Last week’s announcement from University of Oregon President Michael Schill to cut short a branding and advertising contract in order to cut costs and centralize marketing efforts may be one indication, and perhaps the first expression of a trend, that higher ed’s investments in marketing may be off course. Schill is admittedly satisfied with his vendor’s work to date, but wants to redirect funds invested in marketing to academic and research pursuits of higher priority. “There is a vast amount of duplication, redundancy, waste,” at the University, Schill is reported as saying. “We’re getting better. We are not retrenching.”
Higher ed has always been criticized for not “behaving more like a business” and the arguments have been made for the distinctive “non-business” nature of the business of higher ed. One business area that higher ed has seemingly glommed onto, however, is the investment in promotion. Higher ed has gone crazy for “branding.” Too crazy.
The unsettling part of the 2016 AMA HE Symposium
I didn’t tweet once during this year’s HE Symposium in Chicago. It was a good conference and attracted the largest audience of HE marketers in its history (1300). I was particularly smitten by keynote speaker Sergio Alcocer, president and creative director of LatinWorks, who contextualized the growing Hispanic population in the US and gave historical insights to move us in the direction of inclusivity.
Still, throughout my few days there (admittedly I had to leave a little early), I had recurring uneasiness. I think I know why. Every session—even the good ones—focused on the promotional quadrant of the four Ps. We heard about solid plans and processes. We heard about emerging technologies that will change the game. We were exposed to some beautiful campaigns and logos and videos and websites. We learned how to partner with and manage vendors. We heard how to cooperate with others on campus (especially IT), and we learned how to make better use of social media. We even heard opinions about what “the kids” want to hear and how to deliver it. All of the helpful information was about defining, crafting and telling our stories.
What I didn’t hear, however, was any counsel on shaping products or services that consumers want, or determining price to match buyers’ sense of value or (outside of some online delivery tech talk) anything about managing delivery. Among 1300 marketers, you’d think those would be popular topics. They’re not. Or at least they didn’t seem to be at this year’s Symposium.
What I didn’t hear was instruction about positioning. In fact, positioning is the primary job for marketers. Knowing your institution and your competition (not just your aspirant institutions, but especially those to whom you lose students and donors) well enough to carve a distinctive market “place” and “share” is the primary work of higher education marketing. The beautiful news is that your market position is the only thing over which you have much control. (You do not control your brand; your customers establish that by their encounters with you. You choose your position and coherently give sufficient evidence that the position you have selected is true.)
I understand that it’s difficult (if not impossible) to affect change to the product, price or place components of the marketing mix. And because that’s hard work, no one wants to discuss it. Or, apparently, imagine it. That’s too bad. Because changing those things might revolutionize higher ed in a way that would pave the road to a brighter future.
And I know that changing promotion is faster and easier. I heard of lot of “We need a new tagline.” “Our website needs to be refreshed.” “We need to do more with social media.” “We need an advertising budget.” at AMA this year. Maybe so. But at a premier meeting of exceptional and professional marketers, you’d think you’d also hear things like “We need to offer programs students will buy.” “We need to know if families believe we offer a value.” “We need to think of how we can use our facilities between 7 and 10 am and during the summer months.” I didn’t hear any of that. And frankly, I find it disturbing. As marketers, AMA participants should not be confusing marketing with promotion. If we are having a marketing conference, let’s talk about marketing—not just promotion.
I was having breakfast with my friend John Lawlor during the conference and I went on a little rant about this. He handed me his excellent take on the topic. His insight posted last October about marketing misalignment in higher education was spot on. John is talking about Coherence in this great post. I love this: “Advertising and increased awareness can only pay off if students find what they were told about a college matches the actual experience they have there.”
Five Questions to ask:
As you examine investments for the new year and start thinking about your 2017 budget, it might be good to think like Michael Schill for a bit. I do not know what questions he asked before redirecting marketing dollars at Oregon, but these may have been on his mind:
- How accurately are we positioned in the market? Do we own a specific place? What can or do we deliver that no other school does better than us?
- What’s the most important way we can ensure that what we deliver is consistent with our mission and values and vision?
- Does shouting our message do any good?
- How can we make better impressions by authentically delivering on our claims?
