Download the worksheet: Position: One and Only
Good news: your market position is something you can choose. You determine who you intend to be when compared to other options in the market. Ideally, you will choose a position with no competitors; this position affords you a monopoly. If everyone wants what you deliver and no other school offers it, you will own that market. That’s fairly rare in higher ed, but you will want to choose a position with few competitors in the same arena.
Our friend Marty Neumeier provides a great exercise in his book Zag that helps you get to an “only” statement. He insists that until you get to “only,” you don’t have much security in the market. He once put me on the spot in a group meeting in Florida when he looked at me and said, “Rick, you’re the leader in higher ed marketing in the country, so what are you guys the only at doing?” I replied that RHB was one of the leaders in higher ed marketing, to which he replied with a smile, “Good luck with that.” As you might guess, it prompted some serious introspection and decision-making. (Had I been on my toes, I would have quickly responded that we’re the only group with the Coherence Model, or the only group that delivers Circles of Influence, or another RHB specialty… but, I wasn’t thinking quickly that day.)
So, we’ve included his excellent question in this worksheet. Begin with your school name (Notre Dame, Guilford, Westmont, Georgia, as examples) is the ONLY…what? University? College? Regional campus? Institution? School in our state? College in the West? Catholic University? HBCU? Select a description that identifies your position among your competitive set. Do you have a national or regional reach? Do you have a particular demographic that you serve? Write that in the next line.
Now, determine what you do that truly makes you one-of-a-kind. Are you the singular provider of an academic program? Do you enroll more students than anyone else? Do you have the largest campus? Do you have the most gifted faculty (and can you document it)? What sets you apart? Fill in the blank with your distinction following the word “that” in the exercise.
This will serve as the beginning of your positioning statement. This sentence will be the foundation of your marketing strategy and this will be the big idea upon which your brand will be nurtured.
For a great read on the difference between your position and your brand, read Sam’s post in our blog here.
Now, you may be frustrated because you can’t find an ONLY statement for your university. Our immediate counsel is to start imagining what you could do to carve an ONLY space for your institution. That will take time, work and collaboration. But make this a priority.
For now, we’ve offered some other ways to choose a market position. You might be FIRST at something. You might be LARGEST. You might be BEST (not only, but BEST) with something you deliver alongside competitors. And you might have the MOST of something (volumes in library, acreage, scholarship endowment, as examples). These are also viable ways to position your college.
Start with a deliberate choice of your market position. That choice is in your control.
Download the worksheet: What are your core values?
You’ve heard it said dozens, maybe hundreds, of times: Actions speak louder than words. That’s true about your institution. Your mission may include flowery or highfalutin language intended to communicate your noble purposes. Higher education has earned its “Ivory Tower” image legitimately. We sometimes speak in lofty language. What really tells our story however, is how we act. “What you did spoke so loudly, I couldn’t hear what you said!”
Your core values—what’s most important to your institution—will be best demonstrated by your behaviors. For example, at Wooster, one of the celebrated moments of the experience is the day when seniors deliver their independent study theses to the Dean. They each receive a Tootsie Roll in return. Prior to that, a significant part of the user experience is narrowing options to focus on an independent study project. Related to that is the process of working with a faculty mentor—and, of course, the grueling work of research and writing necessary to support and complete the project.
Think about your institution. List the significant user experiences that characterize and define your college or university. Now categorize or cluster the experiences by frequency and commonalities.
What do these experiences have in common? What’s the big idea behind these experiences? Why are they important to you?
In the aforementioned example at Wooster, these experiences all have research and independent study in common. These may be important to Wooster because they want students to be prepared for graduate school. They want students to leave Wooster with the skills necessary to be resourceful and continually engaged in discovery.
What might these experiences suggest about a core value?
Wooster seems to have curiosity, discovery, and intellectual pursuit as core values. But they also seem to value the sense of intrinsic reward that comes from this achievement. They give a Tootsie Roll, not a scholarship, as the symbol of success.
What you practice—that is, what you do and how you behave—speaks more significantly to your core values than what you say.
- Look at the key words of your mission statement. (Use the worksheets from our previous two lessons.) Taken together, what values do these words describe?
