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.
In the past few months, I’ve had colleagues and clients note — in the midst of discussions about how to solve particular marketing or product challenges — that I was behaving unusually. Or more to the point: that I was being “weird.” These were, at least in part, statements of fact (I was being weird). But that’s because I believe that there are a variety of situational exercises that can help a team arrive at an idea that isn’t solely reliant on formula, but incorporates all of the due diligence that a good solution requires. And sometimes you have to get weird to get to that.
But here’s the thing: you have to really commit.
Often, RHB is asked to “get inside the head” of a teenager. This is relatively impossible, but if you gather enough information you can get a picture of what any customer accepts as normal; their preferences and dislikes. Even still, the teenage demographic behaves outside of what we (Xers and up) can normally empathize with.
Take Ke$ha for example.
I’m going out on a limb, but most readers of this blog probably don’t appreciate the music or behavior of Ke$ha. More accurately, you may not have any idea how anyone could like Ke$ha or her music. When you listen to her, I hear you saying “this just makes me feel old.” Which is another way of saying you can’t empathize with her fans and listeners. This has nothing to do with feeling young, or ceasing to like jazz, but imagine that you love Ke$ha and her catalog. Pull up YouTube and listen to it.
Don’t think about how you could like it. Just like it. Read her wiki page. Tell everyone you like it. Defend Ke$ha to your friends.
So, why would you do this? First, it’s easier to simply decide to like something than to rationalize how (not why) someone else would like it. It bypasses a discussion of the circumstantial. Second: deciding to like Ke$ha allows you to experience the implications of liking Ke$ha, which is a significant finding when working with an audience you can’t directly relate to. Most importantly, this allows you to define your distance from the prospect intellectually (what do they know that I don’t), instead of in years.
Use whatever example you like, but I find more polarizing elements of culture are effective. To get in the shoes of an older eccentric segment of society, I decided to cryogenically freeze my severed head for the purposes of reanimating it in the future. I just decided to do it. I read everything about cryonics I could easily find. I told Rick and Malachi my plans. I defended head freezing. I’m not really going to freeze my head, but in deciding to do so, I started to think about all the possibilities. What is the future going to be like? Why is this appealing to me? Will my family come to see my head? Whose body will I get? I really want to see the future.
Is that weird?
Maybe. But it allows me to get into a space that liberates me to think more authentically—coherently—like the person or group I’m trying to connect and communicate with. By going to a place like cryogenics or Ke$ha intentionally, even if it’s initially uncomfortable, and by going there deeply, I become open to and aware of ideas and possibilities that I might not have previously explored.
So I invite you to be weird. In fact, I encourage you to be weird. You really will be better for it.
I woke up this morning to a great email from my friends at Delta Airlines. The Customer Care Director Jason Hausner (whom I have never met face-to-face) wrote to apologize for my cancelled flight last week and to express his remorse with a nice deposit of frequent flyer miles in my account. He used his data to discover that I was indeed inconvenienced (and his records may have shown that my already-too-brief sleep was interrupted three times in the middle of the night) by the cancellation. What a guy. The problem with last week’s flight was indeed a bit incoherent with my experiences with Delta; yet, he recovered by taking responsibility and offering me, essentially, another trip. (I know that you may not like Delta as much as I do, but on the whole, I am quite satisfied with this carrier and use it as much as possible.)
My point: if you dissatisfy a customer, own the issue and make it right.
When you dissatisfy a customer and behave in a way that is incoherent, and you don’t make it right, you lose points. And possibly the customer.
Two cases in point:
- I’ve written before about Nordstrom as the quintessential example of customer care. So I was surprised a few weeks ago when I went shopping to replenish my cologne supply that a store representative was not positioned at the counter. A person who I mistook as a Nordstrom employee was behind the counter and said, “I’ve been waiting for ages and no one is here to help. Guess you have to serve yourself.” My ears heard this while I observed three Nordstrom employees chatting jocularly at a counter about 50 feet away from us. I waited a bit more thinking surely they’d come running over any minute. Alas, I had to help myself. In my effort to reach for the scent I wanted on an upper shelf, I inadvertently tipped the sample bottle off the shelf and it landed on a mirrored shelf below that broke the mirror on impact. Bad luck, right? Glass shattered at my feet. And the noise captured the attention of the sales team. A gentleman rushed over and told me not to worry, “we can replace the mirror.” “What about my feet?” I asked. He just looked at me quizzically as if I had asked something irrelevant. I made my purchase—I will still shop there—but Nordstrom notched down a bit in my book. They’re good, but, for me, not that good anymore. Coherence is really important.
