Finding your one place in the universe: Why being an “only” makes life better for you and your university.

When donors and prospective students (and their families)—your sources of income—have more than 5,000 colleges and universities from which to choose to support or attend, they need help finding the right fit. They’re asking: To whom shall I entrust my gift? Which school will provide me with the best future? Helping these important audiences find you as an answer means you need to rise above the mass of 5,000 “competitors.”

If you offered something the market wanted that no other college or university offered, you could have confidence knowing that you would always have a market and income. Finding your “only,” your one place in the universe, provides that confidence.

Marty Neumeier’s book Zag offers a great exercise on how to get to your statement of being an “only.” Being both “good” and “different,” he says, will provide the most lasting and largest share of the market. Zeroing in on the market position you solely own is ideal; it helps your prospective students and donors know to come to you first.

Your positioning statement should articulate your one place in the universe that distinguishes you among competitors. Remember that your competition may come from outside the 5,000 other colleges and universities you already know you’re vying with. For example, a student may choose a coding academy or decide to go directly to the workforce. A donor may choose to take a vacation (and miss Homecoming!) with disposable income, or select to give it to the symphony.

Why else is finding your one true place important? It:

  • Clarifies and focuses your messaging
  • Helps your constituents/customers align with you
  • Informs strategies about market segmentation and targeting efforts
  • Provides direction for the entire campus (if this is our one place, what do we do?)
  • Shapes behaviors of all employees
  • Informs strategies and vision
  • Makes you readily stand out

How do you find your “one place”?

Standing out in the crowd sounds like a great thing, right? But how do you get to your “only”? And how do you know when you’ve landed on your “only”?

  1. Examine your CX (customer experience): what does your college truly deliver? What doesn’t it deliver? If you think you have something for everyone, you’re not only mistaken, you aren’t delivering a trustworthy message.
  2. Evaluate the messages you are sending: what are your claims and are all of them true? What other colleges or universities (or other organizations, for that matter) deliver on your promise better than you do?
  3. Explore external perspectives: look carefully at the competition. Compare your message, deliverables and promises with theirs. Listen to external audiences—what do they know about you? What do they believe about you? What do they say about you?

Gathering this data will equip you with the resources to find the one place you own. Let that be your north star.

Some ways to differentiate:

  • Size: “We’re the smallest college in the world.”
  • Location: “We’re in the heart of NYC; our campus is in the Empire State Building.” Or, “We’ve got the most beautiful view of Malibu.”
  • Curriculum: “We’re the only school with a program in ___.”
  • Delivery methods: “We bring our programs to your living room with live teaching facilitators.”
  • Expert processes: “Our core curriculum is the only one that includes _______.”
  • Campus facilities: “Our chemistry building boasts the most advanced technologies on earth, as certified by ______.”
  • Student experiences: “Every student is guaranteed a semester studying the Costa Rican rain forest.”
  • Price: “We’re the most expensive university in the country.”
  • Alliances: “We serve as the home campus for Procter and Gamble employees.” Or, “Every graduate leaves with a diploma and Salesforce certification.”
  • Outcomes: “We’ve graduated more US Presidents than any university in America.”
  • Founding: “We were the first college founded west of the Mississippi.”

Helping you find your “only” is a cause that’s written into the very fabric of RHB. When we redesigned our logo a few years ago, we tried to find a meaningful and direct way to represent this. If you’ve ever wondered about the blank spot in the “H” of our logo, you now know why it’s there. The missing square in the “H” represents our intention to help you—and every one of our clients—discover the one place where you can shine brightest. By knowing that place, you can coherently rise to your fullest potential.

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Rick Bailey

Rick is the Principal and founding partner at RHB.