Branding the Student Experience: Enrollment Marketing in Higher Ed:

Changing Higher Ed 205 with host Dr. Drumm McNaughton and guest Allen Adamson

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Changing Higher Ed 205 with host Dr. Drumm McNaughton and guest Allen Adamson – Branding the Student Experience-Enrollment Marketing in Higher Ed
Changing Higher Ed Podcast | Drumm McNaughton | The Change Leader

30 April · Episode 205

Branding the Student Experience: Enrollment Marketing in Higher Ed

33 Min · By Dr. Drumm McNaughton

Boost higher ed enrollment through strategic branding and marketing. Differentiate your institution by crafting unique student experiences. Stand out in a crowded market.


With 98% of higher education institutions looking the same and offering similar programs, the challenge for any single institution to stand out is immense. With an oversupply of institutions and a shrinking pool of prospective students, colleges and universities are grappling with the critical need to differentiate themselves and attract enrollments. In this landscape, effective branding and marketing strategies have become more important than ever for the survival and growth of higher education institutions.

This episode of Changing Higher Ed features Alan Adamson, co-founder of MetaForce, discussing the importance of branding and marketing in differentiating higher education institutions in an oversaturated homogeneous market. Adamson shares his insights from his vast experience in branding across various industries, emphasizing the need for higher education institutions to stand out to attract enrollment.


The Branding Challenge in Higher Education

Higher education is facing a crisis of differentiation, with many institutions stuck in a cycle of imitation, offering programs and experiences that mirror those of their competitors. This lack of differentiation not only makes it challenging to attract students but also contributes to a commoditization of higher education, where price becomes the primary deciding factor for prospective students and their families.

As competition intensifies and student preferences evolve, colleges and universities are under increasing pressure to develop unique brand identities that resonate with their target audiences. 

By stepping outside the higher education bubble and gaining a fresh perspective on effective differentiation, institutions can enhance their distinctiveness and appeal to prospective students. This requires a willingness to challenge traditional approaches, take calculated risks, and draw inspiration from outside the higher education sector.


Creating Unique Institution Identities

At the heart of successful higher education branding lies the creation of a unique institutional identity that resonates with the target audience. This involves identifying and leveraging the institution’s distinctive strengths, whether it be a unique heritage, location, or academic focus. NYU’s “in and of the city” positioning, spearheaded by former president John Sexton, is a prime example of how a clear and compelling brand identity can differentiate an institution and drive enrollment growth.

To craft a strong brand identity, institutions must engage in a rigorous process of self-reflection and market research. This involves understanding the needs, aspirations, and preferences of prospective students, as well as the competitive landscape and the institution’s own strengths and weaknesses.

By aligning the brand identity with the needs and desires of the target audience, institutions can create a powerful and enduring brand that stands out in the crowded higher education marketplace.


Strategies for Differentiation and Growth

Differentiation is key to success in today’s competitive higher education market. To stand out, institutions must offer unique and compelling educational experiences that set them apart from their peers. This can involve developing signature programs, forging strategic partnerships with industry leaders, or leveraging the institution’s location or community to create distinctive learning opportunities.

Grand Valley State University’s Rapid Education Prototyping for Change (REP4) initiative is a prime example of how institutions can differentiate themselves by directly involving high school students in the design of their future educational experiences. By co-creating programs and experiences with their target audience, institutions can ensure that their offerings are relevant, engaging, and aligned with the needs and preferences of prospective students.

Effective communication of these differentiating factors is equally important. Institutions must develop strategic marketing campaigns that highlight their unique strengths and communicate the value proposition to prospective students and their families. This involves leveraging a range of channels, from traditional print and digital media to social media and experiential marketing, to reach and engage the target audience.


Peripheral Vision in Branding

To identify unique positioning strategies and innovations, institutions must extend their view beyond their direct competitors and the education sector. By adopting a “peripheral vision” approach, as advocated by Adamson, institutions can draw inspiration and insights from a wide range of industries and contexts.

This can involve studying successful branding and marketing strategies from consumer goods, technology, healthcare, or other sectors, and adapting them to the higher education context. For example, Apple’s focus on simplicity and user experience, or FedEx’s “absolute certainty” brand promise, can provide valuable lessons for higher education institutions seeking to differentiate themselves and deliver exceptional student experiences.

By looking beyond the higher education bubble and embracing a more expansive view of branding and marketing, institutions can break free from the sea of sameness and establish themselves as distinctive and compelling choices for prospective students.


The Role of Consensus in Decision Making

One of the key challenges facing higher education institutions in their branding and marketing efforts is the prevalence of consensus-driven decision-making. As Adamson notes, “universities are consensus driven, lots of committees,” which can lead to diluted and ineffective branding strategies.