- When one of our employees recently moved on to a new post-RHB life, we needed to cancel her corporate account card with American Express, the other iconic customer-care company. A few minutes after Tammy cancelled the card, another employee was denied a purchase with his card while travelling. We scratched our heads a minute and called AmEx back. They had cancelled not just the one card, but the entire corporate account. Human error, but a bad one. An error that took many calls to fix. And too many managers. And way too much time. It seemed odd to us that one call and one card cancellation would clear an entire account without someone raising a flag to ask, “After 22 years, is there something we may have done that is causing you to cancel your account?” or “Are you certain you wish to cancel the entire account?” Shouldn’t there have been a big flashing red light on the screen that said, “Danger, Will Robinson!”?
Now, lest this seem a mere rant, let me circle around to a point: Sometimes we think our errs aren’t that big a deal. But if our missteps don’t coincide with the ideals that make our brands, then they are a big deal. Here are three important steps to consider if you ever mess up (you won’t, but just in case):
- Own up to the err. Acknowledge first to yourself that you made a mistake or used poor judgement. Then you can admit your mistake to others as needed. But you have to be convinced first. Fake apologies won’t cut it.
- Be honest about what happened. With yourself and with anyone who has been negatively influenced by your choice. Don’t go overboard here. Don’t take responsibility for more than you did. But don’t minimize your mistake. Just call it as it happened and for what it is.
- Apologize. Simply and straightforwardly.
- Make it right. Apologize where you need to. Fix the problem. Make amends. Ask what it would take to make it better.
You don’t have to be perfect to be coherent. Just honest.
Institutions need to bring marketing in house. You may be surprised to hear that from someone who makes his living on doing the work of marketing on your behalf. I’m speculating, but any higher ed marketing firm that isn’t thinking about the future—yours and their own—isn’t thinking very much. The gist of our conversations go like this: if higher ed matures to the point of recognizing the relative importance of marketing and how they can and should accomplish that task in house with skilled professionals, for what services should they come to us?
In a day of high expectation for accountability, it makes fiscal sense to bring certain marketing activities in-house, specifically functions that are economically feasible. More specifically, I mean to say that institutions that invest in a proper marketing team should be creating marketing and sales tools for the income generating divisions (gifts, enrollment). Building a remarkable team, a bevy of freelancers and an efficient production process, will save you money and time. For (a not so sexy) example, let’s say you have a firm of record, and those pesky postcards come up. That firm is going to charge you $2000 a piece for those (we’ve done the research, and yes, everyone hates them). How many postcards do you have to pay for before you could’ve hired a designer with that money?
If you made this far into the post you’re thinking, “he’s going to tell me to pay for something next.” Not yet.
Here are more things that you shouldn’t go outside for:
Institutional data collection (including scrutiny of your competitors)
Most writing and design
Anything with “social media” in it
You’ll also note that most of these things are on our list of services. And, I’ll add that we do those things very (very) well. Which leads me to the next point.
In the future, someone will (still) take your money
The future marketing firm specializing in higher ed will fall into one of a few camps:
- Some will rush to tools that can’t be economically supported by an institution, such as call centers, boxed marketing automation products and CRMs or other “gadgets” that assist in implementation.
- Some will offer the same services that an in-house team can offer, but meet demand for increased capacity. Meaning, the institution has need to outsource design implementation (regardless of medium).
- A select few will achieve “boutique” design shop (shoppe?) status.
The good ones
Others will focus on marketing services that institutions cannot provide to themselves. From my perspective, here those are (in order):
- Interpretation of experience to expression
Most institutions I encounter struggle with this the most, knowingly or unknowingly. They simply cannot view their services objectively enough to measure true value. Higher ed, by nature, is insular. And for the most part, missions are written to be insular, but the relative importance of what we say and do cannot be seen purely from the inside. One example of this is institutions organizing themselves by delivery method. Objectively, that’s not a good plan, but from the inside, it makes perfect sense.
You don’t have to look far for the evidence: the keywords on your pole banners are likely the same as an institution 100 miles or 1000 miles (or maybe only 10) from your campus. Everyone is promoting the same thing, in the same way, utilizing the same language. Part of this is subconscious pack mentality (what benefit is there in behaving differently?), but that’s the point: it’s not conscious. It’s mostly a lack of perspective. Part of what a well-positioned higher ed marketing firm will offer is the benefit of working with hundreds of institutions and that should come to bear on the engagement.
