I have always hated going to the supermarket. I am not sure what it is; the endless aisles that you have to navigate or the long checkout lines that usually await you after gathering all your purchases. A few weeks ago, I was forced to make the grocery run for the family when my wife was otherwise engaged. Though not enthused to be coursing through the produce section, I did start to find myself intrigued about the importance of brand differentiation in this setting.
As I stopped my cart in the paper goods aisle, I found myself wondering; “Why do they have so many brands of paper towels and what really makes one better than the other?” It was then I realized why brands like Bounty flooded the television airways with those commercials showing how their brand was the “quicker-picker-upper” when compared to the other leading brand. The image of dueling paper towels had infiltrated the consumer side of me and though more pricey, I opted for the brand which evidenced a better value proposition through their demonstration-based marketing strategy.
The ability to establish brand differentiation in the product-driven world of retail is one thing, but what about service industries like Higher Education? Demonstrating brand differentiation in the world of the intangible requires so much more than a snazzy tagline or clever television commercial. It is all about identifying your competition and developing a quantifiable value added proposition that you can consistently market and deliver.
In Higher Education, an institution is not only competing with schools from within their respective sector, but also with the other sectors themselves. Why should a student opt for a career-focused training program versus a two-year Associate’s degree at a Community College? Once that hurdle has been overcome, the question then becomes; Why your institution?
As a marketing specialist and former administrator in the Higher Education field, I have always believed that the institution and those that work within it should be able to articulate what makes the school special. Especially within a specific Higher Ed sector, program offerings tend to be very similar in curricula, course objectives and career options. Assuming your intra-sector competition has recognized accreditation and regulatory requirements, the competition proposition can be very challenging.
If you were to ask your staff, faculty and students; “What makes us so special?” in the best case scenario you may get a plethora of different answers. In the worst case scenario, you may get none. In either case, establishing a focused brand differentiator is a critical element in maximizing your marketing investment and increasing interest in your institution.
Keep in mind that you really need to go beyond the cliché, feel good tag lines. Feeling “like family” and “caring about students” are akin to generic Hallmark card content. Caring about students should be a given as an educational institution. Feeling like family for tens of thousands of dollars does not really represent an ideal value added proposition considering that the student can feel like family at home for free.
Higher Education institutions need to focus on actual benefits that their student experience lends to academic and post-graduate performance. Testimonials need to be expanded from the customary graduate pool to include employers, family members of graduates and strategic partners within the community who can attest to the difference that your institution is making in the lives of your students and the community in which you serve.
Listening to your students is critical in defining what you are doing right, and what you could be doing better. Additional resources and partnerships with local agencies to support your students could be the brand differentiators that elevate your institution to a level where you truly become the school of choice for students in your service area.
Most importantly, your relationship with your marketing agency needs to be expanded from simply collaborating on inquiry delivery, landing pages and website design. A true marketing partner in the Higher Education sector should not only be able to help you identify what makes you special, but should help you develop an operational strategy that makes you special. Once you establish your brand differentiator, both traditional and digital platforms can be utilized to tell the world and potential students; this is why we’re special and this is why you should enroll with us.