To overcome this challenge, institutions need strong and decisive leadership that can drive clear and focused branding initiatives. This may involve empowering a single individual or a small team to make strategic decisions rather than relying on broad consensus from multiple stakeholders.

As the example of Steve Jobs at Apple demonstrates, the ability to say “no” to certain ideas and focus on a few key priorities can be critical to developing a strong and distinctive brand. Higher education leaders must be willing to make tough choices and prioritize those initiatives that will have the greatest impact on differentiation and enrollment growth.


Importance of Simplifying the Brand Message

In today’s crowded and noisy marketplace, clarity and simplicity are essential for effective brand communication. As Adamson emphasizes, “simple matters,” and institutions must strive to boil down their core brand message to a few key points that are easy to understand and remember.

This involves focusing on a few key strengths or unique attributes rather than trying to communicate everything the institution has to offer. By simplifying the brand message and concentrating on what truly sets the institution apart, higher education marketers can cut through the clutter and make a lasting impression on prospective students.

For example, Carnegie Mellon University’s focus on being a world leader in technology education or Howard University’s emphasis on providing unique internship opportunities with leading tech companies like Google and Amazon demonstrate how a clear and focused brand message can differentiate an institution and drive enrollment growth.


Differentiation Through Student Outcomes

While many higher education institutions focus on describing their programs, facilities, and resources in their branding and marketing efforts, emphasizing unique student outcomes and success stories can be a more effective way to differentiate an institution.

By highlighting the real-world impact of an education at the institution, such as high job placement rates, successful alumni, or unique learning experiences, institutions can demonstrate the value proposition more concretely and compellingly. This approach can help prospective students envision the benefits of attending the institution and make a more informed decision about their educational future.

For example, sharing stories of graduates who have gone on to successful careers or made significant contributions to their fields can be a powerful way to differentiate an institution and attract prospective students who aspire to similar outcomes.


Signature Experiences and Social Proof

Developing signature experiences that define an institution’s brand and set it apart from competitors is another key strategy for differentiation and enrollment growth. These experiences can take many forms, from unique learning opportunities and internships to innovative programs and partnerships.

For example, NYU’s collaboration with Goldman Sachs to provide students with real-world finance experience, or Unity College’s focus on experiential environmental education, demonstrate how signature experiences can differentiate an institution and attract students who are looking for something beyond the traditional classroom experience.

Leveraging positive student testimonials and social proof is also critical for building brand credibility and attracting prospective students. As Adamson notes, “word of mouth is the most important marketing tool,” and institutions must actively seek out and showcase stories of student success and satisfaction.

By featuring student testimonials on the institution’s website, social media channels, and marketing materials, higher education marketers can provide authentic and compelling evidence of the institution’s value proposition and help prospective students envision themselves thriving at the institution.


Actionable Insights Over Descriptive Content

Finally, higher education institutions must shift their focus from simply describing their offerings to providing actionable insights and demonstrating real-world applications of their programs and experiences. This involves moving beyond a mere recitation of program features and resources to showcase how an education at the institution can lead to tangible outcomes and success.

For example, rather than simply listing the number of courses offered in a particular subject area, institutions can highlight how graduates have applied their learning to solve real-world problems or make meaningful contributions to their fields. By focusing on the practical implications and benefits of an education at the institution, marketers can make the brand more relatable and compelling to prospective students.


Three Key Takeaways for Higher Education Leaders and Boards


  1. Keep it Simple: Focus on a simple, clear idea and execute it brilliantly. A well-executed, straightforward concept is more effective than a complex, poorly implemented one.

  2. Get Out of Your Bubble: Look beyond your immediate competitors and the higher education sector for inspiration and insights. Explore other industries, regions, and perspectives to identify unique positioning strategies and innovations.

  3. Strive for Brilliance, Not Mediocrity: Choose an idea that you can execute exceptionally well, even if it’s not groundbreaking. It’s better to be great at something simple than average at something ambitious.

By adopting these strategies and insights, higher education institutions can break through the sea of sameness, differentiate themselves in a crowded marketplace, and drive enrollment growth for long-term sustainability and success. As the enrollment crisis continues to evolve, effective branding and marketing will only become more critical for institutions seeking to thrive in an increasingly competitive environment.


About Our Podcast Guest

Allen Adamson is a noted industry expert in all disciplines of branding. He has worked with a broad spectrum of consumer and corporate businesses in industries ranging from packaged goods and technology to health care and financial services, to hospitality and entertainment. 

Allen’s newest book is Seeing the How: Achieving Market Advantage by Transforming the Stuff We Do, Not the Stuff We Buy. His previous books, BrandSimple, BrandDigital, The Edge, and Shift Ahead, are used as textbooks in higher education business programs across the country.

A sought-after industry commentator, Allen has appeared on ABC News, NBC’s Today Show, CNBC’s Squawk Box and Closing Bell, and Fox Business Network. He is often quoted in publications including The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Advertising Age, the Washington Post, and Forbes. 

