Brand differentiation:
the courage of being you

Whether your institution is two-year or four-year, for-profit or non-profit, you must find a way to stand out from the 5,299 other colleges in the U.S. Because every year, you and your competitors market to the same audience of soul-searching seventeen-year-olds struggling to find themselves and to find the right college.

That starts with differentiation. From a branding perspective, differentiation simply means going further than defining who you are and what you believe in as an institution. It means finding the one element in what you have to offer prospective students that makes your institution unique.

A sense of purpose means the difference between choosing college because it’s necessary, and choosing your college because it defines their future path.

Because if you don’t have anything unique to offer, why would a teenager pay attention?

Even if you’re not a university with a 200-year track record to fall back on, you can still re-evaluate your story, your mission, your programs, and your students’ interests. Whittle away all the elements that make your institution another option, and find the one aspect that makes it a student’s first choice.

Perhaps you’ve had tremendous success with an internship program that allows students to forge invaluable career connections. Maybe you offer a balance of real-world and online courses that allows your students more flexibility to pursue part-time work and extracurricular interests. Maybe your cafeteria is a pioneer in sustainability and eliminating food waste.

Or maybe your college offers none of these things, so you have the chance to start fresh and create a new identity.

Once you find and make that element your own, commit to it. Differentiation requires an element of risk, often requiring buy-in from board members, administration, faculty and staff. It might also mean rethinking your messaging and brand identity. It might mean leaning the weight of your student recruitment efforts on one point above all others, eschewing the security of the status quo for what really makes you stand out.

But reliance on your unique quality also means greater focus for your marketing strategies.

It gives both your brand and potential applicants – and enrollees – a greater and clearer sense of purpose. For the soul-searching teenagers who represent a significant chunk of your applicant pool, that sense of purpose means the difference between applying to college because it’s a necessity, and applying to your college because it gives them a focused vision of their future path.

Of course, differentiation is just the first step in the necessary process of better defining your brand to audiences. Your visual identity offers yet another chance to think about who you are and the kinds of impressions you want your audience to take away from your materials.

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