- Do we know if our customers consider us a great value? And do they trust us to deliver the best education possible?
These are great questions to ask. And, as the competitive pressure mounts for higher education, focusing on all the elements of marketing—not only promotion—will become paramount in your efforts.
Download the worksheet: Competition/Position Selling Points
You need to do this.
You might not enjoy what I’m asking you to do, but you’ll thank me for it later.
I think I just heard you say, “Riiiight.”
One of the most significant investments in finding your institution’s one and only place in the universe will be taking a good look at your competitors’ claims. Not long ago we analyzed the data in our higheredtaglines.com and found that among taglines for nearly 3000 institutions, only 180 different words were used. For the most part, colleges and universities are telling the same stories.
It’s time for yours to stand apart.
Here’s a worksheet that includes an assignment for someone on your campus. Start with the top ten competitors you have identified in previous exercises in our series, A Guide to Marketing Coherently in Higher Education. Investigate the primary marketing messages, claims or key selling propositions of these ten institutions. You will find the key messages in marketing materials, annual reports, alumni magazines and very quickly on websites. Don’t make this more difficult than it needs to be. By quick review, your research will uncover the messages that your competitors deem important and distinguishing (whether or not they truly are is the point of this exercise!).
In the worksheet that we’ve created for you, list the top four marketing messages for each of the ten competitors in the spaces provided. The key here is to summarize their messages in a few words. Some competitors might promote two or three key messages; others might have more. It’s fine to use your best judgment to determine which ones to include.
Now comes the fun part. For each message and for each competitor determine which ones overlap with your institution’s key messages. You can pick up your own institution’s key messages from this worksheet in order to compare.
After you have determined which of your messages are distinctly different from others, discuss the following with your team:
- How can we use our “standout” messages to better position us among our competitors?
- How prominently do our distinctive messages play in our marketing efforts?
- For those aspects of our messaging that are not as distinctive, are there strategies or changes we can implement that could bolster their value and become more advantageous?
- Does potential exist to “brand” our distinctive offerings? Do we have a program or offering that could help us become the ONLY place to acquire it? Consider special academic offerings, a specially-designed core curriculum, an institute, a special collection of library holdings, a student success strategy. Could any of these be given its own identity to help distinguish it from what might be offered on other campuses?
- What if we don’t have anything that sets us apart from the competition? (Keep digging…you do have something that distinguishes you; you haven’t looked deeply enough. But let’s say that what you find isn’t enough…) What programs or experiences need to be reworked or created in order to give us a competitive edge?
- Are we telling our story in a way that helps our audiences see us as different in some way from our competitors? What might our audiences say if asked what sets us apart?
Creating a splash serves promotional needs, but that’s only one part of the marketing equation. In order to make exchange—with students, parents, donors, alumni, faculty, neighbors, the government, even the general public—you also have to consider what you’re actually delivering, how and where you’ll deliver it and how much someone will have to pay for it. Marketing requires more than a splash; it requires a careful and sustainable strategy to ensure that it’s just not all noise and mess.
Higher education seems infatuated with marketing right now. I remember a day when you couldn’t even use the “M-word” on campus. Now, it’s de riguer to seek a marketing vice president, especially one from outside the academy.
It’s no wonder. The pressure is on for higher ed. We’re in a period of population decline among high school-aged students in the US and the prospect for the next several years is bleak.
Perhaps out of impatience for higher ed to deliver better data about its value to the economy, the federal government has intervened with more regulation and public reporting to provide “objective” data about performance standards. Parents and donors are requiring greater transparency about outcomes and financial practices. The internet has eliminated all hiding places.
Marketing must be the answer, right?
From the activity we’ve seen of late, creating a splash seems to be considered the solution. We’re observing a proliferation of enormous “marketing campaigns” to capture attention among both private and public institutions. While advertising used to be disdainful for higher ed, now travelers are strangled by posters in airport corridors clamoring for attention toward schools of every ilk.
Investments in single words or short phrases to capture the mission and vision of universities run in the millions of dollars. Yet, if you are like me, you’re tired of taglines and empty expressions of the value of a college education and its significance on society.
Splashes are noisy and messy. They’re disruptive and they get attention. But they don’t last long.