Allen is co-founder & Managing Partner of Metaforce, an elite marketing collective of the industry’s top talent.

Allen’s LinkedIn Profile


About the Host

Dr. Drumm McNaughton is a consultant to higher education institutions in governance, accreditation, strategy and change, and mergers.


Transcript: Changing Higher Ed Podcast 205 with Allen Adamson

David: Welcome to Changing Higher Ed, a podcast dedicated to helping higher education leaders improve their institutions. With your host, Dr. Drumm McNaughton, CEO of The Change Leader, a consultancy that helps higher ed leaders holistically transform their institutions. Learn more at changinghighered. com. And now here’s your host, Drumm McNaughton.


Drumm: you, David. Thank you, David. Our guest today is Alan Adamson, co founder and managing partner of MetaForce, an elite marketing collective of the industry’s top talent. Alan’s a noted industry expert in all disciplines of branding and marketing. He’s worked with a broad spectrum of consumer and corporate businesses and industries, ranging from packaged goods and technology to healthcare and financial services, hospitality and entertainment, and now higher education.

Alan’s appeared on ABC News, NBC’s Today Show, and is often quoted in publication including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and Forbes. Some of you may ask, why do I mention Alan’s bona fides and have him on the show? Higher education currently has an oversupply of education institutions and an under demand of students.

And given that 98 percent of higher education institutions look the same and offer the same programs, it makes sense for us to look outside of higher ed to gain a deeper understanding of the important role branding and marketing play in creating sustainable institutions. And so Alan joins us today to share with us his perspectives on how higher ed institutions can break out of the pack to drive enrollment growth through branding and positioning.

Alan, welcome to the show.

Alan: Thanks for inviting me. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Drumm: Thank you. I’m looking forward to our conversation. You are an expert. When it comes to marketing and branding something that higher ed could use a little more help with so let’s get right into it give us a little background when I read about your background I was fascinated some of the things that you’ve done

Alan: you know no one I think ever sets out their career to be an expert or you have to focus on brand and.

Maybe a little bit of marketing. So I originally thought I was going to be a filmmaker. And then when I started to starve because I wasn’t as talented or as committed went back to business school and ended up starting my career in an advertising agency called Ogilvie and Mather, where we got to make little films called commercials.

I wasn’t allowed to touch those, the creative team did, but I got to hold my coffee on the set. And after a couple of years of that, decided to become a client, the other side of the agency, if you’ve ever watched Mad Men in the distant past, and I was at Unilever, which is a global package. This company was a great place to learn marketing because despite What I tried or what everyone tries to convince you, there’s not that much difference between one product and the other on the shelf in the supermarket.

You can’t take soap and clean your face on one side and another soap and clean your face on the other side and say, Oh my god, my right side is much cleaner than my left. So it’s a good category because of the nuanced product differences targeted at various niches to learn how to differentiate So I spent many years doing that.

And then I returned to the other side and work with Procter and Gamble for a bit. And then a company called Landor, which does brand positioning and global branding for lots of companies and organizations. And I’ve been on my own now in my own firm, which does similar things for the last five years.

Drumm: So when you look at, that’s a fascinating background, I just, I know the companies that you’ve talked about and they are the creme de la creme when it comes to marketing and positioning for institutions.

So when you look at the higher ed market, what do you see?

Alan: It’s a classic. situation where you have a lot of organizations that are doing many, many or everything right, but when you get to 30,000 feet and try to look at them and say, what’s the difference between College A and College B or University A and University B, while some of them have a big reputational lead, most of them are out of the same cookie recipe.

They have a, a nice campus. They have a nice library. They have a little quad. Their course curriculum is roughly the same. They have some really renowned instructors and professors. They talk the same about the student experience. They have dorms, they have different places students can eat. They have nice gyms and places to hang out.

Sometimes they’re attached to a local town, but you know when you start looking at exactly what they do. They are incredibly similar. It’s the same thing I find when we’re looking at the difference between one smartphone and the other. They both have chips. The chips do the same thing. They both have screens.

They both, have multiple apps you can download. The same thing with, you try to decide what type of car do you want. They both have coffee cup holders. They both have engines. They’re both quite, when I get into a rental car, it’s hard to tell. If you’re driving a. Korean import or an American luxury car.

It’s incredibly similar. And I think that’s where higher ed is today. They have lots of goods. We talk about brands. Are they focused on telling what they do? Are they focused on telling how they do it? Or are they focused on telling who they are and what they believe in? And most are talking about what they do.

And if you’re just telling people what you do or what you have in it, your ingredients, you’re made with natural dairy products, or you’re made with Intel chips, if you’re. Only telling people what you do and what you do is 98 percent is the same as everyone else. You’re going to be in a situation where I can’t see the difference.

