Building Your Brand Around a Handful of Academic Signature Programs

Becky Morehouse

Becky Morehouse

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Several years ago, Stamats produced a white paper on how to manage your academic portfolio. It was one of the most popular white papers we ever produced.

One of the strategies we outlined was to build a brand around a handful of signature academic programs.

Signature Programs Strategy

This strategy is based on a handful of realities.

  • First, it is more effective to focus limited resources on a handful of programs than on an entire curriculum.
  • Second, by swarming a smaller number of programs with more resources you are more likely to have an impact in the marketplace, and specific targets within that market.
  • Third, this approach, when successful, tends to boost campus confidence and support for the philosophy of a target audience-centric and market-based approach to academic programming.
  • Finally, there is a “rising tides” effect. It is highly likely that these programs will become cash cows and the resources they produce will help lift those programs and areas—even the institution as a whole—that do not have the ability to generate sufficient resources on their own.

Designating Signature Programs

As you consider which programs to more aggressively promote, consider programs that:

  • Already are of consistent high quality at your institution
  • Are undersubscribed by prospective students (you have capacity)
  • Have high margins (think business programs rather than nursing)
  • Are scalable (easy to ramp up in response to market demand)
  • Have high interest in the marketplace:
    • Prospective students
    • Employers
    • Donors
    • The media
  • Offer co-branding opportunities
  • Offer distinct internship and co-op opportunities
  • Are not offered by your competitors
  • Have a faculty champion in place
  • Have a high barrier to entry for competitors
  • Lead to graduate school placement
  • Lead to high demand and high(er)-paying jobs

While it is unlikely that the programs you identify will meet all these criteria, the more they meet the better.

Allocating Resources

As you think about building and marketing keystone programs, you must be willing to allocate a disproportionate level of strategic resources to maintaining or enhancing the quality of these programs. This often includes investment in staffing, facilities, scholarships, and other non-loan based financial aid.

Of course, this also means that you will focus more of your marketing attention and dollars on these programs. I offer two final thoughts.

First, this is not a strategy to increase enrollment in programs that have little marketplace interest. Rather, it is a strategy that takes advantage of existing demand and marketplace interest.

Second, the signature program idea does not need to be tied to individual academic programs as such. Cornell College in Iowa delivers education via one course at a time. In this case the marketing message and differentiator are not so much what they teach, but how.

Students at Cornell enroll in one course for 18 days and when that period is done, they move to the next course. Most students participate in eight such blocks each year. Colorado College, Knox College, Tusculum College, and Spalding University have similar approaches.

A Couple of Final Thoughts

The decision to push some programs ahead of others will be met with cries of “that’s not fair” from programs that were not chosen. At one level they are correct. It isn’t fair. But neither is pouring money into programs that are failing. The goal at all times is to benefit the larger institution rather than a handful of faculty and programs. You must stand firm and weather those cries.

Ready to discuss strategies on how to best approach academic program marketing? Email us today for a free consultation.

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