Interpretation of experience to expression
The sum of the first two informs how the actual experience should translate into external and internal expressions. This all needs to happen in sequence: an objective evaluation of the institution, with the benefit of macro perspective, leading to a true interpretation of what you do to what you say you do and how you say it. At RHB, we call that coherence. The expressions, of course, vary widely. They can be brand books (we call them coherence manifests), experience design, focused consulting, key passages of language or sensory expressions. I contend that the best deliverable must be something that provides clear guidance and is perpetuating. Meaning, your firm can leave you, only to return when you need to reevaluate anything on those three measures.
In some ways, this post is a Jerry Maguire moment. It’s affirming our commitment to helping clients in ways that they cannot help themselves. I do believe, if more institutions were to focus on gaining these three types of intelligence, internal marketing teams would be sufficiently equipped to create, deploy and maintain marketing and sales initiatives in a viable way. And that’s good for everyone.
Ruckus. I love this word; the sound of it alone describes its meaning. Actually ruckus is a relatively new term; it’s only about 125 years old, which is pretty young for a word, actually. And it’s likely that it was derived from two words: “ruction,” which means “a noisy fight or an uproar”; and “rumpus,” which is “a noisy commotion.” Someone combined the two and came up with “ruckus,” “a disturbance.” We say “raising a ruckus” when we mean someone is creating a disturbance of some kind. And we are living in a great ruckus: fiscal cliffs, 99percenters, an unsettled Middle East, threats of nuclear armament, hurricanes and mounds of snow, and that growing body of knowledge and technology with which we can’t possibly keep pace.
The Army has a term they use to refer to environments of tremendous challenge. They call it VUCA: Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous. At the Army College, they teach how to respond, how to cope and how to work through VUCA settings such as battlegrounds. The current communications landscape may feel a bit like a battleground for you. Trying to get the attention of your constituents, let alone your close friends, and capturing the eye of those you wish to reach can seem insurmountable.
When you consider how much data there is the world to weed through, it’s no wonder those of us in the communication world are a bit, shall we say, “different.” The amount of information can make finding the truth somewhat elusive—difficult at best. We live in a confusing world in a confusing time.
That’s why coherence is so important.
I remember attending a conference about 25 years ago and the speaker suggested that soon many of us would suffer exhaustion from information overload. I think I may have laughed a little when I heard that thinking “how could information exhaust me?”
“Bring it on,” said I.
Not long after the conference, I remember thinking, “You know, there may be truth to that…”
Today, I’m sometimes exhausted trying to sort through all the information in search of truth; you know, the stuff I can really count on. And hence, the need for coherence.
The amount of information available to each of us is increasing by the second. This tsunami of information overload offers tremendous challenges for us. Specifically, the amount of available digital information increases tenfold every five years. A total of five exabyte’s* of data existed in 2003… meaning we accumulated that much data in roughly 4.5 billion years. Today, we generate the same amount of data every two years. Currently, it’s estimated that the amount of information in existence is around 1.27 zettabytes* or the equivalent to 4 trillion books. To help illustrate that, let’s suppose each of the books of information were an inch thick. That being the case, with the amount of information available today we could stack books on shelf that would extend around the earth more than 2500 times. You can’t even imagine that, can you?
I’m pretty sure most of that information has come to my inbox in the past month.
If you are like me, you may be overwhelmed by all the information available to you. And you can be certain you are not alone. Your customers are likewise overwhelmed.
And it is your job to achieve two seemingly opposite tasks:
- Help your customers weed through information to clarify and simplify so they are not overwhelmed (and you don’t get lost in their tsunami!); and
- Overwhelm them with your spectacularness. (I give you permission to use that word, though others will choose “spectacularity.”)
On one hand, you want your customers not to be overwhelmed and, on the other hand, you want to overwhelm them. Well, you want to really impress them to the degree they don’t forget you.
Let me suggest that you overwhelm your customers with the truth. Give them data, give them facts, and give them information on which they can rely. Tell your great story straight up. Doing so will build your trust and a relationship that will yield the dividends you seek. Data and facts aren’t necessarily boring—use them because they are part of your great story. Use them to tell the truth.
