’s prospective students, showing them how University of Phoenix fit into their lives. After all, they were pragmatic. They appreciated the value of an education, but they struggled to balance school with the other demands on their life. And they viewed higher education as a way to get ahead at work and in life.

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Brand Position - Thinking Ahead

Our brand position – “Thinking ahead” – captured what students needed and how University of Phoenix would meet those needs. We piloted the campaign with TV, placing our commercials during high-value, prime-time programs whose themes related to innovation and accomplishment. But it took more than advertising to make friends for University of Phoenix. In fact, public relations led the way.

You can watch the Thinking Ahead spots from 2007 here and here.

Focus on Community of Students

We chose to highlight the incredible community of students at the University of Phoenix and how becoming a member of this community can enhance a potential student’s educational experience. This was achieved by showcasing campus milestones as centerpiece stories while using the degree programs to showcase the university’s innovations. 

We opted to personify the university through its successful graduates and their inspiring stories. This not only created opportunities for favorable press coverage, but it also served as an opportunity to showcase the true impact of a University of Phoenix degree. We used language and imagery that aimed to inspire prospective students and allow them to imagine how the University of Phoenix could fit into their lives. By showcasing the success of students, we were not only empowering the University of Phoenix’s current staff and students, but also inspiring potential students to register for classes. 

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The Results Are In

Just weeks after the integrated campaign launched, brand awareness of the university eclipsed virtually all other non-traditional schools. Perceptions positively changed on key attitudinal measures – like quality, access and innovation. Employees overwhelmingly said they could explain the university’s mission, and 93 percent of those who participated in the brand boot camp said the brand campaign made them feel good about being part of the University of Phoenix team. And ultimately, more students began to consider University of Phoenix as a viable higher education option. In fact, there was a dramatic and sustained double-digit increase in student leads that coincided with the start of the national campaign.

Measuring Success

  • 98% of employees said they could clearly explain the University of Phoenix to a friend or family member
  • 93% of employees who participated in the University of Phoenix brand boot camp reported that they were proud to be a part of the University of Phoenix team 
  • 83% Brand awareness (the highest percentage among non-traditional, online universities)
  • Lead generations increased and sustained at a level 400% higher after the launch of 
  • 4,000+ positive student stories shared