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Higher ed marketers must uncover their “why” stories to be effective.

May 10, 2016

In her May 2 article titled, “Your Future Starts Here. Or Here. Or Here,” Inside Higher Ed reporter Ellen Wexler presents a thoughtful collection of higher ed marketing experts’ reflections on college and university branding efforts. You should read it.

But then, keep reading. The really useful substance of what feels like a perpetual higher ed discussion follows in the Comments section below. That conversation ping pongs between pithy comments from (1) informed marketers and thinkers who clearly appreciate the full depth and breadth of marketing writ large, and (2) a handful of nameless and less informed others, many of whom I suspect are active or retired faculty members and non-marketing administrators.

While the latter group (predictably) mocks the notion of “bringing the mumble jumble of business strategy to universities,” the former makes a very strong case for abandoning a widespread all-things-to-all-students approach to higher education in favor of investing innovative thinking toward differentiating schools on the basis of more substantive product, price and place considerations.

This conversation will never end. The stakes will only get higher as students and their families become more savvy consumers. And the cost of attempting to promote look-alike institutions out of competitive obscurity will continue to skyrocket.

All of this happens for one simple reason: Too many senior decision-makers on too many campuses across this nation continue to frame their perspective about marketing around their institutions’ how’s and what’s, when they should be focusing their marketing investments in (1) uncovering their why stories and (2) telling those why stories as authentically, emotionally and compellingly as they can afford.

This How-What-Why typology doesn’t represent new thinking. Hundreds of people in and out of marketing have claimed it over the years, none more convincingly that Simon Sinek. His “Golden Circle” YouTube videos are required watching for any contemporary marketer, and senior campus leadership team for that matter.

But this is the kind of thinking that eludes administrators and faculty members who are, every minute of every hour of every day, eyeballs-deep in the trenches of administering and delivering programs. The very nature of their daily grind requires that they be primarily concerned about what programs their schools deliver, and how they deliver them. Line ‘em up, knock ‘em down.

As insightful marketers, we have an opportunity and an obligation to elevate the thinking of our campus colleagues who need constant reminding that the success of our differentiating strategy begins with a better, stronger, more emotional and compelling articulation of why our school exists on this planet.

When it’s uncovered thoughtfully and expressed emotionally, your school’s “Why Story” will rally your entire extended campus community much more loudly and proudly around your shared heritage and your collective future. That’s the kind of marketing money just can’t buy.

Eric Sickler has helped the nation's college and universities clarify and more fully engage their brands for more than three decades. You can reach him at The Thorburn Group, a Stamats company.


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