Why higher ed. institutions struggle to stand apart (and why it matters now more than ever). Why higher ed. institutions struggle to stand apart (and why it matters now more than ever).

Think about your higher education institution for a moment, and ask yourself: what is it that’s really different about your college or university?

My fearless prediction is that one or more of the following is going through your mind:

  • We’ve got so-and-so, who’s a foremost authority on such-and-such research area.
  • Speaking of such and such, we’re recognized as a local/national/global centre of excellence in such and such.
  • Among our alumni are this personthat person, and these other people.
  • Our class sizes are big/small/juuuust right.
  • We have really advanced technology, including this whatchamacallit, which is one of only a few in the country/world.

I’d guess you’ll have no trouble filling in the blanks, because for most institutions this is where the differentiation journey starts. But we don’t think that’s where differentiation ends – not by a long shot.

Here’s why: every school you can think of has a list of accomplished names who’ve passed through campus; research or teaching areas specializations; an average class size they can position as ‘optimal’ for the right audience; and/or some fancy technologies they’ve invested in as a competitive advantage. 

So imagine the prospective student who lands on your marketing materials – your ‘list’ – as well as the lists for other competitive institutions they’re considering. You’ve given them permission to make their decision by comparing lists – which may not be the dictionary definition of commoditization, but it’s pretty close.

So let’s talk about differentiation: why it matters and how to do it right. Full disclosure: we’re going to come back to this topic often, and from many angles – because setting schools apart is hard. And important. And the leading reason why we get hired.

You are not a special snowflake:
Why differentiating your higher education institution matters.

It’s a hard truth to face: your higher education institution, on its merits alone, is not a special snowflake. I’d argue even further that when your post-secondary institution positions itself only on a list of accomplishments, it devalues its offering – no matter how impressive its list.

Sure, there are exceptions. If you’re the most outstanding law school in the country, for example, that matters to law students. If you’ve got the only piece of technology, or the only program of its kind in the country, then students interested in studying that program or using that tech will flock. In other words, if you’re a specialist in a practice area, of course, practice area specialists will seek you out.

But what about the rest of your rank-and-file students (who outnumber any individual faculty or program count)? Does an architecture student or political science major choose your institution because of its outstanding law school, or the famous astrophysicist who went there? Not likely.

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced students and faculty off campus and onto their screens, a new wave of commoditization took hold. Every school’s distance and online learning offering became a front-page offering – and because every school now leads with that capability, it becomes yet another item on their ‘list’, and not a differentiator. 

Core Principles for Differentiation in Higher Education.

Differentiation – through a brand, a shared collective identity, an ethos, an idea – is the only way to get off of a list of also-rans, and be a standalone choice for the right students, the right talent, and the right donors.

With that in mind, here are some ideas of what makes for a solid differentiated position for a higher education institution.

Standing apart in higher education is about getting people excited – not getting people to agree.

If there’s one thing that stops a post-secondary institution from standing apart, it’s the pursuit of consensus. Attempting to get academics, administrators, alumni, staff, students and other stakeholders to go into a room and agree on one thing for your school to claim is a useless exercise. 

In fact, consensus-seeking is where the ‘list’ approach is born! The pursuit of ‘one thing’ you can stand out on becomes three things… then six. Before you know it, you’re using a laundry list to promote your institution, and you’ve commoditized your school in an effort to do the opposite.

The list is not the lead.

I’m not suggesting you don’t bring multiple voices into the process; or that there isn’t a role for the outstanding people, facilities and accomplishments your school can claim. But the list is not the lead. 

What should lead your marketing outreach is an idea that all of your audiences can get behind. A rallying cry. A shared identity. Or, more plainly – a differentiated positioning.

Sounds easy, right? Well, if it were, every school would stand apart, and every student would be able to easily recognize the institution that was right for them. Capturing a differentiated positioning means going beyond what your stakeholders list about you – being more than facts and figures – and identifying some unifying idea or thread that runs through all of it.

So, how do you uncover that positioning? First, talk to your people – in some institutions, this might mean getting a small leadership group on board. In others, it may be a large, broad, consultative exercise. Here’s a trade secret I’ll give you for free: whether you’re talking to a few key people, or everybody, there’s rarely a difference in the creative output. But there’s a huge difference in support for the process when you involve more voices.

