Navigating higher ed.  institutional positioning by pinpointing your key horizontal & vertical differentiators. Navigating higher ed.  institutional positioning by pinpointing your key horizontal & vertical differentiators.

If you want to stand out, you have to stand for something. But in today’s higher ed. landscape, ‘what’ you stand for is a tough sell internally. And externally? You’ve got your work cut out for you. 

Yet, it’s crucial in today’s increasingly global, über-competitive market to differentiate yourself. After all, it’s a comparative culture. Often, students choose to enrol in your institution because they see something different that appeals specifically to them — and doesn’t compare to any other institution.

There’s no doubt that planting a flag in higher education is an undertaking. Because by saying that your institution does one thing well, it’s easy for people to think it’s the only thing you do well. 

But you excel in many areas. So how do you market all of them? 

You drive with a leading wedge, whether through horizontal or vertical differentiation. A leading wedge is just that: It’s your lead, and it wedges the door open for more offerings to be discovered.

In your differentiation strategy you have a choice: Go vertical or go horizontal. Which way should your institution go?

Horizontal differentiation is most often rooted in the experience your institution offers.

If your school delivers something that would apply broadly, across all programs and faculties, then it’s a likely horizontal differentiation opportunity. It’s also usually experiential in nature, rather than academic. Think small class sizes, a focused undergraduate experience, or unique location. It’s more of a strategic pull, rather than an academic offer.

Unfortunately, horizontal differentiation is tough to own because it’s likely other schools offer similar experiences. Though, getting internal buy-in can be easier because the differentiator is such that a majority can get behind it.

For example, if your school touts a nurturing, inclusive student experience, your horizontal differentiation might be your small class sizes. Small class sizes foster closer relationships and hands-on learning.

Horizontal differentiation isn’t specialization in the true sense. Rather, it has the potential to suggest specialization from an ideological perspective.

And yes, there are times when an institution infuses both a distinctive academic offering and a strategic focus. We call these differentiators a unicorn horizontal. These are institutions whose overarching institutional belief is centred around an ideology like social justice, for example.

They say the pursuit of social justice is core to their purpose, and they have the academic offerings to boot. For instance, their premier programs that align with their social justice values could include human rights law, research focused on global access to clean water, and a centre for reconciliation. 

If your institution stands for something specific and backs it up with a broad array of aligned offerings, you’re a unicorn. And we’d like to study you.

Vertical differentiation offers a payoff that’s worth the risks.

Vertical differentiation is specialization in the truest sense. And it’s a lot easier for an institution to define because it’s a specific differentiator in a given area, something very few (or no) other institutions can prominently claim. It’s what we call a “first, most, best, only” type of differentiator — meaning, if you can use one of those adjectives, you’ve likely got a vertical you can leverage.

It’s harder, however, to gain widespread buy-in by virtue of said specialization.

If your institution is number one in MS research, NASA awards, or a premier law school, there’s your vertical. It’s what earns your school the most attention, and it’s the reason some of your most outstanding profs, researchers and students vie to come to your institution.

The challenge with vertical differentiators is they inevitably leave a lot of your programs, faculties and students out. Internal buy-in isn’t as easy to get because not everyone can wave that flag. But the payoff is the undeniable differentiator that sets you apart. That kind of big differentiator suggests institutional excellence. Period. That means it has the potential to elevate the perception of entire institution.

Stack your institution’s messaging strategy with boulders, rocks, and pebbles.

So you’ve chosen your horizontal or vertical differentiators. Excellent. Either way, your leading wedge needs to be your best differentiator. But your supporting offerings matter, too. And they belong in your messaging.

To help you define that lead, and the multitudes to support it, use this Boulders, Rocks, and Pebbles exercise.

  • Boulders. Start by listing your boulders. Your boulders are the big, inimitable, extremely distinctive aspects of your institution. If you’re planning on going vertical, one boulder will be bigger than the others. In the end, you should have no more than three. Be judicious. If you end up listing a dozen, then either a.) You’re not being honest with yourself, or b.) You’re Harvard (Hi, Harvard!) 
    Having trouble? Here’s a hint: If your boulders don’t line up with your strategic plan, you may be doing one or the other wrong. Your marketing plan and your strategic plan should be in complete alignment. Full stop.
  • Rocks: Rocks are important areas in which your institution is strong — even excellent. They are often the reason students choose you, but they’re not necessarily unique to you. It doesn’t mean they’re less important, but overall they’re less distinctive to lead with. Therefore, rocks ride shotgun.
  • Pebbles: These are your table stakes offerings but they can be a deciding factor for a student considering two or more schools with comparable rocks. They probably aren’t headline-worthy but are nonetheless important to mention. If you don’t, people will notice. Often, they’re the checklist items: Great dorm life, campus safety, overall respected reputation. Pebbles take a backseat.

Simple enough? Then let’s get more complex… If you find yourself with a lot of pebbles that relate to each other, they can become a mini-horizontal differentiation and therefore should move up to the rocks category. And enough aligned rocks could even add up to a boulder.

Rock on: Look for your institution’s hidden horizontals.

If you find you have a bunch of rocks that appear to be connected functionally or thematically, you may actually have uncovered a idealogical horizontal differentiator.

For example, you may not even realize that your school has a values-based focus like social justice or environmental sustainability. But once you look at your programs, you could see you have an emphasis on environmental law. Perhaps in the sciences, you have a slew of researchers who are working on water conservation or ecosystem management. And incidentally your on-campus recycling program is top-notch too.

If you keep looking deeper and discover a common ideological thread between otherwise unrelated programs, you’ve uncovered a link. And it’s a link you should leverage. 

Leave no stone unturned and secure hard-to-get buy-in. 

Categorizing your institution’s offerings through the boulders, rocks, and pebbles exercise puts things into perspective for internal audiences from whom you need to earn buy in. It gives an explanation as to why some programs are more promoted than others, for example. And it gives everyone a place.

Stakeholders can look at the boulders, rocks, and pebbles to gain better understanding of how each has value to your institution. As long as everyone is acknowledged in the process and can see themselves represented somewhere, you win. And they buy in.

Your institution has more differentiation than you think, whether you find it vertically, horizontally, or in a pile of rocks. As you define what makes your institution unique, you pave the way for everyone to find something they can rally around and get excited about. And attract the right-fit students who can see where they fit in.

In today’s constant rank-and-compare culture, standing out will help you rise to the top of lists. And that starts by declaring and owning what makes you you.

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