- Identify and list the most significant experiences a student (or donor, or alumna, or visitor) might have at your institution. Are you able to cluster or categorize these experiences around some common values?
- What are the motivations behind these experiences? Why do you repeat these experiences? What do you hope participants will learn or take away from these experiences?
- Your motivations are directly connected to your values. What core values do these experiences represent? Do these core values summarize what is most important to your mission—and existence?
- Take this exercise a bit further. What signals are you sending your constituents about your core values? Examine your flagship publication(s) such as your alumni or research magazines. What are the key messages you are promoting? You could, in fact, create a word cloud (wordle.net) of the content of your recent issues. What are the most used words in these publications?
- Explore your core values more deeply. Take a campus tour of your own campus. What facilities and resources speak to your core values? Which of your facilities are most impressive? What might campus visitors conclude about what is most important to you?
- Examine your marketing materials like your website or recruitment communications. What words and phrases and images are most prominent? What are the values that surface as most significant?
- After reviewing the language and signals you send about your institution, create a list of the top words and phrases that characterize your institution. Write these values in the lower right of the worksheet.
Now that you have a list of your core values, convene a meeting with key internal stakeholders. Do they agree with your findings? What behaviors might you expect from an institution with your core values? What practices and environments can you encourage given your value set?
Download the Worksheet: Why in the world are you here?
We’ve introduced a series of guided worksheets to help you move your institution in the direction of coherence. And as we suggested a few weeks ago, the starting point is your mission statement. Your declared mission is the singularly most significant statement in determining your current and future success. This edition of our newsletter includes another worksheet that will help you become even more laser-focused on the power of the language within your mission statement. You can download the worksheet here.
From our observations of late, it seems that rather than investing in understanding and living out their missions, most institutions are investing in finding a tagline or campaign slogan to tell their stories. Higher ed is over-taglined. And most of the recent taglines we’ve seen lean toward varsity chants that do little to articulate a distinctive position in the market.
Indianapolis just hosted the NCAA Final Four tournament. You should have been here. We had a perfect view from our conference room windows of much of the activity around Lucas Oil Stadium. We kept the television tuned to the coverage in the booth that we could see from our window because we are cool like that (and maybe too lazy to walk outside).
Besides some gripping—and somewhat surprising—basketball playing, we were treated to some almost equally fascinating marketing by the institutions represented in the competition. Team uniforms emblazoned with campaign themes or taglines along with PSAs and crowd signs and costuming contributed to some lively advertising throughout the games. Though we talked about excellent plays in each game, our RHB office conversations turned to taglines and marketing with words. (You are not surprised by this, are you?)
If you haven’t visited higheredtaglines.com in a while, we always encourage to keep up to date with the latest developments in the use of language to describe institutions. And, if you haven’t done so recently, please submit any updates for your own college or university.
Taglines are interesting, but they all fall short of identifying your mission. Taglines might offer memorable snippets of what your institution does, or how you specialize or to what you aspire, but they generally don’t answer the question of why you exist in the first place. Taglines serve a purpose, but they’re not anything on which to build your future.
The best mission statements clarify your existence, declare your purpose and give an account of why anyone should care an iota that you are on the planet. And if they can do that succinctly, all the better.
In this series, A Guide to Marketing Coherently in Higher Education, we’re offering counsel with accompanying worksheets about how you can do a better job of telling your amazing story more truthfully, relevantly and compellingly. A few weeks ago, we introduced the first in this series. In it we wanted you to really know your mission. Here’s a second installment in the series and this entry will help you and your team focus on the strengths of your mission. This exercise might be more challenging in some ways but we think it will serve campus marketers (and the entire college community, for that matter) to better understand how your mission shapes your decisions today and for the future.
Download the worksheet before beginning this exercise.
If you thought determining the top six important words in your mission statement was tough (see “Know Your Mission”), this assignment is twice as difficult.
- Review the words you selected as the top six in terms of their importance to the meaning of your mission statement. Of these, now determine the top three words and write them in the spaces provided.
- Looking carefully at these three words, what is the big idea that this trio of words conveys? How do they express your purpose?
