Your strategy is showing: Why your marketing campaigns should be based on ideas, not just design. Your strategy is showing: Why your marketing campaigns should be based on ideas, not just design.

Differentiation is one of the most challenging aspects of higher education marketing. Is your school known for academic excellence? So are hundreds of others. Is your brand about transforming lives through inclusivity and education? Heard that before. Are you shaping the future with ground-breaking research? Educating the regional population to drive economic prosperity? The list goes on.

All of these are critical purposes fulfilled by higher education institutions. But none of them are unique enough to differentiate one from another. 

Listen, we get it. It’s almost as challenging for a university as it is for an advertising agency. To our prospective clients, like to your prospective students, we all sound the same. Maybe we even say the same things. 

But if your school is looking at embarking on a new marketing campaign to truly set you apart and take your institution to the next level – for student recruitment, fundraising, or faculty recruitment – that’s a challenge we’re familiar with and have ideas that will help.

I’m not going to repeat why differentiation is more critical now than ever. We did that in a previous article, which you can and should read here. Today, I’m going to tell you the secret to true, differentiated success for your brand.

A big idea.

Why ideas matter most when marketing your higher education institution.

Now that’s not truly a secret. The BIG IDEA has been revered and sought after by advertising creatives since the 1960s. It’s fallen into a bit of disrepute lately as marketers stampede toward data and tactics: many of them have left ideas in the dust, thinking that they are no longer necessary. But even if you’re a data-driven marketer, you can’t truly make a difference without a great idea behind your marketing campaign. 

Data and tactics on their own are not effective when your audience is comparing undifferentiated choices.

University and college marketers are trying to influence important and life-changing decisions. Which school should I attend? Which university will best suit my research goals? Where will my financial gift have the greatest impact? And data and tactics on their own are not effective when your audience is comparing undifferentiated choices — especially when there is a lot at stake.

Regardless of how you reach your audience, your marketing must be based on an idea that resonates, differentiates and activates. 

So how do you arrive at that big idea? The short answer is giving us a call. Long answer to follow….

The real secret is being able to tell the difference between good graphic design and good advertising. Good graphic design is ubiquitous. Good advertising is not.

Design is based on principles and structure. Yes, it takes creativity to do it well, but it’s about organizing and presenting information in ways that make it visually pleasing and easier for the audience to understand. If you are only differentiating yourself with a unique look — using colour, typography, patterns and other visual devices — your brand is essentially devoid of a voice. Without the underpinning of an idea, you’re like that guy we all know who always looks great, but has nothing interesting to say.

An example of this is a positioning campaign we did some years ago for the University of Manitoba. We didn’t change the logo. We didn’t change the brand guidelines. We didn’t change the colour scheme. We changed the idea. How did we do it?

Research into national awareness of the university revealed that Canadian high school students and their parents knew very little about the school beyond their top-of-mind impressions of the province itself — cold, flat, remote, a tough environment. This led to the insight that only the resilient can thrive in challenging conditions, and the subsequent campaign idea: “where you are shapes who you are.” The creative from the campaign embraced what the audience knew about the school and its location. 

A big idea does more than provide information to students and alumni.

Ideas in the advertising context are built on insights. Insights come from truly understanding where the offer of the brand and the desires of the audience intersect. Advertising uses insight to convey an idea, rather than only make you look good.

Assuming your brand is in place, you’ve already created a differentiated brand promise with a compelling narrative, and you’ve got values and purpose statements nicely bound up in the brand book on your desk. 

Now you have to figure out how to really get attention and create results. This is where most campaigns fall apart. 

Where the branding process ends is not the end of the journey. The branding process articulates who you are and what you want your audiences to believe about you. But the words, statement and strategies that you’ve developed to define your brand will not necessarily evoke that impression in your audience. That’s where the big idea comes in.

Red River College, Manitoba’s leading trade and technical higher education institution, came to us for a campaign to help lay the groundwork for a capital campaign. They had a very solid reputation in the community for training trades and educating professionals, including many of our team at ED. 