*KNOW YOUR BYTES
You are probably smart, but can you tell your friend how many zeroes are behind the 1 in a yottabyte of data?
megabyte 1000 2
gigabyte 1000 3
terabyte 1000 4
petabyte 1000 5
exabyte 1000 6
zettabyte 1000 7
yottabyte 1000 8
With May 1 in the rearview, most institutions are carefully calculating the incoming class for the fall. “Carefully optimistic” is what we’re hearing from most of our clients, moderately sure of the current count, but uncertain of what the summer will bring both good and bad. While the reasons for confidence heading into the summer vary, one thing is for sure: decisions are getting later and later. I think we can attribute this to three factors:
Families have more control than they have had in the buying process. They are (broadly) more knowledgeable and have access to information about their options. They have less money than they’ve had in many years and are inclined to scrutinize (they would describe it as “due diligence”) their options before purchasing.
All of this action occurs on their timeframe, making arbitrary deadlines mute (see: May 1 and most other “transactional” deadlines). Institutions are losing confidence for a very good reason: they no longer control information or the length of the engagement. This is just plain data: May 1 doesn’t matter to the consumer and frankly doesn’t matter to institutions all that much.
In an effort to secure sales (there, I said it), institutions hype (oh, I meant, overemphasize) the decision to apply and attend as though it is the biggest decision ever. It’s indeed important, but probably not as important as some other life choices. While there is data to suggest that the decision is significant, from the consumer perspective, this is a fallacy. And, you’ve heard us say this before: if it’s not true, not trustworthy, exchange won’t happen.
Further, the college “trial period” is in full effect: a third of students are attending more than one college on their way to a four-year degree. A quarter of those are switching states in the process. This “swirling*” is mostly justified by the media as related to the cost of attendance. I interject: institutions are courting students to make the “decision of a lifetime” when the options are nearly the same. I won’t say the same, but VERY nearly the same. If this parity is as obvious as the consumer sees, to what end does committing early benefit them? And if option A is only slightly better (or different) than option B, how can an institution really be confident that they will attend and persist?
From an evolutionary perspective, everything is speeding up. From culture to climate, everything is changing more quickly. I didn’t make this up. Things that we wanted yesterday are obsolete today (see: my used-to-be-awesome TV and to a lesser extent, my goth phase). Options we had yesterday also multiply overnight. This amplification can be extended to MOOCs, proliferation of program offerings and whatever “the next big thing” is or will be.
In addition, the speed at which negative events are occurring delays decision-making. Your warehouse can collapse, your government can audit you arbitrarily and your admission office can fall into a sinkhole: right now. All of these elements manifest themselves as consumer indecision. Psychologically, indecision is the consequence of fear (from our animal brains), which essentially means, “I don’t want to make a mistake.”
None of this is particularly new information, nor does it significantly change the fact that at some point, institutions need to have some measure of who is coming in the fall. But that need for certainty on the part of the institution is being deflected onto the consumer as a superficial mandate. And in an era when every one hates colleges and universities, this seems antithetical to how institutions should behave.
To a larger detriment, institutions are actually embracing parity and ignoring any benefit that would result from being distinctive. It can be assumed that if the offerings were fundamentally different, then the certainty of the decision more definitive. Finally, as indecision is the result of a primal fear for making a mistake, then wouldn’t it behoove institutions to combat fear with love?
Realizing that superficial similarities can mask important underlying differences is a key point to remember no matter what culture you’re adapting to.
Saw this line today at the close of an entry in HBR and tried to memorize it. That’s a powerful and important statement. The author, Andy Molinksy at Brandeis, was writing about the nuances of cultural differences between US and British business behaviors. While in the US we reward strong outward expression, Brits tend to communicate with more reserved and understatement. In the US, everything is “Great!”; in the UK, you’re more likely to hear, “Fine.”
Of course, I was reading the article with a different lens, thinking about the chasm between higher ed and its significant audiences of prospective students and parents and donors.
In terms of student recruitment, higher ed is clearly casting a wider net with increased efforts to attract an international market. Now, more than ever, we need to be certain we know how to bridge cultural divides. But let’s not forget that often that chasm is no farther away than down the street from campus. Sometimes the mores of higher ed can stand in the way of effective connection and communication with the culture outside the Ivory Tower.
Colleges and universities are learning the importance of speaking with language that captures the attention of those with less exposure to our hallowed halls. Higher ed is beginning to create experiences that build relationships. Still, we seem perplexed when families aren’t clamoring to join our ranks.
