Your Institution Is Only Distinctive if Others Take Notice
This article previously appeared in Inside Higher Ed and it is posted here with permission of the author.
“Distinctive” is a popular descriptor in college and university strategic plans. From analyzing more than 150 plans, we’ve seen institutions claim distinctive strengths, distinctive academic programs, distinctive co-curricular programs, distinctive teaching and learning, a distinctive student experience, a distinctive mission, distinctive values, a distinctive identity. You get the idea. (Self-disclosure: I too have been guilty of this bias toward my own institution when in senior administrative roles.)
And if this onslaught of distinctiveness is not enough, some institutions even declare their own strategic plans to be distinctive, despite the fact that colleges and universities are largely pursuing similar goals.
The central question is, distinctive to whom?
“Something that is distinctive is easy to recognize because it is different from other things,” according to Cambridge.
Sure, your programs, your campus experience and other aspects of your institution seem distinctive internally, because they’re yours. You—creators of the plan—are immersed in your institution. You live it every day, so of course you take notice. The pitfall is the inability to see the institution as others do. You no longer possess objectivity about distinctiveness.
In his new book, Whatever It Is, I’m Against It: Resistance to Change in Higher Education, Macalester College president emeritus Brian Rosenberg makes this point concisely and directly: “It is also unhappily the case that colleges tend both to exaggerate their own distinctiveness and to overestimate the visibility of distinctiveness to the consumer, part of a broader pattern of making strategic decisions by looking inward rather than outward.” Mic drop.
It’s one thing for campus leaders to recognize that they are not the target audience (which I always appreciate) when they’re reviewing marketing materials. It’s another to acknowledge that they are not the market when setting strategy. Market orientation is a fundamental weakness of higher education strategic planning. In our study, we found nearly two-thirds of plans (63 percent) lacked any formal market research. It’s part of the reason why strategic plans include more planning—an internal concentration on items an institution can control—than strategy, a set of choices made knowing your position in a dynamic marketplace.
As a result, we continue to encourage presidents and chancellors to include their chief marketing officer as part of the core strategic planning group to help bring a market orientation to the process. (In our previous RHB research of active plans in 2020-21, only 38 percent of such groups included the senior marketing leader. In our most recent study of plans launched in 2022 and 2023, it was 37 percent.)
For CMOs and their teams, we recommend they fully embrace their role as champions for their institution’s most important external constituencies.
It’s a role we rarely see articulated as part of marketing’s purpose. Review marcomm websites across higher ed, for example, and you’re more likely to see a focus on the functional aspects of the work (“we’re strategists, storytellers, creatives,” etc., or “we provide marketing and communications services”) than on the outcomes of the work.
Those desired outcomes related to reputation and the flow of resources into your institution are all rooted in the perceptions and choices of others. What do they believe to be true about your institution? Are they ultimately choosing your institution to enroll, to work, to give their money or time? When they do join your community in these ways, do their experiences match the expectations they had formed?
Some colleagues may see the CMO and the marketing team as the chief cheerleaders and promoters of the institution. While there is a time and place for that, help them to understand that your work begins by understanding those to whom the institution aims to be relevant. You’re the data-informed voice of your constituents and the people your market comprises.
And if they are the ones taking notice, you’ve got something distinctive.