How Purdue Global’s Latest Campaign Empowers Students to Make a Comeback

Building a differentiated and purpose-driven online education brand for working adults

The strength of a trusted and distinct brand is unquestionable. According to renowned brand strategist Tom Roach, “Brands are probably the most powerful and versatile business tool ever invented. And yet there’s a growing breed of business leaders who behave as if creating a famous, preferred, distinctive brand is an unnecessary luxury.”

In higher education—with waning public trust in the overall product and its cost, and yet more than 5,000 brick-and-mortar and online universities and colleges to choose from—having a distinct brand is anything but an unnecessary luxury. In fact, today it matters more than ever.

And whether you are building a brand from scratch or reimagining an existing one, it likely should begin by unearthing and harnessing deep customer insights.

For instance, 40 million American adults have earned some college credit and valuable work experience, but no college degree. “Life just got in the way,” as they often say. So, how do you attract, engage and inspire them? What must they see, feel and realize in order to want to add completing their college degree to an already-full plate?

In 2017, Purdue University created Purdue Global, a separate online educational offering to expand its mission and serve working adults. The majority of these online students are different “college students” than those typically served on its flagship residential campus in West Lafayette, Ind. They are truly working adults: older, more diverse, generally working or military-affiliated, parents and often have lower incomes.

To reimagine a truly differentiated Purdue Global in 2023, the first step was to place sole focus on insights, those penetrating human truths that can unlock potential. Purdue knew this was the work that had to be done and what mattered most.

The need, the want and the big idea

Through months of research, a cross-functional team from Purdue University, Purdue Global and partners listened to employers and students, who vulnerably shared stories of doubt and anxiety as well as persistence, empowerment, pride and new opportunities created by pursuing and finally earning a degree.

They shared the very personal and redemptive power of not just going back to school, but also of coming back and moving forward with a new future. Their feedback gelled into three core insights. Specifically:

A diploma worth earning and framing. They want a quality education they can trust and a degree they can be proud of. If they’re going to spend the time, effort and money, they want it to mean something, especially to employers. They want a degree backed by a reputable university with real brand equity.

Understanding and respect for the working adult. They want to know that the years of experience they bring to the table will be valued and will be used as the starting point as they work toward future success. They wanted to feel like their prior years of work and perseverance were not wasted.

Potential recognized, then realized. They know they are capable of more, and earning a respected degree is a real opportunity for a better life. They want to prove what they know and can do, both to themselves and to others.

The team quickly realized that these students have been at it for years, working toward their goals. This was what they called their “comeback.”

The differentiator

With distinct insights and a compelling rally cry, how Purdue Global then told this story had to cut through the clutter and endless mentions of rational, imitable features otherwise front and center in adult online education marketing.

Reimagined and relaunched, Purdue Global is now where working adults who strive for more, find more. More recognition, more support and more opportunity. It’s built specifically for those who want a degree they’re proud of and employers respect, who need the flexibility to fit learning into their busy lives—100% online. Purdue Global isn’t just about going back to school; it’s about coming back bigger, stronger and more prepared than ever.

And there’s no better way to tell this brand story than to have students share their stories.

People like Desiré, who wanted to believe in herself again after divorce. And Leanna, who wanted to transform employee training at her company but needed the knowledge, and the degree, to do so. These individuals and their personal stories are the bedrock of Purdue’s “This is My Comeback” marketing campaign.

The team is optimistic about the campaign to date, particularly the hard work and commitment it took to uncover, polish and prioritize distinct and ownable emotional insights.

But Purdue Global is most proud of the 35,000 students who are on their way to a degree and a brighter future. They are the ones inspiring the thousands of comebacks to come, as well as Purdue Global’s.

R. Ethan Braden is EVP and chief marketing and communications officer at Purdue University and Purdue Global. In 2020, the American Marketing Association recognized Braden as Marketer of the Year and Purdue University’s marketing team as Team of the Year, both in the category of higher education.