Discovering and owning your institutional truth: A daring and essential act of vulnerability

Finding out the truth about who you are is a daring act of vulnerability.

It is in large part an excruciating inner journey—a cataloging of flaws and shortcomings, a confrontation of insecurities and fears. Even the positive insights you gain from this exercise can be read as deficits: an identification of the contour of your dreams conjures insecurities about the validity of those dreams; an embrace of your distinctive strengths calls into question why you’re not stronger in other areas.

But even the best of us—those brave enough to take the inner journey—can’t find out the truth about ourselves without the help of someone else. The reality we’ve constructed has been shaped too acutely by the private myths we tell ourselves to justify current behaviors, warped to accommodate the weight of our personal history, and recalibrated to pay the toll of our ambitions—or to simply survive the tyranny of the everyday. We are all unreliable narrators. We must ask others about who we are—and we must be open to what they have to say.

The same is true for colleges and universities interested in identifying their one true place in the higher education landscape. Finding out the truth about who you are now as an institution—and where you stand among your competitors—is the crucial first step to improving your market position and moving toward a better version of your authentic institutional self.

Many clients fear this process will shine light on the things they currently have no answer for: a once-signature academic program now in decline, a tendency to offer too-generous financial aid packages at the 11th hour, an alumni base that feels disconnected from their alma mater.    

These are all challenges that can be addressed through thoughtful planning and strategy. But what many clients don’t anticipate is the difficulty of owning and committing to who they truly are—and what that means for what they must do next.

What if we are not enough? 

During my first stint at RHB ( 2006 to 2013 ) I was part of a team presenting creative concepts for a new admissions campaign based on research we’d conducted with current students, faculty and staff of a small, Christian liberal arts institution. I will never forget the response that one cabinet member offered when we were finished presenting: “This is exactly who we are, and it scares me.”

It didn’t horror-movie scare him (we aren’t that intense during our presentations). The authenticity of the creative expression scared him: Too bold, too different from what they’d traditionally done, too true. He, and many members of the cabinet, were afraid of embracing their identity—and of the students they might lose out on if they committed to who they really were.

Their previous marketing efforts—uninspired and indistinct messaging aimed at appealing to everyone—had failed them. Enrollment numbers were down, their backs were against the wall and they were afraid of losing a single student. As a result, they were missing out on scores of perfect-fit students interested in the distinctive experience they had to offer.

It’s a vicious cycle: The numbers slip a bit, people fear for their jobs, err generic on messaging, attempt to appeal to everyone. The numbers slip a bit more, the messaging gets muddier, a little farther from the truth of who they are, and suddenly they’re lost in a sea of institutions saying the exact same thing.

This client was living the elementary school playground nightmare that many of us continue to struggle with as adults: What if I am not enough? Too many of us—individuals and institutions of higher education alike—attempt to apply the salve of assimilation to the wounds of our insecurities: I’ll change who I am! Not a complete overhaul, but a tweak to my personality here, a repression of a quirk there. I’ll try to fit in. Maybe then they’ll like me. Maybe then I’ll be enough.

Desperation is the Enemy of Distinctiveness

Insecurity breeds desperation. And desperation is the enemy of distinctiveness. The moment you begin to give up on the pieces of yourself that make you who you are is the moment you start to disappear.

Every institution has a distinctive position they can claim as their own: comprising a set of specific experiences and traditions, filtered through the prism of their mission and colored by their location, history and programmatic offerings. But just like human beings, colleges and universities can feel like what they have to offer is not enough. Or that it’s too weird to be accepted. Or it’s not marketable.

Be Unapologetically Who You Are

All are false claims. If RHB’s 32-year-history has taught us anything it is this: no matter how wildly different or strange or niche a college or university thinks they are, there are prospective students who share your values, quirks and worldview. Those people are searching desperately to connect with a community where they can be unapologetically who they are.

The types of connections that customers make with communities like these are deep and enduring. Because they see themselves reflected in the brand, the brand becomes part of their personal identity. They become lifelong advocates: the first in a line of legacies, future donors, champions of your cause.

Finding out the truth about who you are is difficult, but it requires introspection, vulnerability and the courage to live into your authentic self. In The Power of Vulnerability, Brené Brown writes, “Authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we actually are.”

At RHB, we undertake the difficult and necessary work of helping clients discover, embrace and articulate their distinctive institutional identity. It is the space we’ve thrived in for more than three decades, and over that time we’ve honed proprietary research methodologies that have enabled institutions to create messaging, shape academic programming and devise strategic plans that set them up for enduring success.

You are not alone in this journey. In fact, you can’t be. We can help you with this important work. 

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