So why do I have to pay any difference? And you get into a price situation. If I can’t tell the difference between one soap and the other when I was a Unilever, I’m going to buy the store brand. I’m going to buy the cheaper, I’m going to buy the one on sale. And brand is all about. Creating something different that matters to consumers.

Drumm: Well, what you just talked about to me is differentiation. How do you differentiate yourself from the other 3600 different universities and colleges that are out there right now? We’re facing declining markets. We’ve got an oversupply of higher ed, that enrollments are declining. We’re seeing more and more institutions going out of business and merging.

Higher Ed hasn’t learned how to differentiate itself. And I think a lot of that has to do with higher ed living inside its own bubble and not going outside to figure out who is good at what and then being able to differentiate yourself based on external views. versus internal views. Does that make sense?

Alan: It, it’s very much the case. A book I wrote with a professor at NYU a couple years back, it’s called Shift Ahead, and it, it explains why all these great companies are no longer here. Why every time you open a newspaper or listen to news, do you hear a renowned brand, company, or that has gone out of business?

And so Professor Joel Steckel and I looked at that, And one of the concepts he likes to talk about, which I loved is if you’re going to be successful in avoiding being your father’s Oldsmobile, one of the behaviors that gets organizations in trouble is they play, as he says, too much tennis and not enough golf.

So what he means by that is you spend all your time, if you’re playing tennis and I play both badly, watching your competitor and saying, well, Allen is on the right side of the court. Let me try to hit it to the left side. No, no, Allen’s moved to the right side. So you’re. Preoccupied. And I found that when I worked at Pepsi, I was completely focused on what Coca Cola did.

When I worked at Unilever, I was just, say, in the cafeteria. Did you see what Procter and Gamble did? And you get into this habit, if any organization, of just watching the dry cleaner across the street. And if they offer you one sweater clean for one free one for every, you do the same. And I think the same happens in higher education.

People go, Oh my God. Oh, look what this university is doing. They’re offering. Free breakfast on Thursday to students. Let’s do that too. And so you get very myopic. Whereas if you play golf, yeah, you’re somewhat worried about the people you’re playing with, but you’re really focused on the, which way the wind is blowing, how far you have to hit it, what the terrain is like.

You’ve got a much greater peripheral vision. You’re looking outside of your category. And if you look at disruption in any business, Very few companies get disrupted by their number one or two or three competitor. Gillette was winning in the razor blade business and every year they came up. So now they has three blades and then Schick made three blades and then Gillette added four blades and then Schick added four blades and they were going at it.

They were very myopically focused on the other guy, but at the end of the day, They got disrupted by Dollar Shave Club or somebody says, why do the number of blades matter? What’s the real hassle is remembering to get the blade. So why don’t you send them to me? So the same thing happens in higher ed.

They’re just looking at other universities and they just copy them and copying your competitor Unless you can dramatically outdo them. It’s usually a strategy to commodity land And so part of what makes this hard for universities and colleges is that they are You very attuned for what their peer set is doing, or what’s written in, did you read this?

And they did this at this university and, they can maybe copy it, but it’s unlikely they’ll do it as well or better. And part of the other challenges, the more things you try to do, the more likely you’ll be average at it. If I play both tennis and golf, I won’t be as good if I pick one.

I’ll be better if I pick one and focus on it. And so there’s a belief that, Oh, I’ll just add this, or we’ll just add a course in this, or we’ll just do this. And that will be the answer. But throwing more things into the kitchen sink doesn’t make the kitchen sink more desirable.

Drumm: It’s a sea of similarity.

As we talked about before is everybody looks the same. You’re offering the same courses. Yeah. Accreditation doesn’t help matters with it. I have to be careful because I help institutions with accreditation. So I don’t want to really get people angry. But when you submit a new program with accreditation, they want to know what are the other programs that you’ve compared it to, rather than saying, What are the student outcomes that you’re going to get and how are they different than other institutions?

So it’s trying to keep you inside that same box,

Alan: right? And so all this makes it harder because if you’re only looking at your peers that do the exact same thing you do Occasionally trying to copy them not really thinking out of the box You have an offer that’s very, universities and college are very complex experiences It’s like an airline, or a hotel, or a resort.

One of the famous quotes from an airline CEO is, I can do 50 things right on a flight. The plane could work, the pilot could know where he’s going, the food gets there on time, but if I do one thing wrong, lose your bags, spill coffee on you, then the experience is ruined. And same thing with a complicated university.

You could have great professors, great buildings, lovely extracurricular activities, But that doesn’t help you differentiate because ultimately it’s, there’s so many things going into the experience that just by touching one thing does not necessarily change everything.

Drumm: And a quote that you told me about from Steve Jobs, the most important decisions I made were no decisions.

No, we’re not going to do this. No, we’re not going to do that. No, we’re not going to position this way. Because he wanted it to be a unique experience.