And usually you have to clean up after one occurs.
Waves, on the other hand, are rather constant and dependable. Sure, some days bring bigger waves than others, but there’s always movement. Waves are chiefly created and empowered by the wind. Blow across the top of your coffee cup to see how that works. To create waves, you need a consistent source of wind energy to move waves in the direction of the shore (for the sake of this metaphor, picture your important audiences all lined up at the beach and you’ll get the idea). Once you get that going, the undertow will assist in sustaining a series of waves. There’s more to this metaphor, but we’ll save it for another time.
Rather than merely making huge investments in advertising and snazzy slogans, colleges and universities will be better served by improving customer experiences, offering better programs, equipping better graduates (and citizens), managing resources more effectively, stepping up with greater transparency, and creating more meaningful stories.
Rather than creating a splash, we encourage higher education to make waves.
We think waves are the coherent way for colleges and universities to better position themselves in the market and to create better brand perceptions. The way to make waves is
- Doing what you say you’ll do.
- Repeatedly proving that you are who you say you are.
- Demonstrating that the place you describe is real.
- Giving evidence that your mission matters.
- Delivering on your promises.
- Being honest in your self-assessments.
- Connecting with customers where it has significance for them.
Splashes certainly can be fun. Children love them. But it’s really hard to beat the sound and long-term effect of waves.
Download the worksheet: Position: Us vs. Them
I’ve heard the goofiest comments about competitors on campuses, most of it fueled by rumor: “They’re not as academic as we are.” “We’re more ‘Christian’ than they are.” “Our programs are better.” “We’re clearly more diverse.” When we ask about the evidence to support those declarations, we are rarely supplied with documentation to give credence to the claims. We’ve heard admissions recruiters pick up hearsay and work false information into their “pitches.” (No wonder you suffer from a mushy brand. If the front line sales force succumbs to word-of-mouth, how can we expect our audiences to carry accurate perceptions?)
It’s not surprising that knowledge about the competition isn’t as accurate as it should—and can—be. First, the amount of information necessary to learn about your own institution requires substantial investments of time and attention leaving little time to learn the facts about other schools. Second, as competitors—even though education is fairly open and colleaguial as an industry—colleges and universities play cards close to the chest (or vest, if you prefer) making it difficult to gather data. Third, objectivity is tough.
But let us help with that last issue. Here’s a worksheet to better acquaint you with competitors. Look to the previous two worksheets to identify your top ten competing institutions.
Now, let’s get to know these ten competitors better. Gather data about each of them so you have real facts to compare. Where do you turn to gather this data?
When you have all the facts, look for similarities and differences with your own institution.
- What is your advantage in terms of size of student body?
- Which of your competitors offers the most variety in terms of academic programs? How do you compare?
- Is the structure of your University noticeably different from competitors? How might that benefit your students?
- What about the size of your campus compared to others? Are you more compact or more open than the schools you compete with?
- How does your cost to attend compare with others? What does your price suggest about you in contrast to your competition?
- Do your endowed funds offer positioning power? Does your endowment provide resources that may not be available elsewhere?
- How do you deliver your education: online, offline, or both? Weekends? Evenings? How accessible are you compared to the competition?
- Who offers the most financial assistance? Who offers the largest scholarships? (Perceptions about scholarships often supercede the rationale of bottom line cost.)
- How does your location compare to your primary competitors? How does your competitive set change because of your location?
- How many of your competitors are in your athletic conference? Do you belong to an athletic conference that offers clear advantage or distinction?
- And how about that pesky USNews ranking? How do you compare?
Ask and answer these questions with your team so you all have a clearer picture of the competition. Knowing the competition will help in your sales and recruiting, with your ideating and programming, your asking and receiving, as well as with your writing and designing. Don’t depend on your impressions; really study the competition for better results for your school.
Download the worksheet: Competitive Mission Landscape
Understanding competing institutions’ mission statements will help clarify your school’s market position. Living out your mission with coherence builds the trustworthiness your customers expect.
Every word of your mission statement matters in shaping the choices you’ll make along your coherence journey. Staying true to your mission—remembering why your institution is even on the planet—ensures that you are being “true to your school.”
