Listening matters

June 3
friend Mike Armini is vice president of external affairs at Northeastern
University. I mention this because Mike’s just penned a cautionary tale that’s
as applicable to college marketers as it is to communicators in
general. In it, Mike laments the sorry state of college and
university branding. He says there’s far too much chest thumping and far too
little fact-based marketing. I agree.

worked with many colleges and universities over the years. I’ve found that,
just like every ‘service’ organization I can think of, each believes its
faculty, programs and students are the best. Period. The problem with such an
admonition is that when everyone says the same thing, no one says anything.
Management consultants are notorious for their use of meaningless superlatives,
hyperbole and ‘ConsultantSpeak.’ The words ‘unique,’ ‘innovative’ and
best-in-class’ seem to permeate and pervade every consulting firm’s messaging.
As a result, no one can truly break out from the pack. People, programs and
services are mere table stakes in the branding game.

order to arrive at a true differentiator, colleges and universities (and every
sort of organization for that matter) needs to first listen. Listen to what
your internal constituents believe sets you apart. Then, audit your external
audiences to see if they agree that that particular nugget is, in fact, what
makes the dear, old alma mater singular. Last, but not least, listen to what
key competitors are saying is their unique point of differentiation. If they’ve
already claimed your stake, it’s time to move on to Plan B.

faced a classic branding challenge with Duke University’s Fuqua School of
business about 10 years ago. At that point, they wanted to enter the global MBA
market with a brand-new offering they called the Global Executive MBA (or,
GEMBA, for short). They were hungry to begin branding the program and filling
the inaugural class. We cautioned them to listen first. We did our due
diligence, examined what schools such as Harvard, Wharton and Kellogg were
saying about themselves and arrived at a unique and sustainable positioning:
‘Global campus on the Internet.’ Duke, and Duke alone, could own that moniker
because they were the first to link their various global sites via the web and
to complement on-site learning with online tutorials after ‘students’ had
returned to their jobs.

campus on the Internet was a winner. In fact, in covering the Duke program,
BusinessWeek used our positioning as the
headline of their article on the program (and, it simply doesn’t get any better
than that). Media ‘got’ the distinction. Significant coverage ensured.
Duke filled its classrooms. We won a Silver Anvil. And, GEMBA became a generic
term within the business school world.

spot on when he says colleges and universities want quick fixes for their
branding and marketing campaigns. Sadly, though, there are no quick fixes.
Successful campaigns, be they online or off, in the private sector or on
university campuses, must
always begin with a listening phase.

10 thoughts on “Listening matters

  1. That’s really interesting, Brian. I like the OSU positioning a lot. Makes sense.

  2. To Steve’s question, a qualified yes. Years ago I worked at an institution that abandoned 15-week semesters for seven six-week sessions, with students taking one or two courses per session. The seventh session was essentially the summer term. While the advantages and disadvantages of six-week sessions would take some time to explain, the university was able to differentiate its scheduling model from those adopted at most other universities. Curiously, this place has almost stopped talking about its scheduling model in favor of a rather unimaginative set of marketing messages that repeat the claims made by a 1,000 other institutions.
    My alma mater, Ohio State, has invented a category it believes it can win. OSU wants to be the nation’s “leading public land-grant university.” See
    I’ve worked at another place that adopted a strategy similar to that employed by the Buckeyes. Most of us in marketing and communications are smart enough to create a category in which, not surprisingly, we will be the market leader.

  3. That’s really interesting to read, Brian. Question: of the various college & universities for whom you’ve worked, has any had a truly distinctive positioning or set of marketing messages? I’d be curious to know.

  4. Like hospitals, many forces combine to make universities very similar to one another. The differences frequently aren’t curricular and come from input variables (e.g., how good are the students who attend your institution), access to institutional resources (e.g., attractive recreation centers, big libraries), campus location, and (importantly) faculty quality. When universities have good curricular ideas, those ideas usually are imitated, unless the innovations are so costly that poorer institutions can’t follow the lead of their wealthier counterparts.

  5. Right on, Rep, but you left out another overused superlative: “preeminent.” How many colleges or universities aim to be “posteminent”? None, I would venture.

  6. I think the same thing can be said of health care marketing. I once worked on an account for a hospital in which we positioned them as providing outstanding care close to home. Unfortunately, that’s what EVERY hospital or health care provider says. And in truth, it’s what every one of them provides. There’s so little that’s unique about them it’s hard to find something they can own. But if one of them would come up with some kind of service offering that was unique (I’ve often thought that bringing back house calls would be a great way to differentiate oneself) then they would really be able to come up with something that separates them from the pack. I think that universities could stand to do some of that introspection as well and like Duke try to find an offering that only they can provide.