In discovery, we uncovered the insight that donors and alumni — who might have attended decades previously — were, by and large, unaware that the school had evolved well past its roots as a skills and trade training institution. As a member of the client team said recently in a LinkedIn post, the campaign idea embodied in the tagline, “What we’re doing is working” quickly and concisely “crystallizes something we already knew, deep down inside of us, and put it into a few simple words.” 

Three students under a tree: Why so many higher education campaigns look the same.

Compare apples to apples — compare the branded materials of your institutional peer group. I think it’s safe to say that, with maybe a few notable exceptions, you’re likely observing a sea of sameness. They all use variations of the same approach. Beauty shots of the campus in fall. Staged photos of students and faculty looking at the camera. Groups of students under trees, holding laptops. Headlines and copy promising a brighter future. A better world. 

The look could be hip and youthful or stately and dignified. The language could be bold or reserved. The media could be traditional or digital. The stylistic approach doesn’t matter. 

If the branded communication doesn’t have a powerful idea that grabs you with something unique, interesting or compelling about that school, then it is design and not advertising. Maybe it’s even great design and good copy writing. But it’s not advertising, and it’s less likely to be remembered or evoke the brand you’re hoping it will.

By investing in a big idea for your marketing campaigns, you’re doing your audiences a favour. The right idea will not “sell” your prospects or convince them to do something they may not otherwise have done. It’s not persuading – it’s about finding the right fit. 

Big ideas say something specific, and so they appear to be risky. Your big idea may not appeal to everyone. But if it’s done right, it will appeal to the right audiences. It will help qualify leads, and lead to conversions.

Booth University College came to us to help express their purpose in their marketing materials. This small, niche and socially justice-driven school was all about attracting the right students who shared their purpose — education for a better world. We leveraged this purpose in an idea-based positioning narrative that introduced the unique notion of, “We don’t believe in an easy world, we believe in a better world.”

How to uncover a big idea to inform your institution’s marketing strategy.

I’m a firm believer that big ideas are uncovered, not created. You don’t make them up out of thin air. They present themselves after discovery, discussion and deep thought. 

All schools have something interesting and unique that will reveal itself, which leads to uncovering a big idea that builds their brand and reputation. Whether it’s research or alumni achievement, touting the quality of their faculty, showcasing unique attributes of the campus, or a deeper story.

So why do the vast majority of schools end up looking alike in their branded materials, using the same language and visual approach as their competitors? Why choose a field of sameness, making it challenging for the right prospects to identify the right choices for themselves?

At ED, we have a proven process that helps higher education marketers uncover the big idea that will transform their institution. 

  1. Discovery — We examine all available data about your audiences and determine what they truly need from you.
  2. Strategy — Our strategy team pushes past the discovery inputs and digs into the data to find alignments and insights that can be used to make you uniquely differentiated.
  3. Storytelling — We weave your brand into a resonant and inspiring narrative that is infused with your values, your purpose and your character.
  4. Creative — All of the work we do has to end up in a compelling and creative idea that cuts through the clutter and gets you noticed. 

The connection of all four elements is critical. If your discovery is ineffective your strategy will be weak. If your strategy doesn’t hit the mark your story won’t resonate. And finally, if the creative isn’t truly special nobody will listen. 

And so, after all the work to pull your campaign together, how do you be sure that you have a BIG idea, an idea powerful enough to anchor your brand for the next 3 to 5 years?

There’s one easy test. It moves you. Maybe it even makes you a little uncomfortable. Because it reveals who you are as a school and often in ways you hadn’t realized because you’re too close to it.

ED. helped crystallize something we already knew, deep down inside of us, and put it into a few simple words.
Conor Lloyd,
Director, College and Public Relations, Red River College

That’s the secret sauce we have at ED — at every phase of the process, we know how to work together to show you how great you really are, and to get your big idea into the minds and hearts of your audience.

If you’d like to talk more about how you can uncover the idea that will make your school stand apart, we’re here to help.

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