Alan: Right. And if you don’t say no, then you’re saying yes to everything, which sets you up to do everything averagely at best. And there’s a quote we talked about from the New York times columnist, Tom Friedman.

He says, average is over today. You can get cheap genius. Fast, you can get what you want, you can get a package delivered in four hours, if you’re just doing everything averagely, especially on social media, no one shares, I had an average flight to L. A., the pilot found L. A., the bag sort of got there, no one shares, they either share the horrendous experience, And we won’t go into what those are, or something extraordinary.

So you mean like a window

Drumm: blowing out, something like that? Yeah, I

Alan: was going to go there, but I decided maybe not. But, so that gets shared, and somebody doing something phenomenal saying, running after you, you left your phone on the plane, and coming all the way through the terminal to give it to you.

Those things get shared. Yes, but everything in the middle doesn’t get because people don’t share. Oh, I use this toothpaste and, worked like almost every other toothpaste. And I was pretty happy with it. And if you ask me how happy I was with your toothpaste, I’ll say, I was really pretty happy with your toothpaste, but I won’t share that on social media.

And today, word of mouth is the most important marketing tool. And if you don’t have people sharing, other students aren’t saying, I took this great class. It was phenomenal. I love my freshman year. Young people are tuned to what other young people are saying. You’re setting yourself up for trouble if you do everything sort of okay, averagely.

Average is over. So pick a few things and do them extraordinarily well, because those have a higher likelihood of being shared on social media.

Drumm: I saw a couple of commercials just recently by FedEx. They’re talking about A couple were expecting their wedding rings and they didn’t show up in time. They left a note on the door, FedEx delivered to the beach, and the FedEx driver did that.

They showed up in time, etc. And then they had, it was done cartoon images, but then they had the actual FedEx driver there with that. That’s showing extraordinary service. That’s what Higher Ed needs to be able to do is show how they’re extraordinary over their competitors. Does that make sense?

Alan: More than sense. I had the privilege of working with FedEx for many, many years. And their brand promise, people think, Oh my God, a big company like that flying airplanes all over the world. What’s their brand promise? Their brand promise is Absolute certainty. You go in to their office and you talk to a receptionist.

Do you have a place I can get a tuna sandwich? He or she will solve that. Absolutely. Certainly. They know the brand promise. And so they deliver that promise because all their employees follow this idea called the purple promise, which is about delivering absolute certainty and doing whatever it takes.

To delight their customer and surprise their customer and make sure they come through. There was a movie made many, many years ago with Tom Hanks called Castaway. And it was about a FedEx plane. It was made with the FedEx’s cooperation. Unfortunately has an incident and goes down on a deserted island and he’s, Survives on the island with His FedEx boxes and a soccer ball.

But then when he goes back to the U S he takes one package and drives to this little town that was damaged from the ocean and sand and delivers the package. And that captures. The essence of FedEx. And that’s why they have been successful because they have a really focused brand story, but everyone in the organization from the receptionist to the driver, to the pilots, to the people tracking the information understands it and knows they have to deliver that.

Every day, there are other post office can do it, UPS can do it, other people, DHL, but they are relentlessly focused on delivering that surprise. So when that person gets their wedding ring on the beach, they post the video and 2000 people see and go, Oh my God, FedEx took it all the way to the beach from their doorstep.

And that’s a story that people remember and want to share.

Drumm: You can’t discount the power of social media. Because students, prospective students, this is how they’re getting a lot of their information. So if you’re able to touch students in an area that makes sense to them, you’ve got a better than a prospective buyer.

You have a very probable buyer.

Alan: You have a brand ambassador who’s going to be out on the mountaintop saying, I went to college ABC and I was not a great writer. And now I am much more. I love my writing. I’ve decided to do this and people are commenting on it. And that’s more impactful than saying our English department has 14 great professors who have done this many years, have written this many papers.

All that’s important and necessary, but it’s necessary but insufficient. And until you get to the student who says, this school changed my life.

Drumm: Now, let’s get into what higher ed institutions need to do to differentiate because that’s the key thing. Up to now we’ve been talking about mostly corporate. I think that’s good because higher ed needs to look outside of itself to see how other industries are doing things to be able to bring those lessons in.

So what does higher ed need to do to differentiate itself or Say one institution differentiate itself. Not a small question. Sorry.

Alan: Yeah, as I was saying, it’s easier said than done. The theory of this is easy, the execution is hard. And so while everyone knows how to do this, the people in the marketplace that are successful take the theory and execute it.

Apple wasn’t the first company with an iPad. HP had one, Dell had one. They were the first company to execute it. Brilliantly. And so take that as a warning that if we talk about here are the four steps you need to do this, even if you understand those four steps, none of them are easy and getting them done right is hard.

