There is a right way to conduct research to grow your market share and a wrong way. Unless you are asking the right questions, your research will fail.
You must go beyond theory and identify the emotional drivers of your target audience and use tough-minded strategies and positioning to steal market share from the competition.
Stealing Share has developed a unique process unlike any other brand company in the world that is designed with a single purpose, to steal market share.
To read University Business's Q&A artcle with Stealing Share's CEO Tom Dougherty, click here.
Colleges and universities of all stripes are expected to feel the pinch even more so in the coming years as the economic climate has put a serious damper on prospective students. Jobs are harder to come by for that demographic, student loans will become scarcer and more expensive, and universities are cutting back on what they offer.
It’s a bad time to be young.
It’s no better to be an educational institution - although that is partly its own fault. Instead of rebranding so they are emotionally resonate with prospective students, universities claim category benefits, market similar messaging and often leave the “brand” up to sports teams. Rarely do they provide the “why” that would otherwise provide meaning and value to those benefits.
They need to peel back the layer one more time.
The identification with sports teams only works nationally for the largest universities who appear on ESPN, while smaller university sports teams only become meaningful to regional fans.
But the large universities have not given much thought to what their sports teams really mean, especially nationally. For example, the University of Kentucky men’s basketball team has gained a reputation in recent years as the home for the “one-and-done” players. The ones who play one year, then leave for the NBA. The meta question is, “Is a degree [in higher education] that meaningless?”
While not all students are on the same platform as these particular athletes (who have the immediate access to millions of dollars by jumping ship to the NBA), the fact remains that institutions of higher education must consider their brand in the business of education - and that includes its sports teams, for better or worse.
It is best to keep in mind that rebranding a college or a university does not mean limiting your focus on that school’s particular color pallet, logo or mascot. Those are minuscule branding tactics that many universities believe are most important. While these minor attributes certainly abide under the umbrella of rebranding and need to be considered, institutions of higher education should hone in on other branding aspects to attract more admissions.
Some of these aspects include:
What makes attending said institution more valuable than another?
Who does the student believe they are as an attendee of said institution?
What does a degree from said institution mean for the student, and how does it reflect upon the university when that student is in the workforce?
Why will a student be both willing and eager to take out exorbitant student loans in order to attend said institution, and will that student ever be able to repay these loans or find a job after earning the degree?
And most importantly: How will said university help the student aspire to the emotional self-reflection of who they are while attending the university and who they will be after?
The assumption here being that institutions of higher education must consider precepts, belief systems that drive behavior, and not solely focus on the superficial aspects of their institutions. Doing such brings fleeting success, lack of focus and any tangible ability to steal market share from other universities competing over the same student.
In our opening example, the University of Kentucky has built a brand of impermanence, one that any institution should not relish in. Its trade off for winning and making millions of dollars via athletics has brought upon its own reward (albeit, not a positive one for its brand). For Kentucky, the ramifications of its current focus has been nothing short of negative. The media has had a field day covering the school, and sports enthusiasts outside of the Kentucky fan base look poorly upon the school.
The sad fact is that, at least in men’s basketball, this might become more of the norm. North Carolina, anyone?
Kentucky’s goal is to earn money and gain national recognition through athletics — which is why it, among hordes of other institutions, must heed the call and consider how it is perceived in the world of academia by potential students. (It should be noted: To some students, this approach might mean they are associated with a winner, a cutthroat version of their own self-reflection.)
Can institutions of higher education build student preference and steal market share? Undoubtedly. A few already have — which is why we are finding the advent and success of online and adult education classes and degrees, and technical and for-profit universities as a trend that’s transforming the industry. In fact, three of largest enrollments in the nation come from these institutions.
The competition is fiercer than ever and schools with focus and a message are stealing market share. In short, institutions must take action and build preference by rebranding through meaning, instead of category benefits.
PRIVATE AND STATE UNIVERSITIES
The private and public university systems are the most massive, nuanced component of this study. With each state supporting a public institution (and, most times, multiple institutions), and a plethora of private universities as well — each with a different brand and student agenda. Looking at the market as as whole, there is a dire need for smart and exact rebranding strategies.
For example, a University of Tennessee journalism student recently wrote that she was unhappy with Tennessee’s new brand themeline, “Big Orange, Big Ideas.” Unhappy with the massive amount of money spent around a poorly planned theme, this student begged the need for the university to focus its brands around the student, not the university or its color.
