If your recruiters’ and fundraisers’ presentations aren’t making their audiences choke up just a little, it’s time to simplify and re-script the expression of your school’s brand experience.

Bravo to Rob Zinkan for nailing a fundamental higher ed marketing misfire squarely on the head in his recent IHE blog. Indiana University’s associate vice president for marketing encourages his readers to rethink some applications of the term “brand” within the academy. Then he plants a flag on the reality that, “…we may not be giving brand experience the attention it deserves.”

Those charged with managing institutional brands often bemoan their tall order. In my experience, that conversation usually devolves to a brisk dialogue on differentiation: “How are we different from our competitors? After all, our differences set us apart from the rest…right?”

Not really. Because at the end of the day, people don’t buy different. They buy special.

The problem with differentiation is that fundamentally, all colleges and universities do the same things and deliver the same things. Attempting to differentiate a school based on attributes like facilities and programs sets up a race to build more and grow larger — and higher ed is increasingly under the microscope to save money, or at least to invest more wisely.

Another inherent challenge in differentiating on the basis of “things” is that some of our most consequential ambassadors — recruiters, fundraisers, and other public-facing frontline staff members — are ill-inspired or entirely untrained to communicate and connect deeply with their target audiences. Too many of them simply can’t rise above delivering elevator speeches rife with sound-bite factoids and rapid-fire institutional metrics.

Don’t take my word for it; sit in the back of the room during your school’s next prospective student campus visit welcome session. Note that most of the metrics are delivered without context, so they really mean nothing. For example, how do your school’s retention, graduation, career placement and alumni satisfaction rates compare to those of your competitors or to any national benchmarks?

Because so many schools default to talking about themselves as a collection of things, programs and factoids, the bar to differentiate your school on the basis of what’s genuinely, authentically special about it is remarkably low. This is because, as Zinkan wrote, “…we may not be giving brand experience the attention it deserves.”

Indeed. Your school’s brand experience is what really matters and it is, well, an experience. It’s sensory. It’s emotional. It’s compelling. If you can isolate and articulate it using powerful language and imagery — and then help your stakeholders express it consistently, it’s memorable.

It’s marketing gold.

I have the very good fortune to work with an array of remarkably creative people. Some of my writer and designer colleagues are especially gifted with the ability to make their audiences cry (in a good way). They can express a brand experience so powerfully, their words and imagery literally move people to tears. Think Hallmark commercial.

To compete more successfully, you need talent like this on your school’s creative team whose work can rise above factoids to tug at the hearts of your audiences. If you can’t afford to hire them fulltime, occasionally engage an agency partner or even freelancers. Their creative work can inspire your campus community to describe its special-ness in ways you simply can’t imagine, until you see it happen.

Here’s an exercise to drive home this important point. Next time you’re sitting with a small group of your students, alumni or employees, ask them to write a thank-you note to your school. Then compare the compelling authenticity of what they wrote to the “differentiating” copy in your current recruitment viewbook, your campaign case statement, or your employee handbook. Which is more memorable?

Eric Sickler has helped the nation’s college and universities clarify and more fully engage their brands for more than three decades. You can reach him at The Thorburn Group, a Stamats company.​

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