- Using these three words, identify your greatest intention as an institution. What do you most hope to achieve by continuing to exist in a highly competitive and increasingly scrutinized climate?
- Now try rewriting your mission statement in ten words or less. Focusing on the big idea, articulate your raison d’etre in as few words as you can. Can you use fewer than ten words?
- Finally, the great marketing guru Peter Drucker once said you should be able to fit your mission statement on a t-shirt. How would yours read—and look?
Download the Worksheet: Know Your Mission
We’ve just completed a series of enlightening interviews with high school counselors across the US. During our conversations, we discussed how counselors determined appropriate institutional matches for their students. One of the consistent comments we heard in every interview was the need for clear articulation of what differentiates one school from another. Counselors said they hear the same pitches—or very similar ones—from every school. “We need to know what sets your school apart from others. Who are you particularly adept at serving?”
Coherence begins with the authentic expression of who you really are. And knowing who you really are by carefully examining your mission is a great place to start. At a time in which higher education institutions are fighting for survival, it’s critical to know what gives you a fighting chance.
Why does your institution exist? What is your purpose? What do you intend to do? What does your institution contribute to the world? What if your institution wasn’t here? What other institution could fill your shoes or do what you do so well?
Having a clear mission statement will lay the foundation for all your marketing choices. Begin by understanding what your mission statement really communicates.
We’ve created a worksheet to help you become better acquainted with your institution’s mission. On the form, write out your mission statement. This might take you a minute, but you will find value in actually copying your mission statement in your handwriting on this form. You’ll become familiar with each word as you write it yourself.
Now, reading your mission carefully, circle the six most important words in the statement. If you think you have less than six important words, that’s fine. But limit yourself to no more than six.
Next, in the spaces provided list the six (or less) words you circled.
- Define each word you circled. What is its literal meaning? Feel free to use a dictionary or thesaurus to better understand its meaning. More importantly, in the context of your mission statement, what does it mean? Perhaps the word “engaging” is an important word in your mission statement. On its surface, “engaging” means “charming” or “attractive.” But in the context of your mission statement, you might find that “participation,” “involvement,” “dialog,” “conversation,” “exchange,” “occupy interest” or “move into position” may be more related to its meaning.
- Now, using your best judgment (and feel free to pose this question to your colleagues), briefly explain why this word is important to your mission and your institution. Why this word? Is there a synonym that might be better?
- Again, using your best thinking, rank the merit/importance of this word to the meaning of your mission. If you are a church-related institution, perhaps you include a theological perspective in your mission statement explaining your worldview. Your mission statement might include “Reformed” in the text and, for you, it’s really important. If it’s most important, rank it “1.” Rank each of the words in your list 1 through 6.
- Finally, rate the words in terms of their clarity for your customers. Do all your customers know and understand this word? How aligned is your understanding of this word to that of your customers? Are they interpreting the language as you do or as you hope they do? How accessible is the language of statement? Is it Ivory Tower lofty? Is it aspirational or is it real? (Your mission statement should express your intentions, but it is not your vision statement, so it should be about what you do everyday.) For this form, use a rating scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being highly comprehensible.
You now will have a deeper understanding of your mission statement than you likely ever have.
What questions does this in-depth look bring to the surface? What observations are you making? What about all the words beyond the top six? What do they add to your mission?
A few suggestions:
- Share this study with your colleagues. Engage them in a discussion about the significance of the language of your mission.
- Assign a task force to assess the relevance of your mission statement and the institution’s accountability to uphold it.
- Determine meaningful ways to assess your commitment to the mission and your customers’ understanding of your distinctive mission.
The conversation in the RHB conference room in 2002 that launched our development of the Coherence model we now follow began with a question I threw out to our team for discussion: “What’s next?” At the time, none of us thought that question was particularly significant or profound. After all, times and circumstances were changing. The market was shifting. Consumers were gaining power. Of course, we’d ask ourselves what was going to happen on the horizon.
We were looking for a way to understand the substantial shift in branding principles and practices and we began wondering out loud: Given the diminishing strength of brands and their clear disconnect with our not-for-profit clients, what would be the next phase of consumer behavior and marketing exchange?
