The (assumed) safety in being everything to everyone in higher ed.

Recently a friend of mine suggested we check out a new casual dining restaurant that opened in town. I asked her what kind of food they offer, and her response, from looking at the menu online, was: “a little bit of everything.” While that broad answer did not make the restaurant any more enticing, there was an implicit promise that, well, at least they’ll have something I like. One could argue that selecting a restaurant with the broadest menu possible was a way of hedging our bets. After all, it’s hard to be disappointed if there are plenty of options to choose from, right?

That’s what one might think. However, it didn’t turn out that way. I ordered a burger, my friend ordered tacos and a third friend of ours ordered pizza. Everyone ordered something that sounded appealing, yet when dinner was all said and done, no one was particularly satisfied with their meal. All three of us were full, but no one loved what they had.

If you are any kind of food aficionado, your first thought reading this is likely: sure, of course you were disappointed. Everyone knows that if you want a good burger, you should hunt for a place that specializes in burgers; if you want great tacos, track down your local Mexican-food truck that does authentic tacos from scratch; and if you’re craving amazing pizza, scout out a pizza parlor with a big brick oven and a well-curated wine list. This is because it’s quite difficult to be a restaurant that is good at making everything; the broader the menu, the less likely a customer is to be amazed by any one particular dish. So by choosing a restaurant that has a focused, defined selection of entrees that they can prepare fantastically well, you increase the likelihood that your dining experience is, in fact, fantastic.

I could write about food and dining all day (and perhaps in another life, I will), but I want to bring this full circle to higher ed. Often in our work with colleges and universities, we’ll hear deans, directors and presidents claim “we have something for everyone at our institution.” Well, that’s just not true. If it were, there’d be a long, long line of students waiting to get into your doors. As marketers, we know that when it comes to articulating a marketing position, an institution can’t claim to be everything to everyone—that kind of ambiguity leads to a lack of identity. But yet we continue to see many institutions resist focusing on a very well-defined marketing position. Much like that casual restaurant, they want to ensure they have an offering that will sound appealing to everyone. This is a problem. In the realm of higher ed, institutions are too reluctant to limit the definition of what they offer and what they specialize in.

In fairness, some of this reluctance is due to the fact that education, by definition, is open and exploratory. Considering that colleges and universities are purveyors of education, you may feel uneasy with the notion of intentionally narrowing the scope of said education. Higher ed institutions are in the business of creating, learning and expressing, so part of the culture suggests that they should constantly be doing more and offering more. The risk with this approach, however, is that “stuff” begins to pile on and an institution may lose touch with its mission during its quest to be as broadly appealing as possible.

Making decisions that align with your mission is important—more important than pleasing everyone. Along with this, you may have a tremendous fear in letting go of things that your institution has traditionally delivered. As an example, if a certain program doesn’t fit with your institution’s mission, it may not be necessary for you to offer it. Does your institution need to offer Ceramics? How about Classics? Or—a real scary thought—how about Computer Science? Computers and IT should certainly be a ubiquitous part of campus, but not every institution needs to offer an academic program for it. This is true in cases where offering Computer Science isn’t a mission fit for your institution. From an even more pragmatic perspective, it’s also true because there just aren’t enough Computer Science prospects out there for the amount of programs available.

Here’s the other reason why you shouldn’t try to be everything to everyone: even if you attempt to define your market position this way, you can’t ensure that your brand will support this position. This is because the public ultimately has the final say about your actual brand. (If you need a refresher on the difference between your institution’s position and its brand, read this post from Sam Waterson). There are certain things a campus can and cannot control. A campus can choose the space they want to occupy and what they deliver to their customers. They can align all their deliverables, messages and languages around that choice. But when it comes to brand, customers are the ones who control it; they are the ones who determine its believability, trustworthiness and accuracy. You may erroneously choose to position yourself as the school who has something for everyone and can make any dream come true, regardless of a student’s desired field of interest and their ability to learn (or pay)—but be wary that your brand may suggest otherwise.

By being everything to everyone, you think you’re being safe. But in truth, you give the opposite impression to your customers. It’s suspicious. It’s as suspicious as a restaurant that offers filet mignon, spaghetti and chicken fingers on the same menu.

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Kirk Donlan

Kirk is a Writer at RHB and the Engagement Specialist for The Major Key.