Imagine the Video: Embracing the Location of Your Institution

Welcome to another entry in our Imagine the Video series: all the insight and substance of a long-form video interview packaged into an easily-consumed, informative read. We give you the content, you imagine the rest. (Click here to read our previous entry.)

In this episode, we drop in on Rick and Sam having just completed some on-site work with a client in Coral Gables, Florida. They’re enjoying yet another warm, sunny day with clear blue skies. As you can imagine, for two Indiana residents, this favorable weather triggers a great appreciate for “location,” and sparks a dialogue between the two: What is the importance of “location” in the messaging and positioning for an institution? What are the right and wrong ways to go about it? Is it something that only institutions with a postcard-esque campus can leverage? Or is it a matter of recognizing what your institution offers that no one else has?

Sunglasses on, the mid-day sun shining, palm trees swaying; there’s a breeze blowing, carrying a tinge of salted ocean air in its bouquet from a nearby beach. You can picture the scene.

Now: Imagine the video.

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Sam: Hey Rick, do you want to go to Talavera Cocina Mexicana tonight?

Rick: I want to go to there and, frankly, I want to get some mescal.

Sam: I could go for a drink; it’s been a great day on campus here in Coral Gables. As with every on-site we do with clients, I’m just enamored with their location. Good, bad and otherwise.

Rick: Yes. This location is stunning, and it shapes the experience for a student. Where this campus is makes all the difference and informs what a student will walk away with.

Sam: It’s fascinating what tone that sets. We know that location is appealing to students from research we can see. The tone it sets for what students do, how they respond to their learning experience and where they take it is just really tremendous.

Rick: Yes. And contrast this to being in Appleton, Wisconsin. The range of opportunity that exists here versus the very different range of opportunity that exists in Appleton, or New York City, or Portland, Oregon. It’s interesting to find the balance of what location means. I think it’s important that institutions don’t only rest on location.

Sam: Right, I agree.

Rick: Using location to shape the experience, they can create context for the distinctiveness of the experience that a student would get. A student would get a very different experience learning here at the edge of one of the most significant cities in the world versus the experience they would get in Nebraska. Nothing discounts the experience a student could have in Nebraska. It would be a different experience. But not to embrace my location in Nebraska and use that to advantage as a distinctive opportunity and not a deficit… I have heard institutions talk about a rural location as being a clear disadvantage. The truth is, while we’re moving towards city cultures, rural locations can be as dynamic and powerful—for different reasons—as a dynamic urban location or semi-urban.

Sam: Yeah. I think you’re spot on. And we’ll just call it urban for the purpose of this discussion. I can think of several institutions that wouldn’t enjoy the advantages of an urban environment, because they already have really thriving, interesting, location-specific offerings. Grinnell would be one of those, Kenyon would be another, Denison would be another. Even though Gambier, Ohio isn’t close to anything, there are positives about being in Gambier that cannot be obtained in New York City. That’s empirical. That’s not just saying, “Oh, it’s 90 miles from Cleveland.” Or wherever they are. This is a distinctive benefit that you can afford students and different types of students that may not be attracted to going to school in Cleveland. That will be to your advantage.

Rick: I’m thinking of an institution we worked with that was in the heart of the city, but behaved like it was in a suburban environment. They did not embrace their location to advantage at all. They acted like they were rural and they tried very hard to emulate a different experience because they thought being in the city was a disadvantage. Once they realized the assets right in their backyard and could entertain ways that being in an urban environment shaped curriculum, shaped social life, cultural life, created opportunity for internships…

Sam: Social outreach.

Rick: Everything.

Sam: Everything was colored by that.

Rick: Yes.

Sam: To lose sight of that is just an absolute shame.

Rick: I’ve watched institutions almost deny their location instead of saying, in a coherent fashion: this is an opportunity that only we can deliver because we’re in this place.

Sam: Some of the rationale is obviously antiquated, but there is a reason your institution was started where it was. Of course over time the features and benefits change. There’s logic and rationale for it. We’re talking about residential colleges now; there’s a reason for that. You’ve got to dig a little bit and update with the features and benefits.

Rick: A few years ago, Bill Gates said, “We are approaching a time where place will be irrelevant.” I don’t think that’s true. I think location shapes experience. Location informs opportunity. Granted, if we’re all online, maybe sitting in front of my phone or another monitor would change that. Even what I bring to the experience is based on my location. If I’m an urban student I might be exchanging ideas with somebody in a rural setting. That’s important, and I can use location in my online engagements just as much.

