Stand out from the Crowd: How to Differentiate Your School from the Rest

The frank Agency Branding
Winter 2018

Colleges and marketers alike have echoed the same sentiment increasingly over the past few years: it’s hard to make a school stand out.

students-with-laptop-1What happened in 2016 between the University of Buffalo and the University of Sydney is a prime example of this. Two schools on either side of the world somehow separately came up with almost exactly the same brand statement – even using a similarbranded font.

This mishap drove home the idea that a brand needs to be more than just a reinvented tagline if a school truly wants to differentiate itself. To create a unique and appealing brand, there first needs to be a unique and appealing culture in place.

But what does it look like to create an internal culture that translates to external brand and marketing? Before we can answer this question, we need to step back and look at what causes the “sameness” that plagues higher education.

The Issue of Uniformity

The main problem behind the “sea of sameness” in college branding typically comes from schools attempting to sum up their whole mission in one tagline or pithy statement. This isn’t necessarily a negative goal; pithy statements are often memorable and can make an impact if used correctly.

However, in higher education, summing up a mission into a short slogan often means that schools end up using very similar language. Words like expand, explore or discover and other inspirational, forward-looking verbiage are used to form the basis of these catch-phrases, but therein lies the dilemma: at the end of the day, schools by their nature have very similar goals, so creating a tagline around those goals often does little to distinguish an institution. Instead, it may only set them adrift in the “sea of sameness.”

Add to this the visual aspect of schools’ marketing. The images used in most college marketing materials tend to follow a similar track as they become an extension of the pithy tagline – each school echoing the same sentiment, rather than creating a distinct impression that tells a student exactly how and why their institution is one-in-a-million.

A tagline isn't enough to set your school apart. The distinction must come from inside and extend outward into everything you do.

Breaking the Mold

If a tagline isn’t enough to convey the nuances that set an institution apart, then the distinction needs to come from somewhere else – that is, from within the culture of the school.

This is essentially an “inside-out” approach. By fostering a unique culture that pervades the life of the school at every level, you shape external perceptions of the school brand. The external will always follow the internal.

But this method is incredibly conceptual and maybe even a little vague. How can you, on a practical level, shape an internal culture?

This takes dedication and careful implementation, but first and foremost, it requires reflection.

Find the areas where your school excels.

Schools may all have similar goals, but each institution is different – regardless of whether or not these differences are immediately perceptible. The first step to building your institution’s culture is to find those traits that make your school not only different, but exceptional.

For some schools, their claim to fame may be their world-class faculty, or a diverse assortment of extracurriculurs and student activities. It may be a particular program which your school has cultivated into an area of expertise. You may even think about your campus’s physical location as a draw – especially if it’s in a large city or scenic area.

These are the things you’ll be bringing to the forefront. They’re already part of your school’s heritage – now advance them to engrain them into the student consciousness and culture.

Give students and faculty the freedom to further these characteristics.

You can’t advance your strengths without help from the individuals that make your school what it is. Your students and faculty should feel free to explore and make their own contributions to the culture – which will help that culture to take root and pervade your institution.

Is one of your strengths a particular field of study? Allow faculty the freedom to research more deeply into these fields, or encourage them to publish writing on their fields of study. This establishes your expertise and makes you stand out as proponents of these fields.

Is one of your strengths a diverse student demographic? Encourage students to form organizations that celebrate their diversity or bring awareness to particular social issues.

Furthering your strengths in this manner not only more deeply engrains them into the culture, but it also creates other natural avenues to reach potential students.

Display your cultural identity markers.

display-your-cultural-identity-markersYou’ve fostered your inherent traits and created a discernible and distinctive culture. Now it’s time to carry these strengths over to your external marketing.

Make your culture prominent and forefront in all your marketing materials. It needs to be the first thing potential students see – whether in your look book, on social media, your website, or traditional channels. A student that sees your marketing needs to see
your distinct cultural markers – not a generic tagline.

Your cultural message will be displayed through visuals, but also through the language you choose. Even your tone needs to reflect your culture.

And beyond this, your culture will also dictate how you engage with potential students. Will your communication take place largely over social media, or will you choose the more personal phone call?

Will your student events be large, raucous rallies or small, intimate gatherings? Will your look books be printed on textured paper, or will they be fully digital with multimedia aspects? Your cultural traits will determine all aspects of your communication with students – whether it’s individually or to your target at large.

When your culture is tangible through every marketing channel and visible at every prospect tour – when it continues through each step of the student experience, from enrollment through graduation – then you’ve succeeded in your differentiation efforts. Then you will know you’re making an imprint on your target audience – one that tells exactly what your school is about, over and above the rest of the institutions in the pool.

Creating a Lasting Impression

Differentiation doesn’t occur on its own, nor does it occur in a vacuum. It must be fostered through conscious effort on the part of the school’s leadership and faculty.

When an institution commits itself to advancing its unique cultural traits, the result is a school that not only creates impactful first impressions – but fulfills those impressions to ensure satisfying student experiences from beginning to end.

It’s not just about creating a first impression. It's about fulfilling those first impressions and creating a satisfying student experience.

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