In a long-ago college economics course, a professor asked where we would put an ice cream stand on a busy beach that already had a successful ice cream vendor. Most of us said, “Far away from the existing ice cream stand,” so that we wouldn’t have to compete. The right answer, he said, was right next to the other stand. That’s where people know to go for ice cream, and your distinctiveness comes into sharper focus when you are side-by-side with your competitors. It’s the reason retailers gather in shopping centers and auto dealers locate in auto malls.
As board members, we’re not selling ice cream or cars, but the same lesson applies. Institutional identity is what differentiates a college or university from its competitors. Rooted in mission and personality, it allows you to tell a story based on what matters to students and supporters. For boards, this means clearly articulating the “why” of your institution, choosing relevant and compelling stories, and being honest about your place in the market.
Articulate Your Institutional Mission
Building an institutional identity, particularly at the board level, begins with a clearly articulated mission, an unmistakable answer to the “Why?” of institutional existence. Author and teacher Simon Sinek writes in Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action that “people don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.”
Too often, we confuse what we do or how we do it with why we do it. We too often rely on generic descriptors like small classes, close faculty student relationships, and experiential learning— regardless of institutional size and type—to introduce who we are.
Generic descriptors do serve a purpose. They place our institutions in the pantheon of higher education so that those looking for schools like us can find us. Some of us stop there, forgetting that nearly every institution claims those same characteristics or at least uses those same words to describe themselves. Even when we declare that our ice cream is “really, really good,” we don’t break through the crowd.
Tyler Borders, co-founder of Dartlet, a reputation-strategy consulting firm used by Manchester University over the past several years, says that institutions need to be clear about their “reason for being, their cause [read: “mission”], which extends beyond product and profit.”
Boards are often designated as the ultimate stewards of an institution’s mission. An overarching board responsibility is to ensure that cause and mission evoke emotion by naming clearly the institution’s reason for being.
A key to attracting support is being authentic, and being authentic means being honest. There is nothing more damaging to an institution than pretending to be something it isn’t. Often, the disconnect comes when an organization markets aspirations or ignores weaknesses: claiming to be academically strong when its student body is below average or nationally competitive when students and support come from within a 100-mile radius.
Boards and presidents are often, unwittingly, the source of inauthentic marketing. They worry that the truth will turn off prospective students or donors or alienate key supporters. They want to be seen at their best, their very best, and, sometimes, their fairy-tale best. This is the source of the tour that takes prospects through a clean room in the newest residence hall on campus. The result is a bland, inoffensive, and uninspiring message. After all, what aspiring college student hopes to live in a sanitized dorm room?
After sitting through 53 Power- Point slides describing the grim state of higher education during a summer retreat, Manchester’s board was reminded by our facilitator that “hope and denial are not strategies for institutional change.” Unfortunately, many institutions are selling who they want to become or papering over what they lack. Most prospective students and friends quickly see through the pretense or, worse, are attracted by it only to find out it is a veneer.
Set aside ego. Be authentic.
Embrace Your Institutional Personality
Like a clearly articulated mission, identifying and embracing who you are authentically is an important step in developing an enduring and competitive institutional identity. An effective tool for identifying and embracing an authentic story is branding.
Borders describes brands as “social stereotypes.” “We assign people and things into buckets,” he says. “If you don’t assign yourself properly, and align yourself with a personality that is easily recognizable, you run the risk of being forgotten. Because as much as we like to believe it, we don’t have time for all the complexities. We all think we are special—we are all very special and unique—but in the brand world no one has time for that.”
Borders and his Dartlet colleagues have developed a methodology for helping organizations identify and embrace their social stereotypes, which they call archetypes or personalities. Calling them personalities reflects a core element of the methodology—letting people know what to expect from an institution by investing it with human characteristics. Examples of the personalities are neighbor, discoverer, artisan, and leader.
Each communicates a different sense of what students will find or what donors can support (research at a discoverer university, creativity at an artisan college). In addition, they point toward strategies for voice, tone, and style in writing, photography, social media, and other forms of communication. A supportive neighbor institution will look, feel, and sound different than a leader institution.