But the first thing to do is realizing that simple matters and going back to FedEx, if you can’t boil your core story down to a simple idea, That’s a challenge. And the second piece is if the only place you’re looking to differentiate your story is on what you do, your ingredients, your engineering, your classes, your campus size, your number of trees on the quad, the companies that only focus on what they do.

Are great if they have a what that’s completely unique when apple came out with the iphone That was a what that was different They didn’t have to explain why it was better than the blackberry and using those keys, you know It was clearly a different experience Most companies are faced with And most organizations, profits, non profits, are faced with a what story that’s pretty much the same as everyone else, and if they’re only searching in that area, let’s figure out, let’s talk about our classes, it’s a hard place to go, but even if you’re starting with a what story, you can’t just have a litany of We are this many students, this many teachers, this many successful grads.

You’re just listing the ingredients. While facts are interesting, but lots of these decisions need to go beyond the facts because if you compare the specs of one car to the other or one smartphone, the specs look almost identical for everything around you in your life. But universities are still in the headset of talking about what they do.

Less about how they do it, how they put it together, even less about who they are from a belief and personality point of view, and even less about why they do it, their purpose or mission. So the category is grounded in a simple what story. It’s a long story. So the step one, even if you’re doing a what story, you got to boil it down to.

We can tell them about everything here, but that won’t get them more interested. What are the two things or one thing that’s a good exemplifier of what we do going forward?

Drumm: It’s basically what you’re telling me is to differentiate, you need to know what you’re going to focus on and what you’re great at.

Focus on that one idea because you can’t be great in all things and do everything for all people. And once you’ve got that figure out a good example to me of that is Carnegie Mellon, 25, 30 years ago. They were a little university in Pittsburgh, their president came up and said, we are going to be in the top three in the world in technology.

And they focused on that. They changed their structures. They changed a lot of different things. And now when you take a look at Carnegie Mellon, it is one of the top three in certain areas of technology. It is very, very difficult to get into. You’ve got to basically ace your ACTs or SATs, great recommendations, etc.

But when you go there, you are going to get a world class education. In the particular area of technology you want to get and their website, their social media, everything reflects that.

Alan: Yeah. So part is the step would be, you put up all the things you think could differentiate you and then figure out. All right, so here are 10 things you can do it.

Now, which of those 10 can we be great at, brilliant at? That’s going to eliminate some of them. And then let’s pick one. And that’s the theory. That’s the right way to do it. I’ll talk about it in a second. Once you have that, then that relentless focus can go through, we talked about earlier when we met before, NYU, a story of how John Sexton, the president, when he came into NYU, went through this process between the business school, the med school, the dental school, the undergrad, the arts.

They went through and rather than talking about all the what’s, they had all these programs and all these, great things and Washington Square. And he came up with an idea that said, much like Carnegie Mellon, we are going to be in and of the city. So other universities have walled gardens. We’re gonna, we’re going to be the university that really leverages what’s around us and brings that to life and makes that real to our students.

That simple idea, like absolute certainty, allowed them to compete on a completely different dimension than how many classes they had and how many degrees they gave out and how many buildings were clustered together and which ones were famous and which ones were not. So that relentless focus on doing something, and then he drove that for years.

Into signature programs, which paid that off this program with Goldman Sachs, this program with whatever, around the university they tied in with or in Asia, because you can’t just use words anymore. You have to have what we call in marketing a signature experience, a genius bar. If you say you’re going to provide better service and better experience.

You just can’t say that and then answer the phone call with somebody with a tech problem on ring 22 and put them on hold. You have to have a signature experience. And so for universities, it’s incredibly hard to get to that focus. And we can talk about that in a second. But even if you get that focus, you need to figure out what’s going to be this one or two signature.

For example, here’s what we do that will bring it to life. Otherwise it’s a bunch of words. On your website or in your communication or catalog or brochure and as we talked about earlier, young people don’t read a lot, they don’t do a lot of reading, they’re much more interested in what happens on social media.

And the funny thing about a signature experience, if some student writes about, I went to NYU and they had this incredible joint lab we did with the finance team at Goldman Sachs, that signature experience is what they’ll share. They won’t share. The fact that there were three great professors who had a deep understanding of finance or all the other reasons, they, they will share that signature experience.

So at the same time, what we often recommend that you’re thinking about what your focus should be, don’t pick that focus until you can. Imagine two or three potential signature experiences or signature proof points that you’re going to be able to do. So if you’re going to say we’re the best in service and you want to compete with Apple and you don’t have genius bars in every city, don’t say it because you’re never going to be able to deliver it.

If you don’t connect the imperative to the strategy, if we say this, we have to do this, And the organization says, I like this because the people do it in a linear fashion. The university says, Oh, let’s stand for, the best standup comics in town nearby our classes. If you can’t execute it, it doesn’t matter what you say.

