The thrill of honing a university brand: IMAGINE AUBG (2020-2022)


The American University in Bulgaria’s IMAGINE campaign is a follow-up to AUBG’s first-ever brand positioning campaign SMARTVERSITY (Smart Learning; Smart Community; Smart Tomorrow). SMARTVERSITY rolled out in 2017. Year One did remarkably triggering a 56% rise in enrolled students (56% from Bulgaria; 37% other). In 2020 our team pulled all its creative daring in a bid to add value to the smashing success of SMARTVERSITY. We had some novel needs to address (for knowledge on the jobs of the Future) and account for new-fangled trends (Bulgarian students looking for a sensible reason to stay in their home country; comparing options at EU and US universities).

What could have made this a bumpy ride

  • Perceptions to bust. 75% of Bulgarian families consider that education abroad is better and predisposes a better career path.
  • Costs to face. AUBG is a university with high tuition fees and families consider symbolic tuition fees in The Netherlands or UK (students’ loans) and do not take into account the cost of living abroad.
  • AUBG vs. other universities in Bulgaria. To attract Bulgarian students originally eyeing education abroad, we had to face the reality of people taking financially conservative decisions during insecure times which played as a disadvantage to AUBG
  • Pandemic woes. 2020 was a challenging year for all universities in terms of recruitment because of uncertainty and lack of predictability due to the pandemic. This we had to consider both as an issue (for new students) and as a demand for relevant messages to existing students community.
  • AUBG cut off from live contact with prospects. Furthermore, all campus visits were cancelled, and events had to be organized entirely online which made impossible to have prospect students experience the state-of-the-art AUBG campus which otherwise is a strong selling proposition.

Targeting & positioning: tackling the riddle of Gen. Z

AUBG being student-centric, the new campaign was bound to be the same. Our main target audience included students-to-be from 20+ foreign markets. In a twist of irony, we also had their antipodes to talk to: their parents. Secondary target publics went across alumni, school principals and media. We rightfully acknowledged current students as the best AUBG endorsers.

Our challenge was to find means to convince the prospective students and their parents in the value of top-notch education and provoke consideration and ultimately applications and enrollment by further reinforcing the image of AUBG as an innovative alma mater creating leaders for the future dynamic, transforming and multicultural world. An investment that pays off. The benchmark we set with the previous communication campaign (56% enrollments increase) was very high which added to the challenge to surpass it.


Prospective students as part of Generation Z are strongly career oriented (56% make university choice based on references for career opportunities), with clearly set goals; increasingly focused on entrepreneurship.

The key selling proposition of AUBG is the liberal arts system – unique for the Bulgarian market, but well established in the U.S. and Asia. Its great advantage is that it provides students with broad knowledge and a set of skills while encouraging them to find their own strengths and talents by choosing a combination of major(s) and minor(s) after the first year of studies. Upon commencement AUBG students receive a double diploma accredited both in EU and the U.S. giving them great career opportunities.

Concept & messaging

We appealed to the imagination of young people by coining the IMAGINE creative concept and inviting them to explore their potential. We chose AUBG’s most valued assets – the students as ambassadors in communication. Call-To-Action became Call-To-Dreams: the key message in the IMAGINE motto is to encourage the core target to imagine their future and opt for education paving the way to it, while choosing from role models. The IMAGINE “gallery” of roles portrays a brave leader, passionate entrepreneur, fearless explorer, free thinker, creative visionary and inspiring change-maker.

IMAGINE campaign roll-out

Communication opened with the academic year in Sept. 2020. The media mix was mint featuring a digital campaign on 20+ markets, direct mailings, a series of online events and OOH.

Pre-test: To make sure we’re on the right track we tested the messages in an open discussion with AUBG students and as a second step we ran an online survey with 1500 prospective students.
We developed the IMAGINE landing page as a hub of the communications campaign.

Use of testimonials:

We invited six AUBG students to share their stories and inspire others: the brave leader, the fearless explorer, the passionate entrepreneur, the free thinker, the creative visionary and the inspiring change-maker. We avoided associations with specific careers intentionally as AUBG prepares its students for diverse professional paths.

We featured campaign ambassadors in a series of video interviews as a part of digital communication. Furthermore, they took over the social media feeds in the university’s Instagram and TikTok accounts to share their everyday life with potential students across the globe. Their first-hand testimonials were crucial to capture the attention of prospective students who as typical members of Generation Z relate much more to their peers from all over the world unlike Millennials, Xennials and Gen Xers.

Experiential: We made sure to address all target groups by creating a custom experience for each of them.

We provided guests in the two editions of Open house (Nov ’20 & Feb 21’) with special Instagram filters allowing them to post stories from campus without being physically there and to explore various vocations. An Instagram sticker set with the university mascot Skappy added finishing touches to their SoMe content.

We made sure to stay active with online events on various topics such as regular talks with students and alumni, lectures and expert comments on hot topics by AUBG professors, and facilitated clubs to host their annual events using AUBG social media platforms.

Role-models: We invited AUBG alumni to share their success stories in a series of online events. Alumni also worked as sponsors: establishing 3 annual competitions for prospective students for full scholarships to study in AUBG.

We engaged parents through a survey and establishment of Parents Council to act as WoM endorsers.

We addressed parents via series of online events and direct mailing. Furthermore, AUBG took part in the International Education Conference hosted by Bulgaria On Air in Oct. 2020 and shared best practices in digital education. The immediate response to the COVID-19 crisis and the best practices we shared with media on a regular basis, helped parents stay informed about the safety on campus and the seamless online education experience.

We raised a public debate on education – business links by engaging media.

We selected experts from AUBG to be positioned in media interviews and feature stories and as keynote speakers in relevant events (topics: university education in Bulgaria and its interaction with businesses; advantages of Liberal Arts; global trends and their local impact; how universities cope with remote education due to COVID-19). We only targeted earned media and positioned AUBG representatives as opinion leaders.

100% online: we redesigned calendar live events like Open house to be held 100% online and developed a set of digital tools to help prospective students immerse in an AUBG virtual experience.

COVID-19: We updated our key narrative by adding messages of safety and quality of online education and developed deliverables accordingly.

Taking stock

  • 37% increase of inquiries compared to the 2019/2020 recruitment cycle
  • 30+ online events
  • An average of 11 publications monthly for a period of six months as a result of press releases; media expert positionings and feature stories (earned media only!)
  • PRV monthly = EUR 14 960 (AVE x 3.2)
  • Zero negative sentiment