This student is correct. The brand of the public and private university should always be built around the attendees of the university and how students define themselves in context. Who are these students? What are their hopes and dreams and what will they become by attending this state or private institution? What are the emotional self-reflections they aspire to be. A winner? The smartest person in the room? One who knows what’s important? There are numerous emotional positions a university could take, but do not.
The mistake here, like with so many other universities, comes by promoting what the university’s prowess is or the simple category benefits of being a university student - which are positions any institution could claim.
Instead, universities should be promoting the unique qualities each student brings to the university and how the university can reflect those.
Referring back to the University of Tennessee theme: “Big Orange, Big Ideas”, we are faced with a typically foolish mission statement. Tennessee, with this particular themeline, is celebrating the school’s color first. Why would they do that? Next, they wish you to know that the university has “Big Ideas”.
So, what does this say about the student?
Nothing at all. Rather the message here is that the school is big and orange, and because of that it has big deals. It is essentially its way of giving itself a “pat on the back.” The theme should be geared toward saying Tennessee’s students have big ideas. Whether, that’s intensive or not is another discussion, but the Orange-Idea them cost UT more than $60,000.
However, Kentucky and Tennessee are no different than nearly all of the large public and private universities in the US.
Take for instance the following television advertisement for Seton Hall University. Here, we have a standard voice over against the backdrop of the picturesque Seton Hall setting. Throw in a nod to the university’s accomplishments as well as routine action shots of its basketball team (whom the announcer boasts is in the Big East conference).
Folks, we have ourselves the standard of university advertising.
At least Seton Hall has broken the mold by including a mildly effective, student centric tagline: “Seton Hall. Where leaders learn” and its highlighting of New York City does give it some self-reflection cache.
Still, it’s paint by the numbers.
Not that far removed from Seton Hall is a recent campaign created for Kent State University that proves tone and attitude matter as much as message.
While more student-oriented, this advertisement also suffers from nearly the same cliches found in most university advertising. Here, Kent State is branding itself as “anything but typical,” a “top ranked university” where you can find “an array of programs as diverse as you are.” These assertions all fall prey to severe banality of everyday university advertising speak and, essentially, lack any concrete branding position because of its failure of execution. If Kent State is “anything but typical,” it’s campaign should be anything but typical too.
Truthfully, you can search Google for any state university advertising campaign and will find much of the same: platitudinal academic statements against a beautiful university backdrop and a hokey tag-line that normally centers around the university — not the student — to close out the thirty seconds.
Like this commercial for Brigham Young University, which instead has used “signage” in place of the standard stock voice over, to sell the school:
Or the following commercial for Wichita State University:
But perhaps even worse is this example for the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Here, the students have become unrealistic spokespeople for the university:
I ask anyone reading, are these students truly a symbol of the hopes and dreams or the inherent nervousness present in our college bound students?
These are some of the reasons why university commercials fail miserably in rebranding a university. The messages are the same, the visual tone and attitudes are similar and any attempt at reflecting the student are amateurish.
These examples of the university at a “macro” level have a nearly infomercial feel to them — forced sentiments, unnatural promises and an overinflated sense of self. It’s surprising to not find a smiling, clapping audience in the background.
Think about it. In all of these examples we are treated to nearly identical tonal approaches and promises. What student doesn’t want to say they have ambition? Which school isn’t one that spawns ideas? If you are a college that doesn’t, it’s time to get out of the game. Statements like these are nearly as foolish as a Blu-Ray manufacturer selling that its machines have a play button.
In essence, few are positioned against other universities. There’s nothing different or better about them in terms of their brand positions.
These are also no defining characteristics of a brand. Instead, these are just the overriding table stakes. Why have these commercial atrocities become the standard barer for public and private school advertising, especially in such a competitive category where so much money is on the line?
Let’s return to the argument that a university’s brand must hinge around the unique qualities and life experiences of the student. When these ideas are apparent, a big preference-building difference takes place.
For example, the following commercial for the University at Texas El Paso (UTEP) has done something close to right. It replaces the trite and passionless VO focusing on the school’s achievements with a story about children with real hopes and dreams. While it’s story focuses on the university’s space program, the evocative imagery, music and tagline of “Dream Big” succeed. These ideas are about the ambitions of the student and UTEP’s role in the fulfillment of your dreams is implied beautifully. This pushes this collegiate advertisement into a higher league.
In order to steal market share, you must not boast the same position as your competitor. That seems to be the problem with pubic and private universities, doesn’t it? With each representing a jelly bean of the same color, why would anyone have preference over any other? Each tastes the same, and each brings the same result.
So where’s the difference?
To continue to part 2 click HERE