As you might imagine, we had a lively discussion. One thing we knew: without change, higher ed in the US was on collision course for disaster. Consumers simply wouldn’t put up with unresponsiveness. There were simply too many alternatives. And new approaches, delivery methods and, yes, for-profit competitors were gaining acceptance in the market.
Higher Ed is a Commodity
We all know higher ed isn’t retail. It’s not burgers. It’s not cars. It’s not manufacturing; it isn’t automated. It’s not jeans or toothpaste. There’s no return policy. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a commodity.
Nothing wrong with being a commodity. Though we often think of commodities in terms of minerals or agricultural products, a commodity is simply something of value that can be bought and or sold. That is certainly true of higher education. In fact, a college education is something of great value. But higher education’s erudite community historically resists its connection to consumerism and the possibility that education can be “reduced” to marketing practices and principles.
Yet, when a culture of customers can be convinced that low price or convenience or speed toward completion are all valid considerations for purchase, then we have a commodity on our hands.
Acknowledging the power of consumers is the most difficult step toward powerful exchanges. Getting over ourselves can be tough. But in order for coherence to work, we need to understand our audiences as customers and equal partners. For education, that notion drives us crazy. Isn’t our raison d’etre to transfer our knowledge to those who don’t know? Given that, are we not superior and “unequal” at the start?
At the time Coherence was published (2010), the world was experiencing a collapse of the pillars on which we all built our hopes—and retirement funds. No matter where you point the blame, we saw some of the worst of incoherence. Things just didn’t add up. One of the great benefits of the financial demise is that we were confronted with the opportunity to rebuild, rethink, rework, reinvent and, hopefully, the occasion to reconsider how to be more coherent.
Despite the record-breaking economic trading that we’re experiencing today, higher ed is still in recovery mode. And the realities of the recession left our customers with tons of questions: What is the real value of higher ed? Are the liberal arts justifiable in our current setting? What can we expect from higher education? How do we measure success? Can higher education—especially private higher education—be held more accountable, and by what measures?
You have the power to decide
What you have in common with everyone else in the higher ed arena is a window to re-examine how you’ll move forward; to decide how you’ll be ready for what’s next. This is certain: You must provide sufficient rationale for existence. In a word, you must differentiate. Clearly, genuinely, openly. You must provide a convincing case for your enormous cost. You have to prove the merits of your approach. You need to show the outcomes that make you a superior choice.
Further you have to deliver on the experience. You have to do what you say you do. Be who you say you are. And those institutions who survive will deliver more than they promise. They’ll be the ones you listen, engage and speak openly and honestly with their audiences. They’ll be the ones who practice transparency. They’ll be the ones who practice coherence.
What’s next for you?
On one occasion, I was in Florida “under the influence of sunshine” to inspire my writing. Alas, most of the time, clouds and rain plagued my retreat. Fortunately, my Mac works indoors just as well, so I was able to make some progress regardless.
My time away yielded a bright spot, nonetheless. As I am prone to do when traveling alone, I chose to pick a seat at a restaurant bar for lunch, not because I am a heavy drinker, but because the chatter there can be enlightening. Someone should write a book, “Lessons Learned Liquorless at the Bar.”
For this lunch I chose a place with outdoor seating and soon enough the friendly bartender offered me the opportunity to order a drink. When he brought me water, he asked my name and introduced himself as Alex. During my lunch, Alex used my name no less than seven times. “How’s that tasting, Rick?” “Everything okay, Rick?” “Need more water, Rick?” Needless to say, Alex got a larger than usual tip.
I noticed however, that the very smart Alex followed this name-calling practice with all his customers. I started to pay attention to the response of those he greeted. Even the grumpy-looking ones smiled. They all seemed to look forward to Alex’s next encounter. They’d stop conversation as he approached them. They’d stop eating or drinking. They’d look up and directly at him. Alex had their complete attention and admiration. I dare say he had their respect. He had us all right where he wanted us—at the paying and tipping end of the bill.