The challenge of branding is that it reduces a complex or multifaceted institution or product into the equivalent of soundbites. A common complaint is that some people and programs feel left out or de-emphasized. There are creative people at research-oriented universities and supportive people at institutions that draw self-starting students, but they aren’t the people or programs that define or distinguish the institution in the market.
A significant advantage of careful branding is focusing attention on the core differentiators of an organization or product, allowing potential customers to begin sorting their options. If asked, for example, most ice cream aficionados could identify the brands that sell themselves as creamier or offering more choices or being less fattening or being more premium than the competition. And they could tell you which they prefer and why.
When a student says, “I knew I belonged here the minute I set foot on campus,” he or she is responding in an emotional, intuitive way to the personality of a place. Regardless of the process used to get there, the fundamental value of articulating and embracing an authentic institutional brand is putting words to paper and developing a shared institutional language, voice, style, and tone.
Develop Message Maps
A key product of our branding work at Manchester was development of a message map. We spent as much time and energy on it as we did on crafting our last campus master plan and developing our recently completed comprehensive campaign; that is, we involved hundreds of people, gathered reams of information, and tested the product of our work before rolling it out.
Built on three levels, a message map includes a top line or key message, supporting messages, and proof points. The top line messages often sound generic, despite efforts to find words and phrases not typically used by others. The supporting messages could similarly apply to many, but not all, other institutions. It is the proof points that are pure Manchester. They are the specific stories we tell.
For example, a top-line message at Manchester is that “students grow by learning to think critically in an academic community that prizes the maturation of the whole person.” One of the ways this happens (supporting message) is that “faculty challenge and inspire students to acquire deeper understanding and curiosity.” A proof point we offer is that “students present original research to their peers during weekly science seminars.”
One of the major message maps we are working on is what we mean by the liberal arts at Manchester. The liberal arts are a cornerstone of our identity and, as we’ve added master’s and professional programs, we’ve worked to make sure that they are consistent with this aspect of who we are. You might imagine this to be a simple task because we invoke the liberal arts so often. We learned very quickly, however, that asking a dozen faculty will produce two dozen answers, and asking a dozen board members will result in two dozen questions.
Tell Human Stories
In addition to providing common language, message maps give board members, recruiters, advancement professionals, faculty, and staff a framework for effective storytelling.
We teach people to “ladder” up and down our message maps. If you talk about something you do in your department (a proof point), tell also why you do it: “We offer a course in the history of science because we know that interdisciplinary study helps students develop critical thinking skills.” When you explain a core commitment of the institution, provide an example of how a student might experience it: “We want all students to develop critical thinking skills, so we emphasize interdisciplinary study with courses like the history of science.”
The proof points, the evidence of what we do, are always human stories. They are stories about our day-to-day living and learning together. The beauty of this approach is that the stories people tell are the ones that excite them about who we are, what we do, and how we do it. Rather than falling back on talking points or generic descriptors or, worst of all, someone else’s story, institutional promoters tell their own stories with passion and pride.
Additionally, because these stories are specific and personal, they allow the prospective student or supporter to see themselves engaged with an institution. Students can see themselves in a lab, on a study abroad trip, or exploring the history of science. Supporters can see how their time, energy, and money will touch the lives of students. As a consequence, conversations are always lively and engaging.
Institutions should aim for—and boards should expect—an authentic, compelling, and clearly articulated identity. Prospective students and others should find you in a crowded marketplace because the vivid and human stories you tell resonate with what they are seeking.
When I go out for ice cream, I avoid frozen custard because I don’t like how it feels in my mouth. The very thing that many frozen custard brands tout as being distinctive about their product—“luscious and creamy… denser and richer than ordinary ice cream” is how one describes it—is what puts me off. But that’s a good thing for both of us. Because they’re clear about what differentiates them from their competition, I know exactly where to go when buying ice cream for my wife. She loves the stuff.