Most university presidents believe the idea of stealing share from other universities is unsightly. It reeks of business and winning, and it rubs against the collegial grain with other presidents.
I know that because the branding and marketing of universities proves it. If you run ads of universities together, as we did in a study this month, you see a blending of messages and tone that are so similar they are easy to tune out and rarely give students a choice. All they do is reaffirm a choice a current student has already made.
Most of them are about the university itself, shot against a beautiful university backdrop with messages about the school spawning ideas, realizing student ambitions, and helping students become leaders. With all of the choices promoting the same message and tone, how are students to choose beyond cost, location, and family connections? We live in a different economic and academic climate than we did years ago when higher education institutions had academic reputations that were the sole creator of the pecking order for American high school graduates.
More than 65 percent of Americans, including 60 percent under the age of 29, believe education is worse than it used to be, according to research conducted by Stealing Share two years ago. That doesn’t even consider the changing economic climate and the slow but imperfect rise of for-profit institutions. It’s time for colleges and universities of all stripes to consider themselves a business in which they attract “customers” with brands that have meaning outside the scope of university category benefits. Otherwise, the status quo will continue to reign.
Being fearful of doing what’s best for the sake of comradeship can be deadly.
Take a cue from Nike, a brand that turned the sneaker industry upside down by understanding that promoting product benefits (what universities are doing now) and focusing on the emotional self-reflection of the customer (student) is the way to win. Its “Just Do It” slogan says that you are a winner without all the nonsense that gets in your way. Nike is an emotional brand, while its competitors still market product benefits. The result, from 1975 to 2008, was market share growth for Nike from 9 percent to 61 percent while everyone else dropped.
In rebranding an institution, or even developing messages to create preference, follow at least these two rules:
1. Make it about the student, not the university.
We buy for ourselves, not for product benefits or the rational reasons we say we choose. We choose the products because they reflect who we aspire to be. If you saw a billboard with your name and picture on it, you’d recognize it and covet that brand. To accomplish that kind of preference, you must make hard choices about whom you are not for. If you are for everybody, you’re for nobody and your message becomes bland. Ask yourself who is the X University student? Define that, and be single minded about it.
2. It must be emotional.
As stated above, we choose based on emotional reasons, most importantly, ones based on belief systems that drive behavior.
If, for example, you want someone to drink coffee, the want or need you’re fulfilling might be that the consumer wants to perk up. However, if you understand the belief that makes consumers want to perk up—say, so they’ll be alert and ahead in the game—then you have a powerful, emotional message that creates preference when you align your brand with it.
What will the other presidents think? The truth is, your peers respect leaders who do what’s best for their institutions. Being fearful of doing what’s best for the sake of comradeship can be deadly.
I leave you with an example. Research has shown that, even before the Occupy movements, people were angry at banks. That left it open for credit unions to emerge, right? It didn’t happen that way. The collegial nature of credit unions meant that they were not aggressive in creating preference for their own credit union but only for the category as a whole, which seemed to consumers to be the same as banks. They were afraid to take market share from their friends in battle.
The blurring of messages was soft in the belly and, therefore, little to nothing changed. The big banks still won. Credit unions remained irrelevant. The lesson for higher ed: Don’t be a credit union.