It’s a gripping sound, your name aloud. We all love to hear our name spoken (and our name in print). Your customers—donors, members, prospects, students, parents, neighbors, are like everyone else: they like it when you demonstrate your interest in them. They all like you to call them by name, to address their interests, to seek their opinions. So use names as much as you can, even when you can’t say it aloud. Here are a few ways to do that:
- Pick up the phone. Your telephone still works. Try calling your prospect or a parent or a donor for no particular reason except to express interest or say thanks. Calling during the phonathon doesn’t count. Let your allies hear their names.
- Use your CRM to personalize all your communication. Gone are the days of generic salutations like “Dear Friend” or “Dear Student.” Technology has raised the expectations of your constituents that you not only know their names but that you have the capability to use their names on all your communications, print or digital.
- Write personal notes and emails. The art of real letter writing may seem to have disappeared but the impact of personal notes has not. If you are average (and YOU definitely are not!) you receive about 85 emails per day. But also, if you are average (and again YOU are not), you receive only one personal letter every seven weeks. But, seeing your name handwritten carries far more impact given the time, effort and cost involved by the sender. The sender’s investment means more to you.
- Consider personalizing your digitally produced communications. But don’t overdo it. Find a coherent way to incorporate personalization. One of the interesting projects we have worked on is a video for Saint Mary’s College that incorporates personalization into a video announcing admission to the college. It works, not only because it is emotionally-charged, but it uses the name of the recipient repeatedly throughout the video on signs, t-shirts and college newspaper headlines.
- Use names whenever you can. One of my favorite college presidents memorizes names but uses first names almost religiously even when referring to someone not in the conversation. “I was talking to Steve last week and he suggested that…” I don’t always know what Steve we’re talking about, but I am assured that my president friend and Steve are on a first-name basis. I have to assume I am talked about in the same way, even when I am not present. I like that level of personalization.
My Florida waiter Alex knew what he was doing when he used his customers’ names. He was making friends, building trust and earning larger tips by catering to our need to hear our names. Smart guy. We should all take a lesson.
College “search”—the process of mailing promotional letters or flyers to students with qualifying characteristics—began in the early 70s as a means to open opportunities to schools that students may not yet have been introduced. In those days about thirty colleges and universities across the country participated in the College Board’s search program. In a sense, “search” was a means to target selected students as potential matches for an institution. To that end, it was less “search” and more “introduction” to students that met an academic profile.
Today, with more than 1700 colleges and universities participating, coordinated programs of online and print communications introduce students to hundreds of colleges and universities. Personalized letters, brochures and PURLs abound each fall and winter when test scores and survey data becomes available.
In our interviews with high school students around the country, we’ve heard their stories of the incredible amount of mail they receive. Many throw these mailings away if the school is unfamiliar, thus negating the benefit of being introduced to a new opportunity. Some document the arrival of their search mailings on social media. Some collect the mailings in dresser drawers or boxes or garbage bags (!).
Others—many others—of course, complete and return a reply card or inquire online or call a toll-free number or register on their PURL to serve as indication of interest in the institution. Or they may launch a search of their own by visiting college web sites as “stealth applicants” (at RHB we prefer to call them “self-managing prospects”).
Still other prospects do absolutely nothing. They don’t reply to anything. They don’t say “yes” or “no.” And these students represent the largest of the population of the search pool. Colleges and universities are missing big opportunity by operating with search as the only driver. According to the Noel-Levitz’s 2013 Marketing and Student Recruitment Practices Benchmark Report for Four-Year and Two-Year Institutions, schools indicated a median “enrollment rate of 2.0% on purchased names.”* I don’t know about you, but filling your funnel 98% full of students who will not matriculate seems wasteful. We can then deduce that names from other sources make up 98% of the class. Shouldn’t we reconsider making investments with this group?
Given the capacity for exacting data that pinpoints our best-matched prospects, the need for that qualifying round of “search” is over. Search was primarily used to determine which students in the pool might be suited to a particular institution. But now, we know that information in advance. Ubiquitous predictive modeling programs offer colleges and universities the opportunity to fine-tune their purchased lists of suspects to zero in on those students who are indeed “best fits,” reducing volume and increasing probability based on the students that historically have matriculated.