We’ve discussed your mission statement in the past. Your mission lays the foundation for authenticity. Your mission serves as the measure by which you are judged—by customers and accrediting agencies! Living out your mission in coherent ways builds the trust you need from your customers—students, parents, prospective students, alumni, donors, neighbors and the myriad others you include among your constituents.
Get this: your success depends on how well you know, understand and believe your institution’s mission.
Likewise, having a grasp of the missions of competing institutions will help clarify your institution’s market position among them. What separates you from your peers and competitors? What about your mission and purpose is more attractive than other institutions? Why would new students or new faculty or donors choose you over others? At the heart of the answer to that last question is your mission. What’s your unique or, at least, distinctive reason for being here?
We’ve created a worksheet to help you delve into some study about your mission in comparison or contrast to your competitors.
Begin this worksheet by identifying your top ten competitors from the last worksheet. Which of the colleges and universities that you identified appear to be your greatest competition? Why did you select these ten?
At the top of the worksheet, write your mission statement. Now, for each of your top ten competitors, write their mission statements in the spaces provided.
Next, ask yourself—and your team—these questions:
- What ideas or ideals do we share with competitors?
- What specific words do we share with others?
- What expressions in our mission statement stand apart from others?
- How believable is our mission compared to others?
- Which mission statements are most compelling? Is ours?
- To what do we aspire—and what do we promise by our mission statement—that differentiates from competitors?
When I first began working in admissions in 1979, we automated our direct mail program to ensure that every prospective student received our series of letters and brochures. A data entry specialist entered the names and addresses (no emails or mobile numbers in the olden days!) we received from reply cards or letters or phone calls. The very smart folks behind the mainframe figured out how to produce letters “automatically” based on our carefully planned communications strategy. Each day, Sharon would deliver to my desk stacks of letters to be signed (we considered an automatic signature machine, but we feared my signature would be noticed as “ too perfect” and thus, inauthentic). Someone from our mailing department would come to pick up the letters, stuff them in their corresponding envelopes and mail them. We were amazed by what a series of 1s and 0s allowed us to do.
Still, we complained. It wasn’t fast enough. “Computer Services” (we hadn’t yet labeled it IT) didn’t understand the challenges of recruitment. We couldn’t make our records from admissions connect readily with those in the registrar’s office or student development. Advancement offices weren’t in sync with admissions to link legacies. We didn’t appreciate the manner in which the “computer services” team approached us with a techno-superiority attitude when we met for problem-solving sessions.
This was well before the advent of Internet use for marketing and nearly two decades before customer relationship management was part of everyday vocabulary in the admissions office.
When we visit campuses today, shockingly we still hear the very same complaints about technical solutions. Implementation takes for—ever! IT doesn’t get it. Why can’t we all use the same system? Admissions won’t cooperate because they have specialized needs. Advancement wants to use its own software. Our CRM doesn’t talk to our SIS. You’d think that, given all the growth in IT and the remarkable computing capacity available to higher ed today, the challenges might be less substantial. Or, at least they’d be different than they were in 1979.
Here’s what might have hampered success:
Admissions and Marketing aren’t developing systems together
- About the same time that computing was seen as an aid to recruitment and advancement, the notion of marketing was just beginning to be accepted as part of the higher education’s world. Until the early 80s, you couldn’t say the word “marketing” aloud without raising a ruckus on campus. (Today, many campuses have some variation of a CMO.) The delay in connecting the dots between marketing and computing meant that the externally-focused departments (admissions and advancement) lead a charge that had been previously managed and focused internally.
IT was slow to recognize the value of the internet beyond research
- The Internet forced a shift in campus strategies. Remember that the Internet was borne from desire to share large amounts of data among researchers. IT departments managed campus sites as part of academic computing services. Hence, the practice was to treat the web more as “intranet” than “internet.” As the public was welcomed to the web, the profile of college website users changed significantly to include prospective students, parents, alumni and donors. While the externally-focused campus thinkers imagined the possibilities of the web as a marketing wünderkind, IT departments were slow to adopt marketing as the “face” of campus websites. The technological resources in place were designed for another purpose, causing friction when looking to use the web for external purposes. Consequently, campus marketers argued for their right to manage campus websites as powerful “front doors.”
