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Higher Education Brand Differentiation: The Top of the Funnel

February 3, 2010

Photo courtesy of North Community High School

In the last few months, there have been a number of blog posts written on the perceived glaring lack of brand differentiation by colleges and universities. Whether it be the lack of originality in the email sophomore search process, or how colleges and universities use the same words and phrases to describe who they are, or the need for colleges to have a brand strategy that differentiates them from the undergraduate competition, consultants and thought leaders writing about branding and marketing higher education are observing how colleges and universities are not distinguishing themselves from each other. There’s certainly a lot to criticize.

Except, it’s not that easy.

While some marketing and enrollment leaders simply don’t get it, many others have been strategically toiling at brand differentiation for years. And some of what looks like sameness is carefully calculated strategy based on historic target markets and a refusal to cede certain market positions to the competition.

First of all, let’s be honest. Most colleges and universities are very much alike within their categories (large public, research, highly selective private, small private, private faith-based, etc.). There will be differences within the categories, such as location, size, or academic programs. But students may attend one or the other within the same market and earn a degree with a collegiate experience similar to what they would have experienced at a competing institution.

Second, there is the admissions funnel requiring institutions to craft branding strategies to reach their target markets at each level of it. At the top of the funnel, for example, a small private college must differentiate itself from institutions outside of its category. Thus, it’s going to brand itself with language and visuals that talk about personal interaction, the opportunity to get to know your professors, small classes, etc.

On the one hand, the result is positive for prospective students and families. Prospects sorting out what type of institution is best for them will have clear distinctions.

On the other hand, by differentiating itself from larger institutions, a small college is going to sound like it has no clue about brand differentiation. There will be dozens of similar institutions doing the same thing.

However, if I’m a marketing or enrollment leader at small private college, that’s not going to stop me from talking about small college values.

You think I should stop saying those things because my competition says that too?  You first. I’m not about to cede that market position to my competitors. Sure, I need to find ways to communicate differently than my competitors, but how many ways can you say “small classes”? That’s one reason so many institutions are saying the same things (another reason: laziness by some).

But brand differentiation is so much more than a choice of words. What enrollment and marketing leaders need to do at the top of the funnel is find ways to authentically brand their institution as distinct from competitors, outside and inside of their category.

Not words. Actual differences.

The way I handled this challenge as chief enrollment and marketing officer at a small private university in southern California–where both faith and liberal arts were important parts of institutional mission and the student experience–was to communicate to prospects that we offered the benefits of a small college experience combined with the opportunity to explore your faith on a campus close to the beach.

We not only positioned ourselves as personable, but also faith-oriented within a beach community. How many institutions could say that? Sure, it eliminated most prospects from considering us, but that’s what brand differentiation does. Those who entered and proceeded down our funnel were interested in the type of collegiate experience we offered.

Sure,  there was some political hell to pay from faculty who wanted our publications to talk only about academics (and faith). But students and alumni mentioned our location as one of the draws of our university, and a part of their college experience.

Clearly establishing the type of education you offer, while differentiating your institution from competitors in your market, is what it’s all about at the top of the admissions funnel. As prospects move down the funnel, differentiation takes different forms as prospects and families visit the campus.

See also:

Brand Differentiation Down the Funnel

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Zeta permalink
    February 4, 2010 6:33 AM

    Hi Rick,

    These are my challenges! So I can identify with you. But I am in the Caribbean where there has been rapid privatisation due to state funded tertiary education. So it’s a struggle to differentiate when everybody has the same offering and more people are “setting up shop”. Even our location is no longer an advantage. This is why I think that looking internally, is so important for us because it is the student experience that will sell in the long term through alumni viral mkting.. Though this is a tough sell, internally.


    • Rick Hardy permalink
      February 4, 2010 11:03 AM

      Zeta, thanks for your comments. You do have to look internally to make sure that your student experience is superior so that word of mouth follows, as you said. Finding differences comes by careful analysis of the market and your institution, and by talking to your students, alumni, community leaders, etc. It’s not easy, but it is rewarding when you find that strategy that will differentiate you in the long run. Good luck!

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