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6 Signs Your Brand Is Failing Your Institution


Joan Benson

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Let’s begin with a self-test:

  • Is your cost to recruit a student going up?
  • Are you more worried about getting the class than shaping the class?
  • Have you become their second or even third choice?
  • Do better students melt away?
  • Are you spending more of your institutional budget on gift aid?
  • Are donors and others concerned about your long-term viability?

Any “yes” is a red flag. More than four? You’re in trouble—but you already knew that. What you may not know is the fatal flaw in your strategy and marketing that brought you here:

You settled for being distinctive when you should have been compelling.

Let me explain.

Colleges that settle for merely being distinctive tend to be institutional centric. In other words, they spend an inordinate amount of time looking inside. They are very concerned with how they feel about themselves, their offerings, and their messaging. Their strategy is driven by a core belief is that if it is important to them, it must be important to others. Or worse yet, if it is important to them, it doesn’t matter if it is important to anyone else.

The result is a gradual distancing, and even alienation of the institution from its audience. The institution loses its competitive place.

Compelling Qualities

Rather than being distinctive, smart institutions up their game and focus on their compelling qualities. Compelling characteristics matter to both you and the marketplace.

Not just the marketplace. And certainly not just you. Both.

Our Passions on left, lead to distinction. Their Passions on right, lead to distraction. Central overlap is area of compelling (attraction).
Venn Diagram: The left sphere is “Our Passions” and an arrow leads left towards “distinction.” The right sphere is “Their Passions” and an arrow leads right towards “Distraction.” The overlap between the spheres is green and labeled “Compelling (Attraction).”

It’s a pretty simple Venn diagram. The left sphere is what you care about—your core values or the programs you offer or your commitment to the liberal arts. On the right is what your audiences care about.

Chances are, you care about many things that your audiences really don’t. And the reverse.

Survival depends on finding the overlap. Ignore the hot topics in the faculty senate as thoroughly as you ignore what’s trending on Instagram. Only when they overlap will it matter.

(Brief interlude to imagine that overlap….)

Let’s apply this Venn diagram to the problem of attracting prospective students. Their first questions are always about academic programs. Great! You care about academic programs, too.

But they don’t want to hear about 140-all-equally-good-academic-programs. They want to hear about your best ones.

Did that cause a gasp in the senate chamber (or Zoom)?

Program Inequality

In theory, every academic program is equal. In practice, some are better than others. Even the faculty senate knows this. Some have better funding; some have better pedagogy.

To attract students, you must identify and push programs that:

  • Offer great classes & learning experiences
  • Lead to internships or co-op experiences
  • Lead to higher paying careers
  • Create a clear path to rewarding work
  • Place students in good graduate or professional programs

Did you notice that these five characteristics matter to both you and the marketplace? The language may be different when your audience talks about these things, but it’s still what they want out of college.

Back away from the brink of distinction. Root yourself in the compelling center. Matter to your audience. And tell them about it.

If you would like to be more compelling but are not sure how to proceed, give us a call.

Stamats will listen to your situation and propose a solution that fits. We can shape and conduct audience research to understand where your audience and institutional needs overlap. We can turn that overlap into a compelling brand expression. We can pinpoint which academic programs have the greatest marketability. We can run a targeted digital campaign to drive enrollment. We can redesign your website to radiate your compelling strengths and integrate with your CRM.

In short, we can walk you back from the brink of distinction. Email us today to get started.

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