Creating a splash or making waves?

Posted on October 29th, 2015 by in Higher Education Marketing | No Comments »

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

  1. Doing what you say you’ll do.
  2. Repeatedly proving that you are who you say you are.
  3. Demonstrating that the place you describe is real.
  4. Giving evidence that your mission matters.
  5. Delivering on your promises.
  6. Being honest in your self-assessments.
  7. 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.

Us vs. Them

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.

Does your mission statement differentiate you?

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:

  1. What ideas or ideals do we share with competitors?
  2. What specific words do we share with others?
  3. What expressions in our mission statement stand apart from others?
  4. How believable is our mission compared to others?
  5. Which mission statements are most compelling? Is ours?
  6. To what do we aspire—and what do we promise by our mission statement—that differentiates from competitors?

Higher Ed needs Visionary CIOs.

Posted on September 10th, 2015 by in Higher Education Marketing | No Comments »

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

  1. 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

  1. 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

  1. 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

  1. 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

  1. 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?

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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?

RHB’s Rick Bailey, Principal, and Sam Waterson, Executive VP and Creative Director, deliver fresh insights about higher education.

Higher Ed competition is intense. Bring yours into focus.

College Towers

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!

Why you won’t find RHB in the NACAC 2015 Exhibit Hall


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

If you’d like to schedule an appointment while we’re in San Diego, call us at 317-634-2120, email us at or visit us online.

Positioning in Higher Ed: Are you a One and Only?

Posted on June 9th, 2015 by in Coherence Workbook | No Comments »

4-oneonly@2xDownload 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.

Core Values: What’s at the heart of your institution?

Posted on April 28th, 2015 by in Coherence Workbook | No Comments »

3-heartofyourinstitution@2xDownload 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.

What are your core values? Worksheet

  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. 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?
  4. 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?
  5. 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 ( of the content of your recent issues. What are the most used words in these publications?
  6. 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?
  7. 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?
  8. 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?

Why in the world are you here?

Posted on April 27th, 2015 by in Coherence Workbook | No Comments »



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 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.

  1. 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.
  2. Looking carefully at these three words, what is the big idea that this trio of words conveys? How do they express your purpose?
  3. 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?
  4. 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?
  5. 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?

Really Know Your Mission: Let’s start from the very beginning.

Posted on March 24th, 2015 by in Coherence Workbook | No Comments »


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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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?
  3. 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.
  4. 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:

  1. Share this study with your colleagues. Engage them in a discussion about the significance of the language of your mission.
  2. Assign a task force to assess the relevance of your mission statement and the institution’s accountability to uphold it.
  3. Determine meaningful ways to assess your commitment to the mission and your customers’ understanding of your distinctive mission.


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