Relationships haven’t been formed between departments to share data and systems
- At the turn of this century, as the idea that relationships could be managed by use of data, the role of IT began to shift as keepers and managers of data from “cradle to grave” requiring all campus departments to engage in the task of cooperation stemming from their need to access substantial data about “customers.” (Higher ed still resents this word to describe students and donors.) In short, a team dedicated to housing and moving large quantities of data was now asked to foster relationships (even if technical in nature) between divisions.
IT is tactical and reactive instead of proactively strategic
- Since computing systems on campus were initially built for managing academic and financial records, maintaining the historic data has trumped the integration of marketing data. Thus, decisions about implementing new systems has followed a long-held pattern of IT departments collecting “wish lists” from each of the campus departments and then “shopping” for a system that can satisfy the most profound “wish list” items. Inherently, someone is always disappointed that her/his wish list item wasn’t given priority; someone is always miffed. And, by simply asking for and fulfilling “wish lists,” IT wasn’t functioning as an expert. Consequently, IT has more commonly been in the habit of delivering new software and systems for current processes rather than letting new technology inform the strategy.
IT inherits the HED tendency to become institutionalized and slow to change
- As technology moves forward, there seems to be less need for physical hardware (as it becomes smaller, less necessary and data storage moves to the cloud); more roles that can be easily outsourced; or greater capacity to share skills that were once held by a highly-trained few and now are basic competencies for many (such as HTML). Or, tasks that once took a professional were made accessible to the masses (CMS). The point being, for an IT department to be truly modern, it may mean that the department has less (but certainly different) people, less hardware and probably smaller budgets. In order to preserve itself, IT commonly behaves in a way that also preserves an old infrastructure.
It’s time for a better way when it comes to IT for higher education.
She who holds the information, holds the power. For most campuses, IT teams hold the information, but not all the information. Old models of managing data will not hold up in today’s competitive higher education market. Managing power requires a collaborative effort. By observation, collaboration isn’t happening readily on campuses (physical or virtual). At least part of the difficulty of progress—any change or shift in power— must be blamed on the politics of said power. (And, of course, fear of change.) However, in the world of deep-rooted silos and the diminished importance of physical places for learning, all parts of higher ed intersect at technology, a role once only held by IT. Today, nearly everyone on campus has the capacity to develop, manage, or program. In this climate, the role of IT is more profound—and necessarily more critical to the success of any campus.
It’s time for a Visionary CIO (Chief Information Officer). Someone with a 100,000-foot view (not just 30,000) who sees the entirety of the campus networks and creatively suggests effective strategies to achieve institutional goals. This is the opposite of an IT service department that takes orders. This is the opposite of a menacing IT team that hoards and “protects” data. This is the opposite of maintaining status quo. This is about asking “What if…” before saying “We can’t…” This is about seeing possibilities more than obstacles and envisioning empowerment over “control.”
So how might one become a visionary CIO? What characterizes this campus leader?
- The visionary CIO sees herself as part of the relationship-management team. She understands the link between marketing and data management by partnering with critical marketing leaders—institutional research, the president and senior officers, enrollment, advancement, and marketing pros—to derive a compelling story from the data. She understands the connection between marketing objectives and computing efficiencies.
The Visionary CIO will think at the cusp of leading technologies, but acknowledge that “technology” will not always be the answer.
- The visionary CIO is motivated to see the power of IT to serve all constituents, internal and external. Rather than merely gatekeeping information, he will open avenues to imagine how resources can be better used to advance the University at every exchange. He knows how to direct efforts toward ethical use of data to advantage in building relationships.
The visionary CIO will consider opportunities in light of what will achieve broad and significant goals for the University.
- The visionary CIO will be a proactive convener of campus-wide partners to define issues, explore possibilities and offer opportunities for improvements. She helps the organization solve business challenges and understands how to (or more importantly, when NOT to) deploy technology to help in that effort.
The visionary CIO will propose solutions that can shape the way work is done on campus.