The second purpose of search was to indicate some level of “interest” whether or not the student “wanted” a particular institution. Since this paradigm has mostly reversed—it is now the prospect that needs to be “wanted” in the relationship—the idea that a student will “raise her hand” by responding to search is antiquated (if not irrelevant).
So, is “search” still necessary?
Perhaps a better option would be to buy the most refined, intelligent (dare we say smallest?) list possible and begin conversation with those students that would engage them with members of the college community. Invite them to college events. Welcome them to dialog with faculty. Rather than sending them information describing the college, let them experience the college. Better yet, take the conversation (and conversion) to the students. Go to where your prospects are and share an experience with them. Set up a store front in the local mall. Let them enjoy what it means to be part of your community rather than merely telling them about it. Expand the idea of what it means to “visit,” to “anytime we get to see the face of a student.” The science of enrollment management tells us that these encounters are far more fruitful than an “inquiry.” Construe this as “old-school with a twist” if you wish, but don’t let nostalgia get in the way of building a relationship with someone who could thrive at your institution.
In doing so, colleges and universities would more directly connect with prospective students while saving hundreds of thousands of dollars each. Objectively, it’s hard to think of a 2% yield on search as anything more than waste. Perhaps those savings from ineffective marketing could be redirected to scholarships, reducing tuition or a myriad of other things that would make higher ed more attractive and more accessible.
*It bears mentioning that in the current competitive marketplace, with changing and mostly shrinking pools of prospects, institutions occupying the same market position are largely buying the exact same names. In this light, a 2% yield from search makes a bit more sense. It should also be said that search companies probably don’t calculate their results in quite the same way.
Sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in a creative idea that you fall in love with. Sometimes it’s difficult to break out of old habits. Sometimes it’s easy to think that what others have done is what you should do. Sometimes it’s difficult to do something different than you ever have before.
In all those easy or difficult decisions, the focus is on you—well, your institution. What you like. What you think. What you find easy or difficult. What you cling to. What you are afraid of.
Perhaps a shift in focus would better serve you in making good choices. When your focus shifts to your customer (and off of you), your marketing and communications decisions become clearer.
Take for example, a conversation we had with a client last week about a capital campaign case statement under development. When we came to the layout and copy showing the details of the campaign, rather than discussing our preferences, we talked about the donors who would read those pages. Who were they? What would they be thinking? What would they be expecting? What would appeal to them? What would challenge them to participate?
Or, consider the strategy meeting about how to assign regions to recruitment representatives during a recent visit with a client. Naturally, all were inclined to think about what might be most convenient for the reps. But more of our conversation was devoted to the patterns of their customers—prospective students. Where did they live and go to school or church? Where would their network of friends be? What natural connections might exist in a certain county or region of the state? How could we arrange travel schedules and site visits that would have the most meaning and influence on students we wanted to enroll?
Just yesterday we were discussing the lifespan of a microsite we developed for a client. When would be the best time to phase that out and introduce a new site? Could we just shut it down? The choice was easy to keep it live when we considered that the URL was published in materials that were still circulating. Had the customer not come first, the client would have missed opportunities for connection.
Backstage vs. Frontstage
Because workloads and convenience and “fairness” are typically big concerns, backstage work often leads our decision-making:
- Creating forms and fields that fit our CRM (over what makes sense and eases the completion process for customers)
- Arranging a campus visit experience that isn’t too taxing for the tour guide—or faculty member or coach (over ensuring that a family sees what they’re interested in and speaks to the people they hope to)
- Planning an event for donors that works into our academic calendar (over what time of year might yield the best response)
- Using social media to get “the word out” (over inviting constituents to meaningful conversations)
- Filling our home page with every request on campus (over selecting relevant information and easy navigation)
Instead, think about the frontstage experience of your choices:
- How little can we ask of our customers when filling out forms? What do we really need to know in order to take action? How convenient can we make it to seek our help or response?
- When welcoming visitors, how clearly have we provided directions and easy parking access? How can we make a visit experience the best it can be for students and parents? What will they be most interested in seeing? Who would they most like to meet? What questions can we be prepared to answer for them? What would leave the “best taste in their mouth” after their visit?
- How could we make a donor feel most a part of our university? What would make them feel that their involvement not only mattered to us but also truly made a difference in the life of the college? How could we demonstrate our appreciation that would deepen our relationship with them?
