Why history matters in higher ed marketing.
If you’re an active reader of RHB Insights, you’re likely familiar with our principle of Coherence and its significant role in the work we do helping colleges and universities succeed. Coherence is all about truthfulness and authenticity in who you are, what you say and what you do. While it can be difficult without the proper guidance for an institution to achieve Coherence, doing so provides extraordinary benefits. We’ve seen it firsthand with the multitude of colleges and universities we’ve served in our 26-year history. Achieving Coherence and having a coherent message will help your institution cultivate and nurture meaningful and significant relationships with your audiences. Better relationships, in turn, lead to stronger enrollment classes, increased gift-giving and more true fans to spread the good word about your intuition.
So yeah—you’re going to want Coherence. But the tricky part is ascertaining that core truth of who you are and finding that one place in the universe that only your institution can hold. It takes a lot of hard work and some serious introspection to get there (we have a Three Satellite process that has proven to be effective in helping our clients with this). But if you’d like to get a good head start, here’s my recommendation: learn and know your history.
Why History Matters
One of the difficult stages in the journey toward Coherence is figuring out who you (truly) are and what is (distinctively) true about you. As you try to answer these questions that you may have previously taken for granted, there will likely be a lot of head scratching interspersed with a few fleeting moments of finger-raised, “a-ha!” enlightenment before you actually hit on something that you can confidently say is true and distinctive about your institution. You’ll have a leg up on this process, however, if you begin by mining your history for ideas and answers.
Every college or university—yours included—has an origin story, and while your institution has evolved and changed with the times (for better or worse), going back to your roots will provide you with crucial clues about your true identity. Dig around and you’ll find answers to questions like: who founded your school and why? Why that year? Why that place? What did they envision for the future of your institution? What are the origins of your school’s name? What gap in education was missing that was to be filled by your institution?
Perhaps your founder was a socially-conscious progressive ahead of their time. Maybe your institution paved the way for some tide-changing, noble cause. Possibly your campus was built near a historic, natural landmark that inspired great works of art. Any of these stories can and should be shared with your audiences. By going back to the start, you will gain some clarity regarding what was so original and remarkable about your institution to begin with. This is a first step toward knowing who you really are.
Here’s another reason why your history matters: your history is truly yours. No other school shares your exact history. As you well know, distinction in a marketplace as crowded as higher education is incredibly difficult, but leveraging the inimitable aspects of your history in your current messaging will help ensure that what you say about yourself is authentic and one-of-a-kind. Even if your historic identity is too antiquated to resonate with modern audiences, there’s no doubt that aspects of it will be timeless and valuable, and can be used to best shape your current identity.
Be thorough. Use discernment.
While you might assume that your current identity is by default reflective of your past, the truth is, the passage of time and changes in leadership throughout the years can sometimes warp an intuition’s message and mission, much like a game of “telephone” can distort a message when played with a large group of friends (dated reference, I know—when was the last time you actually “played telephone”?) To rectify this, you’ll need to be thorough in your examination of the past. Seek out what was true at the very beginning of your history before things got mangled up and twisted along the way. Then, decide which aspects of it still hold up and still remain authentic.
Another consideration: though you may discover that long forgotten aspects of your history are more prescient and relevant than ever, conversely, you may discover that some of your current identity is based on an aspect of your history that, upon further research, seems a bit icky. Discard it. While your history can’t be changed, the nice thing is, you can choose which features of your history will serve your identity going forward and which should be—well, just history.
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No surprise, your institution’s history is important. And if you’re nodding your head in agreement, do so not out of some obligatory acknowledgment of your institution’s past that any good supporter would offer. Do so with the understanding that your history is yours and yours alone; and because knowing your history will guide you in articulating who you truly are.