On April 20th, as I sat in an auditorium at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, I had my marketing heart stolen.

My son AJ and I were in the process of a 1000-mile tour to revisit three colleges to help him choose one.

On that beautiful Wednesday morning, AJ was sitting in on a class while I attended a one-hour parent session conducted by Neil Weissman, Dean of the College.

Mr. Weissman opened his session for parents with these thoughts:

“When you are trying to help your child decide where to attend, it’s hard right?  Especially if all your choices are liberal arts colleges.  Because 75-80 percent of what we say is the same.  And you can bet that if one of the colleges finds something great and new to say, the rest of us will be borrowing it soon. 

So you really have to pay attention to what our differences are.  Let me tell you what makes Dickinson truly different.”

Thank you thank you thank you thank you I thought.

Thank you for saying it like it is and knowing better.  If I see one more “X College is a highly selective private liberal arts college where you get to have a direct relationship with professors…” there is a stack of college brochures that will go airborne.

That statement may be true for the college that says it, but it is true for many colleges.  As in hundreds.  So it is background information, not what college marketers should lead with.

The lead for any brand should be what differentiates it, not what categorizes it.

Many colleges can get away with this vanilla marketing though (sorry to you vanilla lovers) because college is a major investment and college research usually prompts prospects and their parents to listen beyond the opening statement.

Most consumer brands aren’t that lucky.

Your brand’s opening statement is your first impression and your best shot at getting your target audience to notice your brand.

So why do so many brands lead with features, benefits or other statements that fail to differentiate them?  Because their management is afraid.

Afraid that they will leave out something that a competitor will mention.

Afraid that they will choose the wrong message.

Afraid that by making a statement they will be alienating someone.

And this last one has some truth to it.

Leading with your difference means standing for something.  Something that might not appeal to everyone.  But the truth is that your brand is not going to appeal to everyone and you should work to attract the audience to whom it appeals best.

So do any of the colleges lead with their differences?

Dickinson College emphasizes their commitment to sustainability and to global education.

Skidmore College focuses on creativity.

Lafayette College leads with its philosophy of “Cur Non?” which translates to “Why Not?” for those of us who didn’t study Latin.  They emphasize getting students out of their comfort zone to try new things.

Do these singular ideas prompt prospective students to apply?  Not by themselves, no.  But they get their target audience to notice them and to want to learn more.

And sometimes differentiation means that the colleges give some prospective students a reason to rule them out.  I recently heard of one student who thought Dickinson College was “too green” and that the constant focus on sustainability would drive her crazy.

This is a good outcome.  Dickinson College would not have been the right place for her. She heads to a place that agrees with her more, and Dickinson College will attract those who support their sustainability efforts.

Differentiation means standing out against the crowd unapologetically.

How do you make your brand stand out?

  • Lead with your most meaningful point(s) of differentiation. One is good.  Two or three at most.  People can’t digest more than that in one go.
  • Keep marketing messages focused on your differentiators. Repetition is key to get attention, to make the jump to your prospect’s long-term memory and to build your brand’s reputation.
  • Remember your goal with marketing is to get your prospect to want to know more. You can expound on the features and benefits in the supporting points on your product packaging, in brochures and catalogues, and on your website.
  • Court your prospects. Marketing is relationship building. It takes multiple impressions for prospects to form an image of your brand in their mind. Structure your marketing to stay in front of your prospects and customers in a way that keeps them interested.
  • Surmount your fear that your difference won’t appeal to some people. It won’t, and that’s okay.

It was not the message of the three colleges AJ was considering – Dickinson, Lafayette, Trinity – that sold him.  The features and benefits of these three were similar too.  Ultimately AJ made his decision on details and impressions he gathered over multiple visits and interactions with each institution.

And the decision?  Lafayette.  It was the one he felt fit him best.

Hats off to Dickinson and Trinity though – they have a strong sense of who their community is and show it well.  And my thanks to Mr. Weissman who restored my faith in college marketing!

Do you have a college search story to share?  Or has your marketing heart been stolen?  Please tell me about it in the comments below.

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