- What does our homepage really say about us? Can visitors find what they are looking for? Can a prospect find answers to questions easily?
In a time when customers expect speed and accuracy and when “user experience” is a watchword, it’s imperative that we think of customers first.
You make strategic marketing decisions every day. Focus on your customers and let them drive your choices.
Kinesthetic learner? Need a worksheet to help differentiate front-stage vs. backstage? Click here.
It has become the norm for a marketing firm to have processes and models for sale in advance of producing anything tangible toward the stated marketing goals. There is sound logic for this and not all processes are created equal. Processes vary widely in their rationales; from subsidizing creative work, to engaging stakeholders, gathering much needed data or building inclusionary ownership, for example. What is common however, is that “processes” primarily solve a problem that the marketing firm has. Not the client.
Yep, RHB’s process of coherence solves a problem that we have. We need stuff to solve a client challenge. Without that stuff, we can’t solve their problem. Obviously this is an over-simplification, but the concept holds: In order to maintain the consistent success and high-quality work we produce on behalf of our clients, we have a process that we need to execute. However, this is indeed our problem.
The truth about “process” is that it’s code for “getting the things you need to do your job.” But there are other, less frequently stated, rationales and outcomes that a great process can yield.
Why firms use processes:
A. Financial reasons. Firms utilize processes for financial sustainability. The best ones do, and at a cost. This is ethically OK. Really.
Here’s a truth: Implementation of creative solutions in and of themselves is inefficient from a business perspective. High quality, creative solutions require a tremendous amount of discovery, client review and revision time. When a firm only sells their solution at a cost that the market will bear, good design (the viewbook, the website, etc.) is often a losing proposition. A significant amount of time is spent figuring out what to do and how to do it before something billable is created. This is one reason for the billable process before the product model. There’s a throwaway quote out there: “Getting paid for thinking.” But the “thinking,” structure and cadence that the firm undergoes is what’s perhaps the most valuable to the outcome.
Why this should matter to you:
I won’t discuss why you should want your firm to make money here (though you really do), but there are a lot of features of a process that have value and investment implications for you. Does participating in the process produce more than the product? The answer should be, emphatically, “Yes.” The intelligence gathered in the process should be valuable beyond the purposes of the tangible outcome. That intelligence should also be accessible to the client in ways that go beyond the specific marketing objective. In a sense, the process should create an environment for learning together, not just from one another. For years we’ve heard that our qualitative process, Circles of Influence is as valuable as (if not more than) the creative solutions that follow it. This is because the applicability of Circles goes far beyond what ever we make using the findings from it. It can inform behavior, highlight points of distinction and build confidence. We can sell it because it has a broader value.
B. Client participation and stakeholder buy-in. Most great processes are collaborative and, to be truly collaborative, that means the process includes the input and values the intelligence (specifically) of the client. In the modern environment, if a client is excluded from the process, it’s a sure signal that what the client has to offer is unimportant. And that is wrong.
Why this should matter to you:
Two reasons. First, you have intelligence about your institution that the firm cannot recreate. You know the inner workings, the personalities of your constituents and how to function and apply the result of the process in your professional life. This is not insignificant.
Second, the epoch of silo-building needs to end. A process will increase in value to you if it intentionally convenes parties from disparate parts of an organization for input and transparency. Everything is important to someone and no one needs to be surprised (in a bad way).
C. Predictability and assurance. A good process should represent the sum of experiences that the firm brings to you. Simply put, the firm has determined what doesn’t work in a relationship with a client and builds a process that exclusively contains the time-tested stuff that does work. The good stuff. In that regard, the outcome is predictable. The firm knows what’s going to happen. A good process should also suggest assurance. Why? The outcome is valuable to the client and the firm, conversely implying that the process bears repeating.
Why this should matter to you:
A prospective client should be looking for a legacy of successes from a firm. This should serve as assurance that the purchase will yield a solid and predictable return. This also signals the process has been institutionalized and is a part of the firm’s business model.
