Becoming a Brand That Creates Positive Disruption

The frank Agency Branding
Spring 2018

Every institution sees itself as uniqueEvery institution sees itself as unique – and to an extent, it’s true. Each school has a legitimate claim to fame. But although you may have outstanding programs, a robust culture, world-renowned faculty, or all of the above, the truth is that these are baseline expectations in prospective students’ minds – not necessarily true differentiators.


The challenge for institutions lies in understanding the difference, and then finding those true, specific elements that set you apart. Most schools tout general traits, but to really distinguish your school requires digging deep below the surface to identify what makes you entirely different from the competition.

Once your true, unique personality and brand differentiators are identified, the challenge doesn’t stop there. You still have to effectively convey your differences through all of your brand touchpoints.

Anymore, it isn’t enough for a brand to just be different. Rather, you have to be able to break through the ordinary, actively disrupting expectations and eschewing the familiar and generic in favor of the unique and memorable. You have to generate positive disruption.

The Principles of Positive Disruption

Our daily brand and message exposure is at its peak. Some experts have estimated that the average person is hit with over 10,000 brand impressions per day. Then there’s the added challenge of attention span, which for most people is now around 8 seconds due to the fact that we’re constantly switching between screens and tasks.

Given this information – the inundation of messages, the narrow window of attention span – marketers are looking for ways to break through and not only be noticed, but remembered. And it won’t be accomplished by simply being the loudest voice, as this may only cause your brand to be pegged as obnoxious. A completely new tactic must be taken.

You have to actually disrupt people’s mentalities and thought cycles – but in a manner that creates a positive memory of your brand. This is what we mean by positive disruption. It’s incisive and direct, but always in a way that makes people want to pay attention.

Positive disruption could be summed up in three main characteristics:

It upends expectations.

Because of the flood of marketing surrounding us, we’ve come to anticipate certain qualities, visuals and verbiage. Positive disruption can only occur by inverting those expectations, abandoning the norms, and giving something completely unanticipated.

It’s consistent.

Another critical aspect of positive disruption is that it's always in a consistent voice and speaks a cohesive message. A message is only powerful if people know where it’s coming from – so this consistency is what links the act of disruption back to your brand in a recognizable way.

It changes how people perceive you.

Often brands get pigeon-holed in their marketing. They begin to be seen in a certain light or associated with one notable feature or product. But positive disruption plants a seed in your audience’s mind, leading them to question whether they’ve actually seen your brand for what it truly is. It gets them to think about your brand in a new way.

These traits are, in essence, the lifeblood of positive disruption. But, without a way to practically translate them into concrete actions, we’re lost in a web of theory. So, how do we put the concept into action?


Departing from the infamous and overused “Three and a Tree” image is a simple, but effective, way to create positive disruption and show how your student experience is truly unique.

Bringing Theory to Life


How you implement positive disruption will be entirely dependent on your individual brand. And, as with all marketing campaigns, you must first think about what you hope to achieve through it.

For example, if you’re trying to reinvent the way people see your brand, your methodology will be entirely different than if you’re simply trying to garner more attention on a specific campaign. But ultimately, positive disruption on any scale should have a shaping effect that causes you to be viewed as a disrupter.

Another aspect of the process to consider is that positive disruption may come in many forms.

Making use of a different media channel can itself become a form of disruption, as it surprises your audience and allows you to reach new crowds. Lesser-known or used channels, or simply non-conventional ones, can be ideal for positive disruption as they defy norms and show your brand as a trailblazer.

But disruption is also found not just in your method of communication, but in the message itself.

Visual treatments in messaging are another means of positive disruption. Take the common offender in higher education: the infamous “Three and a Tree” image, which shows a cluster of diverse students studying or talking in the grass under a tree. The image is so overplayed it’s laughable – yet it makes the point for us that if institutions were to depart from stale, static images and opt for unexpected ways of depicting their schools, the status quo would instantly be overturned.

Finally, positive disruption can even occur in the types of campaigns you run – how you get your audience involved and interacting with your brand. In some cases, it may even be beneficial to bring your audience members in as part of the campaign, asking them to contribute photos or videos to create their own spin on your brand. Not only does this amplify audience engagement, but it also provides useful insight on how your audience actually perceives you, what they value about your brand, and how you can shape your brand more authentically going forward.

An Expanse of Opportunity

The EDU market is wide open for disruption. The many brands and the unavoidable “sea of sameness” have created a landscape that would welcome a new direction. What’s left to make it happen is self-assessment, deep awareness of your audience, and a spark of an idea that departs from EDU norms in favor of the fresh and unexpected.

Positive disruption will be the distinguishing factor that cuts through the marketing clutter – setting you apart from the crowd and truly showing the character and culture of your institution.

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