I went online to read a paper that Molinsky wrote outlining a model for encouraging and equipping those who must interact in cross-cultural environments. He concludes that while an organization may desire to be more cross-culturally adept, the organization depends on individuals to manage the interactions and relationships that are vital to the organization’s success. He writes, “In order for organizations to succeed, the individuals who work on their behalf must be adept at functioning successfully in foreign cultural settings, particularly in foreign cultural interactions.”
One of our important assignments in admissions, advancement, marketing and communications offices on campus is to ensure that those professionals who represent the institution know their audiences very well and are equipped to effectively adapt language and behavior to connect with those we’re trying to convince. Let’s not assume the way we do it on campus is always attractive or understood.
Sam, Shawn and I hosted a lunch at the Granville Inn with 15 of our Denison University clients. Not everyone we work with or have worked with at Denison during that time was able to come to lunch. Nonetheless, it was a memorable gathering.
We celebrated our 25th anniversary of working together. Actually, I began work with Denison in 1986 to redesign the alumni magazine, so technically it was our 27th anniversary. We were also celebrating Vice President and Director of Admissions Perry Robinson’s 25th anniversary at Denison.
Not many of my peers have opportunity to celebrate that milestone with their clients. Twenty-five years is a remarkably long time in consulting years. We live in a world where quick fixes, in-and-out remedies and short-term engagements are the norm. The average tenure of a CMO today is 3.5 years. And with administrative shifts, client-agency relationships tend to dissolve at similar speed. So celebrating a quarter century of collaboration is more than significant.
It was great to see our Denison friends around the table and to reflect on the experiences and efforts that make our relationship so powerful. We tripped down memory lane with a ten-minute review of alumni magazines, viewbooks, posters, inaugural programs, donor books, annual fund appeals and bits of correspondence (selected from our archive of hundreds of exchanges). We have done amazing work together with even more amazing results. It’s thrilling to review what happens when smart people work together.
Putting heads together to achieve goals and conquer challenges is indeed rewarding. Today we celebrated that endeavor. More importantly, we celebrated the dynamic of putting hearts together…using our shared passion for a great cause to move an entire institution forward. We celebrated the process of building trust with one another. We celebrated the results of respectful relationships. We celebrated our friendships that working side by side has forged. Thanks Denison for making us better. Congratulations to you on your remarkable growth and achievements. Here’s to another 25—er, 27—years!
I can’t help it. I eavesdrop on interesting conversations. I try not to; but they can be so compelling. I hear words like “not for profit” or “higher ed” or the name of a college or university and they’re like magnets for my ears. I’m particularly non-resistant to the dialog between Millennials. I’m still learning their language and mindsets, so I try to practice understanding whenever I can. I haven’t resorted to “Please speak in Millennial so I can practice” yet like I do with Italians in Italy about their beautiful language. So for now I just eavesdrop and hope I’m not discovered. Espionage can be so delicate.
This morning I was in Starbucks near the capitol in Washington, D.C. I was reading email and sending texts but then I heard, “need experience” and “any openings at all” and I knew I was seated next to a recent college grad who was chatting with a barely older window of opportunity. As much as I could quickly decipher, Barely Older worked for an NFP and Recent Grad wanted a way into a position. If that weren’t enough to grip my attention, Barely Older uttered, “We’re all about creating a Movement” and it took every ounce of discipline not to just rest my head in my fist and stare. He went on to say that the unnamed NFP’s mission and vision were all focused on creating this Movement (Isn’t this awful that I can tell you details about the conversation? I’m a listener by profession and darn good at investigation, so this shouldn’t come as a surprise.). As Barely Older envisioned the future of his organization and the success of the Movement, Recent Grad’s enthusiasm showed in her inflections. (Okay, then I had to look and her eyes were dancing as she leaned forward.)
I started thinking about how often I’ve heard people talk about starting a Movement. Nobody’s satisfied to just work out a mission. Nobody wants to just be part of doing the work it takes to achieve goals. We want company. We want to enlist an army. We want others to share our passions. I love the energy and fire that represents. We need Millennials to lead us forward. We need people who can lead a Movement.
It’s possible that “Movement” is just an expression of the times. Maybe someday we’ll look back on that word like we do now with “groovy.” Still, the spirit of that expression reminds me very much of a time that seems long ago when my friends and I were “Revolution”-izing anything we could wrap our arms around. And we shared that same energy, spirit and passion I heard in Starbucks this morning. I started thinking about what we really Revolutionized. I suppose we moved the needle a bit. I’m hoping that those engaged in Movements will take us farther. I’m going to practice using that word in a sentence.