And so you end up approving the strategy. And then a year or two later, people say, gee, you know, that sounded good on PowerPoint and then the meeting room. But, you know, I don’t think we can really afford to build a world class blank, blank, blank.

Drumm: It’s interesting you bring that up, because when I’m thinking about institutions that I’ve talked to, that I’ve worked with, etc.

Howard University comes to mind. They’re one of the top HBCUs in the country. But, they had a program, or have a program, where they send folks out as internships to Google. And they call it Howard West. This is a unique program that they have had. They’re working on it, or they were about a year ago, working on it with Amazon, to get their computer science engineers practical experience.

This is that unique experience that you talk about.

Alan: Right. So if you think we offer the most unique experiences for our students, you put that in a brochure it’s white noise. People just say, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. But if you tell one story, like last year, we sent 30 students to Google to learn how to do this.

I get it. And I want to share that. You should consider going to here because look what they did with Google.

Drumm: And then when you can back that up with social media, pictures, stories, et cetera. And you can publicize, we had a third, we had a quarter of our people get hired by Google and other tech companies with similar names because they had this experience.

You got yourself a winner.

Alan: Versus listing in your brochure, we have 12 classes on software engineering, eight classes on programming skills, and have had a great track record of placing graduates in many, many industries.

Drumm: So what do institutions have to do? to figure out what their focus should be. Is it just putting a stake in the sand?

Is it external? What is it?

Alan: It’s also organizational as we’ve also talked about because, Steve Jobs was a bit eccentric and he talked about being able to say no, but he also was really the decision maker. People would come into his office and say, that’s crazy. You’re in a different zone.

He’s like, that’s crazy. That’s what we’re going to do. And as you know, universities are consensus driven, lots of committees. And part of it is, even if getting to that, what’s our focus, it’s going to be very challenging. Because when we work with law firms or big non profits, we’re in a big conference room.

I did some work many, many years ago with National Geographic and was in Washington. Lots of people from National Geographic, a whole room full. Everyone had been there 20 years. Everyone had an opinion, and when we talked about how to revitalize the National Geographic brand 20 years ago, you couldn’t get anyone, the only thing they’d agreed on is National Geographic is classic and we shouldn’t change it, and it’s iconic, and we’re going to get back to people collecting yellow magazines in their basement.

And so, The famous david ogle would quote, search every town square or park and there are no statues to committees steve jobs was able to get rid of and Getting to that focus is not going to be easy because if a committee is making a decision and there’s a tendency not to say no, well the math department wants this and the history department wants that and we’ll do a little of both.

We’ll do a little history, we’ll do a little math, they’ll both be happy and we’ll look good in the deck that we’re focusing on three things and we have consensus. That’s usually not going to do it. The ability to focus or the ability to pick one or two signature experiences to bring it to life. But you have to get to that point.

You have to either empower an individual or be ruthless inside and say, look, there are 10 people on this committee. We need a unanimous point of view or nothing, because getting three votes for each idea means you’re going to do three ideas and do them averagely.

Drumm: One of the great examples that I like is Mellick Corey up at.

The Unity Environmental University. When he took over seven years ago, it had 500 students and it was Unity College. Now, seven years later, they’ve got 7, 500 students. They’re on their way to 10, 000. He doesn’t do things by committee. It’s Melick’s way, but the guy’s a vision. And it took a while for him to get everyone on board, but once they were, The place has gone gangbusters, and I know you’ve done some work with that.

Alan: Exactly. And, yeah, committees are great because if you use them right, which is get everyone’s input early, get their opinions, don’t then say, well, what do you guys want to do? You have to then say, I’ve listened to you all, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it. But after careful, we are going to go north and here’s how we’re going to do it.

Drumm: And to be able to do this, you’ve got to get out of the bubble of higher ed. You’ve also got to figure out. One, you’ve got to see what other people are doing, go a different thing. I just had an inquiry about someone wanting to get their archaeological digs certified, get it accredited, and there isn’t anything out there.

And the person came back to me, well, that tells me we have an opportunity. It’s like, yes, that’s what you’ve got to be thinking about.

Alan: Right. Pick something. If you’re following the leader, it’s a challenge. So while the answer often comes from within, it’s already something you’re doing and you’re just going to focus on it and make it much better.

If you can come up with a territory that’s less overgrown, archaeology or, something else. As long as it’s relevant, because the trick is, if it’s really different, and we have the best hang gliding program in the country, that’s different, but it’s not that relevant. So part of this is balancing both different, but it has to matter.

But you’re better off with something more different that matters to a few less people than something that’s relevant to everybody that’s completely non different, which is where most people end up.

Drumm: It’s got to be unique. It’s got to be relevant. It’s got to be meaningful and it’s got to serve a need.

that is not being fulfilled.

