Advance Your Higher Ed Brand with Storytelling Confidence

The Five C’s of Coherence

We hear, more than ever, the line “we need help with our story” from prospective clients. And by “help,” they generally mean a compelling articulation of what makes them worth enrollment or donation.

Our practices are designed to discover how the experience you deliver is one-of-a-kind. Our work is a bit like mining for gold. Most often we unearth evidence that you have a distinctive story—it’s just not very clear. You need clarity yourself to give you the confidence to tell it convincingly.

And here’s the rub. Unfortunately, like pubescent teenagers, most college and university leaders aren’t aware of or feel uncomfortable with their differences. They fear standing out by being different. So eager to emulate the top 10 or 20 schools, they self-describe using words that mirror more-securely positioned institutions. In the same way that teenagers choose to dress alike, institutions market themselves in ways that reflect other more prestigiously branded colleges and universities. In so doing, they mask what makes they themselves beautiful.

And in the same way that parents and close friends know the real person underneath that teen’s crazy haircut, or set of clothes, or funky nail color, those closest to you—students, faculty, alumni, prospects, parents—know when you are being disingenuous, when the real you isn’t showing.

More than that, those you’d like to convince to join you as a student or donor can ascertain when you are being authentic. They note what you are saying and compare it to what others are saying about you. They read comments and reviews from current students and alumni; they know what their friends think about you. So when you try to sound like a college or university that you clearly are not, they’re not convinced. In fact, they’re a bit repulsed.

That’s why it’s so important to know and tell the truth; it’s why being your authentic self is critical to relationship building. And it’s precisely why you must invest in knowing what’s true about you—especially if it’s a little weird—and telling your remarkable story with confidence.

And that brings us to a concept we call coherence: achieving a level of authenticity that defines the one place you alone can occupy in the higher-ed landscape. The prize you derive from coherence is confidence. By telling the truth about yourself, you won’t have to remember what version of your story you told to others. You tell the same story to everyone, because it’s true. And while you may point out different wonderful aspects of your glorious self to prospective students than to your prospective donors, you’re telling the same truth again and again until you have a trustworthy brand that others talk about with integrity.

Consistency in telling your true story—even when you tire of telling it—will serve as the path to ensuring accuracy in your brand building. Again, because you are telling the truth, you’ll be able to repeat your story with confidence. You’ll want to tell your story to your audiences often to cement it in their minds. As your audiences interact with you, that is, exchange with you through communications, conversations, encounters or your marketing efforts, they’ll be verifying the consistency of their experience with the story you’re telling. Of course, this means that your behaviors must align with the story you are telling. If you are picturing a circular diagram as you read this, you’re on the right track. While you are telling the truth through messaging and behaviors, your audiences are testing the truth of your messages and behaviors. Consistency will generate the trust you need to build a strong brand.

The success of your brand also rests on your capacity to do the work of marketing and relationship building. Conducting an organizational assessment will provide insight about your level of capability to adequately meet the task of advancing your brand. Not only will you need an adequate team, you’ll also need the tools for your efforts. Begin with strong customer relationship management (CRM) software. For higher education, the two strongest options (Salesforce and Slate) are working toward more seamless data management for lifetime engagement with your constituents. CRM technology is stretching the horizon for personalized connections with your many and varied audiences, and it’s changing the power positions in your marketing team. Power is becoming less a matter of place in a hierarchy and more about access to and knowledge of the functions of your CRM. We urge you to make your CRM administrators regular participants in meetings any time strategy is addressed.

If you have followed RHB for any period of time, you know we talk about coherence from every perspective we can because we have seen the success it brings to colleges and universities who embrace it as a philosophy and strategy. In summary of this post, you might think of coherence this way:

Coherence: achieving a level of authenticity to allow you to communicate your market position with clarity and sufficient consistency to provide the confidence you need to tell your story at your greatest capacity.

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Rick Bailey

Rick is the Principal and founding partner at RHB.