- The visionary CIO sees the big picture in light of campus priorities. While seeking efficiencies, he knows that integration of systems may, in fact, require more effort from IT staff that yields better performance for the organization as a whole. When convening colleagues, he will demonstrate the benefits of collaboration, opening the door to new ways of coordinating data management.
The visionary CIO will find efficiencies to the extent that these advance effectiveness.
- The visionary CIO redefines the way the work of technology is done. She considers change from the ground up. She knows when surgery—not a bandaid—is required and confidently flexes to anticipate needs in a rapidly changing future. She will recommend solutions to solve problems even when it means those solutions will change thinking.
The visionary CIO will open and interpret possibilities for departments rather than race to deliver an impossibly long ongoing list of “fixes.”
Regardless of whether you ARE a visionary CIO, WANT TO BE one, or simply NEED one, there’s never been a time when that role has been more necessary on campus.
To the extent that the person in this role on your campus does-or does not- behave in the manner above, you probably find this appealing. So, why not pursue and nurture the CIO in higher education? What risk does this present?
Download the worksheet: Position: Competitive Identifier
In an “ivory tower” universe, institutions of higher ed have traditionally avoided language or concepts that reflect business or sales practices. That is certainly changing as more accountability is required of colleges and universities. Still, we notice our clients shrinking a bit when we mention “selling” or “brand” or “customers” and especially “competitors.” But, frankly, whether we’re comfortable with it or not, every college and university has competitors…even Harvard.
You can think of your competition in many ways. You may have a local or nearby college or university that serves as your primary “rival.” You might even celebrate that rivalry on an athletic field or court each year. In truth, you likely have many competitors: for students (tuition), for gift income and for media attention.
One option often overlooked is the competition that comes from your customers doing nothing: not attending college at all, not giving at all, not caring at all. But that is indeed competition. More competition comes from options open to your customers in other arenas: learning from an internship or apprenticeship or giving to other worthy organizations, for examples.
Given the market’s openness to rethinking the college experience, the competitive floodgates open when you think of all the ways a student can earn a degree: on campus, on line, on weekends or hybrids of all three. It’s not uncommon for students to “swirl” or include several institutions in their college experience—a year here, a year there, a year abroad—all options are open to students. (Savvy universities are offering all of these options to improve retention.)
Needless to say, the competition is intense. This exercise will begin to help you and your team bring the competition into focus. In the next few exercises, you’ll look at evidence to determine where your real competition lies and how you can tell your story in a way that stands up distinctly among your competitors.
We’ll take this a step at a time. To begin, simply start identifying who you think your competitors are. You might need to duplicate this sheet a few times depending on how many alternatives make your list. The questions focus on competitors in the form of other colleges and universities, but keep in mind your customers’ alternatives that may not be a campus or a degree. Answer the questions that you can find in online resources or through your own campus data.
The objective of this first exercise is to simply get a good list of real competitors. Go!
We love NACAC and look forward to meeting up there. In fact, we plan for this gathering all year and we’ve been doing so for 25 years.
This year you won’t find us in the exhibit hall. We’re changing our tactics to better facilitate meeting up.
We’ve been noticing that most of the best conversations we have at NACAC aren’t in the exhibit area. We chat better over coffee or in the bar next door. We see more of our colleagues in the hallways. We have deeper opportunities to learn together in the myriad great sessions that NACAC plans.
And frankly, hosting a booth requires that we’re stationed there instead of where most of the attendees are hanging. Don’t get us wrong—we’ve loved seeing you at our NACAC booth. We just want to be liberated to see more of you.
This year, we look forward to meeting up in different ways: let’s catch up over coffee, deliberate over a drink, or schedule an appointment in RHB’s Marriott Suite. Of course, we’ll still have our annual getaway with clients and friends (this might be the best one ever and if you’ve ever wondered how to get your name on the guest list, you might want to schedule an appointment.)
So what are we doing with the money we’re saving from not exhibiting? We’re reinvesting it in people by offering a registration scholarship and $500 of travel cash to a deserving college or university admission professional. If you or someone you know wants to attend NACAC 2015, but doesn’t have budget for the conference, please complete the nomination form at rhb.com/scholarship.
If you’d like to schedule an appointment while we’re in San Diego, call us at 317-634-2120, email us at email@example.com or visit us online.
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?