Find the Confidence to Own Your Market Position

Learning to be authentically who you are is an important lesson for anyone, institutions of higher learning included. But it can also bring you face-to-face with some realities that might shock you. For instance, if you think your institution is uncommon in a way that it in fact is not, you may discover that you have more competitors than you believed. Or you may find that the size of the market for the institution you are today is insufficient to accommodate the growth you’ve planned for tomorrow. Or you may find that your institution’s strength calls you to be a disruptor among peers who adhere to strict standards. Being different might be dangerous.

Angst aside, the path to authenticity ultimately leads to a successful exchange with prospective students, parents, donors and any other audience. This journey is rewarding and actually fairly simple. Of course, there’s also the hard work of researching, evaluating and deciding, but the steps themselves are fairly straightforward.


1. Decide on a market position.

Remember that you are in control of and may choose your market position. You determine who you are and who you intend to be relative to other institutions in your competitive set. You do not have full control of your brand. Your customers decide your brand. You decide your market position. Read what our executive vice president and creative director has to say about this here.

If it’s possible for you to occupy a position as an “only,” you can work toward a monopoly for the market that wants to buy what you deliver. If that niche is sustainable, you have a secure future.

But what happens if you aren’t an “only”?

If you are not the singular source for a particular educational advantage, or if the number of people interested in your “only” is not large enough to achieve your goals, you may need to choose a market position alongside a few others. That’s okay, but you’ll need to be cognizant of your competitors in that positioning set and articulate the ways you are different from, or better than, them.

2. Align your institutional behaviors with your positioning.

This step gets a bit tougher.

Once you’ve selected a market position, carefully examine your behaviors and conversations to ensure that everything you do and say points to and affirms the position you have chosen. Your brand is built on the encounters, exchanges and experiences your customers have with you.

If you are a Christian college, for example, then you will decide to say and do those things that Christ-followers say and do. If your position also includes being Jesuit as a subset of a Christian college competitive set, then you will speak and act as Jesuits do. Ask yourself, “If we choose to be known as X, what behaviors and messages would prove that?” If you intend to be authentic, you cannot choose to beX, and behave like Y or sound like Z.

If you claim to be X, behave like the very best X you can.

3. Repeat steps 1 and 2 to build awareness and trust.

By repeating actions and language that lend evidence to the validity of your market position, you will build trust—and believability in—the fact that you are indeed who you say you are. And that’s how your brand is built.

If you are located in a rural environment, own that rural setting by offering something that is immensely attractive about your program and directly links to your setting. Paul Smith’s College, for example, offers a distinctive location in the Adirondacks with programs that make use of that remarkable place. Yet, Paul Smith’s is not for everyone—they have to be content with a limited audience. It would be a mistake—and completely unbelievable—for Paul Smith’s to describe themselves in the same way that Columbia University might, and vice versa.

The way into the hearts of prospective students and donors is paved by the integrity with which you deliver and describe what you are.

Beyond building trust and believability, repetition has another important byproduct: awareness. We often hear, “Our trustees want us to be a household name.” And while the validity of that dream is a topic for another time, it’s common for people on most campuses to desire more familiarity in the marketplace. (Here’s another one we hear at least once per month: “I was in a coffee shop just blocks from our campus, and there were people who had never heard of us and didn’t know where we were located! Our marketing stinks.” Don’t get me started…)

Repeated behavior and messaging gets noticed. You must be consistent. You must repeat well beyond your comfort. When you are getting tired of your message, you’re only getting started in the marketplace. Keep at it. Remind yourself you are making an investment. The dividends will come.

One of the great joys of RHB’s work over the past 25 years has been helping campus leaders find courage when it comes to choosing a market position. Our work with our clients helps them to discover their one place in the universe, which helps them adopt their true nature, which helps strategies evolve naturally. The types of creative solutions that emerge when everyone has the confidence to be authentic are more effective, more engaging and—certainly for us—more rewarding.

We call that kind of behavior—understanding who you are, what your audience needs and where those two points intersect—coherence, and it brings confidence. Which is a crucial factor in owning your market position. When you know who you are, you find a consistent voice with which to tell your story without apology. You speak from a positive point of view, never cowering from those who may be larger, better known or notably distinctive. You own your story, knowing where you stand in contrast to competitors. You believe in what you deliver. You tell the truth; you have no need to invent a different story or “augment” in any way. You know you deliver something of value to the world, especially if it’s focused toward a well-defined target audience. You don’t resort to “spin.” When you are committed to behaving coherently, successfully occupying your market position doesn’t just come easily, it comes organically.

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Rick Bailey

Rick is the Principal and founding partner at RHB.