Second, look beyond what people say, and find an underlying thread that ties things together. That thread shouldn’t be a shock: it should feel familiar. You’re not going for surprise here: you know you’ve hit the mark when the people involved in the process react to a proposed positioning idea with ‘Of course.’ 

An outside perspective is critical here, because it’s hard to be objective about the ‘one thing’ for your own institution. And, since most colleges and universities are a collection of subject matter experts, they tend to respect other subject matter experts. A partner who’s able to guide the process, be clear and transparent about the outcomes, and who has a track record of bringing disparate perspectives together is essential.

Either have something unique to say, or say something uniquely.

There are a handful of schools whose names say it all. Princeton. Oxford. McGill. And if you’re reading this, and you consider yourself part of one of those schools, welcome. Glad to have you.

Those of us whose names don’t precede us, but want to stand out on something other than the ordinary are ‘challenger’ brands. Challenger brands are usually less known and as a result, compete with more ‘like’ institutions. And for these two reasons, challenger brands tend to have to work harder to stand apart. 

In its pursuit of a differentiated positioning, a challenger brand has to embrace something other than the ordinary. So they usually chose one of two paths:

Saying something that’s unique.

There are schools that have that ‘one thing’ no others have. For example, the University of Phoenix (USA) and Athabasca University (Canada) both have laid claim to being ‘the’ online institution in their respective countries – a positioning that is getting more and more crowded as a result to the sudden and ubiquitous shift to distance learning in higher education across North America, and the world.

If your school has something that’s truly unique, then it may be worth leading with. A quick test for saliency: does your unique attribute qualify as ‘first/most/best/only’? If so, you might have something to build on (Phoenix and Athabasca are no doubt counting on that).

For example, consider uOttawa, located in Ottawa, Ontario (Canada), Canada’s capital city. One of their leading claims to fame – they’re the largest bilingual (English/French) university in the world. Does that matter? Sure, to the right audience. Implicitly, their differentiated positioning tells you about who their ideal students are: those who want to hone their knowledge in both of Canada’s official languages, either for personal or professional reasons.

Do they also offer unique courses, have outstanding alumni, or house cool buildings and technology? Of course. But starting with this one idea –  which no one else can claim – can be an effective leading wedge to stand apart in the minds of prospects.

Saying something in a unique way.

If you have nothing that is truly unique – or resonant – to claim, you may have to find a creative way to position what is true about you. And this is where the distinction between leading with a list, and leading with an idea really takes hold.

Let’s stay in Ottawa. In addition to uOttawa, Carleton University is also located in the nation’s capital. Its positioning: Canada’s capital university.

Could uOttawa claim the same thing, since they’re also located in the national capital city? Sure. But Carleton got there first, and said it best. They planted their flag on that idea, and are building their ethos around the advantage that being at the centre of political discourse offers students – again, a positioning that helps imply what might be important for the ‘right students’ who want to go there. No wonder that, nicely nestled in under this leading banner, they’re renowned for journalism, public affairs, and international affairs, among other courses.

There has never been a more important time for higher education institutions to stand out.

With the world in flux, we can expect a higher proportion of learners to take courses online out of necessity for the short term, and probably as a result of normalization as time goes on. Besides the impact this will have on commoditizing higher education institutions, there’s bound to be an impact on financial operations. 

Some students may not be willing to pay as much for an education that’s offered through a screen. Some schools may not be able to afford to continue to offer courses if students aren’t willing to pay the asking price. Some schools might not make it – and may be forced to consolidate, contract, or close.

While schools announce their reopening plans, marketers need to consider more than just the delivery method of courses. And, since it’s reasonable to assume there will be fewer students physically attending campuses across the continent for the foreseeable future, claims about your college community and student experience will change drastically.

Let’s end how we started. What is it that’s really different about your college or university? By asking students to study, learn, research, mature, contribute, and grow at my post-secondary institution, what’s the one thing I’m inviting them to be a part of – no matter what their academic focus is? What do we all stand for?

That’s a good place to begin the journey to differentiation.

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