There are five questions that I would ask when evaluating the process of a marketing firm:
1. Will the firm skip steps if I ask them to? The answer that you want to hear is “No.” But if the answer is yes, there should be a replacement for that step. This can be research that you’ve done with another firm or clear reasoning for not needing that step. If a step can be arbitrarily conceded by the firm, then it wasn’t valuable in the first place.
2. Am I paying for something that I can do internally? There are all kinds of things that your team may be able do on their own, if those talents and skills are addressed in the process. Another way to ask this question is: Am I paying for something twice?
3. How does the firm bill me? Will I be billed by the amount of progress completed or at the completion of the process?
4. Is there a clear beginning, middle and end?
5. Why should I trust this process? Has it been repeated sufficiently? What are the examples of its benefits?
Much has been written about why one process to achieve marketing goals might be better than another. Marketing firms make it tough on customers in that regard.
Not enough is written about why we conduct processes in the first place. The answer to that question will reveal a lot about a firm—and whether or not you should hire them.
Articulating your market position and influencing your brand are sequential and separate efforts.
In our work in higher ed, we see positioning (even used correctly) mistaken for “branding” all the time. Securing your market position in order to effect brand perception is the right sequence. But let’s be clear: these are not the same. Modifying your market position doesn’t become a part of your brand until external audience knows, understands and accepts that your claim to a position is believable.
However, a changed market position, can (and will) affect brand over time. Here’s one example.
Let’s say we’re friends (nice to see you again). I’ve just told you that I received my EdD in Educational Leadership from the University of Phoenix. I watch your forehead wrinkle. A pause and a congratulations. You’re befuddled. This isn’t because you can’t believe that I achieved an EdD in Educational Leadership. You’re cool with that. What you can’t believe is that Phoenix grants EdDs online. That’s not how you get EdDs. You have to wall up in a university and lose all your friends to get those. You can’t believe that achieving an EdD can be done online relative to what you know about getting an EdD.
The level of believability doesn’t immediately change with the University of Phoenix market position. I assume, slowly but surely, advanced degrees of doctoral level will become part of Phoenix’s brand, as they deliver more of them more often.
Your market position is objective. You either occupy a position (alone or with others) or you don’t. This is your choice. Want to add a school of dentistry? Do it, or don’t. Up to you. Whether or not an audience believes in what you do? That’s different; that’s brand.
What is striking to me is how many institutions choose to work at affecting brand perception instead of market position. Positioning is far more autonomous and can have a more predictable and measured outcome. It likely is more difficult work, requiring an institution to look deeply at themselves AND the market to keep or abandon what they may have been doing for a long time.
I think one reason institutions prefer to work at changing brand perception without changing position is that, when the position they choose to occupy isn’t something that sufficient external audiences will pay for, they come up short. What they fail to consider is called market need. Not brand, not even position, and also not subjective.
A further reason that some institutions aren’t up to the task is that a market position doesn’t suggest that you’re the only school in that position to the customer. If many schools can offer nearly the same as you, then you occupy a position with others. In the mind of the customer you are not the only provider. No positioning statement will change the fact that what you offer can be found elsewhere. This boils down to parity, which I believe is the single largest threat to institutions of higher education (if we all offer relatively the same thing at varying prices, then the lowest cost/highest value, most convenient, provider wins).
A market position is completely up to you. The point of a positioning statement is to describe where you are relative to competitors. That’s it.
Brand, on the other hand, is completely up to them. As Marty Neumeier says: “It’s not what you say it is, it’s what they say it is.” Brand is a concept in the mind of your customer.
Position is strongest when you are an only. It doesn’t mean you have to be the only, but no one will need you if you aren’t.
But get this: you get to choose your market position. (Cheering crowd noises here.)
This is the central logic to the process of Coherence. It is indeed a process and it takes time. The aim is simple: align what you offer with what the customer believes you could offer. Occasionally, for our clients, that means modifying their market position and then encouraging brand perception into alignment. In other cases this means articulating an existing market position more clearly and specifically and then conversing with customers to bring them along. Depending on the relative shift in market position this can take anywhere from a year to a decade. Whatever the shift, it takes time and continuity of effort.
The question shouldn’t be if you can afford to take the time, it should be can you afford not to.