Alan: Exactly. The other challenging piece, I hate to be Mr. Negative, is if you ask students, what do you want, they’re going to play back what they’ve heard. They have rear view mirrors. So you have to sort of watch them, you have to observe what they’re doing on social media, you have to pretend you’re an anthropologist, and watch their behavior and try to understand why they’re behaving this way, not Ask them, what should we do?

Is there anything we can do to make this school more appealing to you? Because if you ask that, they’ll just play, well, I think you should grow some ivy on the brick walls.

Drumm: Well, I’m going to push back just a little bit on that, because there’s a woman from Grand Valley State University up in Michigan.

Her name is Philly Mantella, who has started a project called REP4, Rapid Education Prototyping for Change. And what they have done is instead of going to your regular students, they’ve gone to high school students to say, what do you want your experience to be? And they started, obviously they put their own spin on it or their own way of doing it.

But what they’re doing is creating the experience that students want, and it’s working. Their enrollment has gone up significantly.

Alan: Well, that’s a great idea. You go to a fringe group or slightly outside their target. And two, prototyping. They can’t articulate, but if you say, would this be interesting to you?

And by making a prototype, making it real. And not saying, tell me what type of student engagement do you want, uh, more intellectually stimulating or, you can’t do that. And sometimes asking the right questions of the right people, of course, is one on one in marketing. All marketing and brand starts with, Having an insight is to what’s in somebody’s head when they’re making a decision when they pick one product over the other.

When I worked on a coffee brand, it wasn’t that the beans were a certain type or the price. It was my mom used to use his coffee at home and that’s why I buy it because it makes me feel at home, but they feel silly telling you that. But if you don’t get inside there, so you have to get to an insight that is not.

apparent by looking at a certain target or by asking a question in a certain way or by showing them something, would this be interesting to you?

Drumm: Alan, this has been fascinating for me. One of the reasons for that is you have such great experience outside of higher education. And what I try and do With my clients is bring in other perspectives from other industries to higher ed that I know can and should work.

So I want to thank you for taking the time to be with us today. This for me has been just fascinating hearing a professional talk about marketing in the way that you do.

Alan: Thanks for inviting me. It’s always engaging to look at new categories and see how just simply. A little bit of peripheral vision can solve a lot of problems.

Drumm: And I think you just said it as, as well as it could be. You’ve got to get that peripheral vision working. As we always do, our last two questions. Three takeaways for university presidents and boards.

Alan: Keep it simple because if you’re focused on a simple idea, you’ll execute it better. Get out of your bubble, which is hard to do, but, look at other organizations, go to different parts of the country, ask other people, don’t just look what’s right in front of you with your main competitor across town or across the state, get out of the bubble.

And whatever you do, make sure you can do it brilliantly, not averagely. It’s better to pick an idea that’s okay, but be great at it, than pick a great idea and be average at it.

Drumm: Thank you. I’m going to amplify that get out of the bubble just a little bit. You’ve got to look not only outside of higher ed on how to do things, But you’ve also got to look forward as to what the market is going to be and prepare for it early.

Instead of just do it because everybody else is doing it.

Alan: And it’s exactly right. Thank you for bringing that up. Because if you’re ahead of the curve a little bit, you’ll be able to iterate. We tried it, we didn’t get it exactly, but we did it. You’re not going to hit it out of the park on the first pitch.

But if you have a little bit of a lead and can optimize it, by the time the timing is right, your idea will be executed well, as opposed to starting it with everyone else and saying, well, we do the same thing. It takes time to get the execution right. The idea is easy. The execution is hard.

Drumm: What’s next for you, Alan?

Alan: Well, I’m doing more work in education because, not only with NYU and others, because it’s a critical area for this country. It’s a critical area for our children. And it’s an opportune time to say, how do we not end up looking back and saying, why do we lose all these great institutions or why are our institutions struggling?

They should be thriving now because nothing is more important for success in the world today than an education that teaches you how to think and relearn. And seize on the incredibly rapid changes that we’re all going to be facing.

Drumm: Amen, brother. Alan, thank you. I thoroughly enjoyed this. I look forward the next time we get a chance to talk.

Alan: Thanks for inviting me. I enjoyed it.

Drumm: Thanks for listening today and a special thank you to Alan Adamson of MetaForce and for his helping us to better understand how to brand and position an institution. For growth and sustainability tune in next week. When we welcome back Tom netting to the show, Tom and I will be talking about the latest going on in Washington, including new title nine regulations that dropped a couple of weeks ago and how they might affect all higher ed institutions.

Thanks for listening. See you next week.

David: Changing higher ed is a production of the change leader. A consultancy committed to transforming higher ed institutions. Find more information about this topic along with show notes on this episode at changinghighered. com. If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe to the show.

We would also value your honest rating and review. Email any questions, comments, or recommendations for topics or guests to Changing Higher Ed is produced and hosted by dr. McNaughton, post-production by David L. White.



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