Sam: I think if we’re discussing location, we should discuss that. My response to that Bill Gates quote is: even in a virtual environment, I can’t think of “place” being of any more importance. Where I am accessing other places or points of knowledge… His point was more about access, I get that… But in a higher ed environment, where my feet are located is integral because it shapes the way I empathize, the way a faculty member might acknowledge my learning style.

Rick: Even how I interpret what’s coming to me.

Sam: Even how I interpret what’s being said. You’re absolutely right. I want to revisit physical location for a second. I think there’s a pitfall that many institutions fall into.

Rick: You mean, falling in love with their own town?

Sam: Right. Town is great, it’s fabulous. Be in love with your city, I get it. It’s not really where I was going. I think your personal feelings about the sense of place need to be matched with how an audience might access your location. One thing I want to talk about is how some institutions have the taxonomy of the way they discuss location in reverse, right?

Rick: Yeah.

Sam: Part of that is the lack of confidence in their general location. The taxonomy should be something like: in your messaging, your physical campus, what is that experience like? Then go…

Rick: If I never stepped off campus…

Sam: If I never stepped off campus, what is that like? Then the next one, the phylum if you will, would be your local…

Rick: Neighborhood.

Sam: Your neighborhood. Or center. If you were in a city, it would be your neighborhood. Talking about Coral Gables rather than Miami, you’d be talking about the Hawthorne district instead of Portland, you’d be talking about Brooklyn instead of New York City. That’s that second ring. You just go a bit out from where students can access readily. What you’re going to talk about when people come find you and where they should eat, and now mass transit and where people are going to study and research locally.

Rick: What I can walk to.

Sam: What I can walk to or take public transit to. That next ring out would be the broader space, if you’re in a city or the region. We’ve got institutions in the North East for instance who will hang their hat on being in Massachusetts or Connecticut, or in the North East even.

Rick: That’s important. Studying in New England is very different than studying in Southern California.

Sam: Totally different. Totally important. The weight of that importance is flipped. We should be talking about your specific location first rather than generalities. What you’ve done is use taxonomy in the opposite way instead of becoming one place.

Rick: Precisely, because not every institution in New England is alike.

Sam: Oh, gosh no.

Rick: Nor is every institution in Southern California alike.

Sam: Nor does anyone know what comprises New England. You’re going to go from Bowdoin to… what?

Rick: Bay Path.

Sam: Colby to Bay Path to Smith to Vassar to NYU to Boston University to Boston College to Canisius. When we’re discussing taxonomy you’ve got it reversed in using a region to define you exclusively.

Rick: It’s not helpful to the consumer.

Sam: It’s not helpful to the consumer and it creates an artificial competitive set for that consumer.

Rick: Sometimes a misperception about what your specific circumstance will be.

Sam: You’re absolutely right. Let’s say I’m X-Y-Z institution… Maybe I’m in Irvine, California. Maybe in Orange County. Or say I’m located in Southern California.

Rick: Particularly Irvine.

Sam: If I just say I’m located in a region of the country…

Rick: …I’m tan, wealthy, surfing, going to Disney…

Sam: …I go to completely superficial stereotypes because I’ve created that. I’ve created that top-line impression of where my institution is.

Rick: That’s what Orange County is.

Sam: If I say I’m in Southern California, that’s going to cluster me with some really interesting competitors that are totally unalike, in that I’m going to have Harvey Mudd all of a sudden. I’m going to have UC Irvine—fabulous institution—but totally different than Concordia Irvine. What we’ve done is taken a region and created an artificial bucket of institutions.

Rick: Even if I took the other Christian colleges in that set.

Sam: Sure. Biola, Point Loma Nazarene, and Azusa Pacific. I think we need to put our prospective student and family pants on, but we would certainly hope that PLNU or Point Loma with the ocean in their backyard would describe their location a little differently than Irvine would, which is close to the ocean, but also in a city. That’s what I mean by having those things reversed. I think it’s really important.

Rick: Go back to New England.

Sam: Okay.

Rick: Stuffy and old.

Sam: Okay, got it.

Rick: Stuffy, old and historic. Maybe significant, but stuffy and old.

Sam: Leather bound books and dust; elbow patches and old beards.

Rick: Old wire-rimmed glasses. That doesn’t describe many of the institutions that we’ve worked with in New England that are alive and fresh and doing new creative energetic things. To begin with an asset of New England as your lead is a misnomer in trying to describe an institution that is as relevant as tomorrow.

Sam: I totally agree. So, you want to have some Ceviche?

Rick: No, I’m going for the mescal.

Sam: Bye.


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Sam Waterson

Sam is President at RHB.