I recently read an article lamenting that some brand builders focus too heavily on differentiation, which can be risky for an institution. As alternatives, the writer suggested, an institution had only two choices: focus on who it is or decide to change.

That’s it? In a world where I can choose from hundreds of Netflix shows or Warby Parker glasses, we’ve only got two options for effective brand building?

At Zehno, we use four criteria to develop strong brands. Our goal is always to find that intersection of what is authentic to your institution, believably aspirational for it, relevant to your important audiences and different from their other choices.

Do you need all four criteria? We think so. That’s the place where your best brand lives.

So how does your brand stack up?
Test it against Zehno’s four key criteria:


Criteria #1 — Authenticity

Luckily, figuring out what is authentic is often the easiest part of your brand to uncover. You may have even done it already.

Current strengths are often explored and documented as part of an institution’s strategic planning. (Challenges and obstacles are also sized up during strategic planning but it is your strengths, and sometimes hidden assets nobody takes time to document, that become a cornerstone for your brand.)

Zehno’s brand discovery often identifies new strengths not articulated in a strategic plan. We’re always looking for what might be hidden underneath a school’s sometimes undifferentiated strengths.

Now just because something is true, doesn’t mean anybody cares about it. Authenticity without relevance doesn’t get you very far. So yes, look inward. Know who you are — and who you’re not.

But don’t stop there. We don’t have a brand yet.


Criteria #2 — Relevance

Research is how we tap into what is relevant. How do you know what matters to a 16-year-old in a rural town, a 20-year-old transfer student from the burbs, or a 35-year-old with a full-time job? Usually, you have to ask them.

Big research firms already ask questions to tons of student prospects, and the data reflects broad, timely preferences across key demographics. Working adults prefer evening and online classes with accelerated timeframes. First-time freshmen look for social lives. (But their parents are looking for four-year degrees.) Many of these common trends are likely to apply to your school. But how do you know which ones matter most to your specific prospects, not to mention other target audiences, like major donors or local community members or state residents?

Listen to the people that matter to you about what matters to them. Qualitative research — in-person conversations and online surveys — can help you home in on what is relevant to your specific audiences. Ask them about the authentic things you’ve identified about your school:

  • Do small classes matter more than meeting students from other countries?
  • Does access to internships matter more than how many student clubs you have on campus?

Relevance and authenticity have to work together, so find where they overlap for your audiences.

For example, it doesn’t really matter if your prospects are interested in environmental MBAs when you don’t offer a graduate business program. But as a marketer, now that you know they’re all the rage, don’t you wish you had a business program?


Criteria #3 — Aspiration

Longing for programs you don’t technically have gets us to the idea of aspiration. While being authentic and relevant are the rock-solid foundations of your brand, aspiration gives a brand wings. Aspiration is part of what creates space and flexibility for your brand to grow over time. If you focus only on today, how well will your brand fit tomorrow?

Solid brands take investment, so don’t set yourself up to require reinvention every few years. Think about where your institution is headed, where there is consensus on the future. Are you planning to expand study abroad programs, but it’s not all in place yet? Are more online classes in the strategic plan, but the new faculty members aren’t hired until next month? Have you started a career placement office, but the corporate partnerships are still fledgling?

If you’re confident in shared consensus around certain ideas, incorporate those aspirations into the positioning of your brand. A note of caution: tread lightly if internal controversy reigns or leadership support is lacking. A strong brand cannot make a promise that the institution has no clear intention of delivering on. (That’s fake, and it doesn’t last.)


Criteria #4 — Differentiation

So what about being different? This is tough. Differentiation is a challenge for many colleges and universities, especially for the majority of middle-ranked schools that offer similar programs and similar campus experiences based on size, geography and athletics classification.

But you can tackle differentiation in a few ways that can really matter:

Focus on the right competitors

You don’t have to be different from everyone, just from your competitors.
To which schools do you lose your best-fit prospects? This can be a good starting place for defining competitors, but only if you can really compete with those schools.

For example, if you’re a small liberal arts college with limited residential facilities that loses top prospects to the nearby state university with uber sports teams, 300 campus clubs and cheaper tuition, studying how that competitor is eating your lunch isn’t going to help much. But what if you took a harder look at the two other small private colleges that you also lose students to? How can you position yourself as different from what they offer?

Rise to their level

Sometimes, being considered a true peer among other schools in your landscape is the next best win.

Standing out isn’t always the right approach, or the doable one. Sometimes achieving equal standing among other good options is a big step forward.

And once you are there, firmly planted among your best-fit peers, then you can plot how to differentiate yourself and eventually rise to the top of your pack.

And don’t automatically discount a brand feature just because a competitor is claiming it — if you know you do it better. If a competitor doesn’t do a great job of backing up its claim, you have an opening to own it. Don’t be shy. Some institutions lack distinctive brands because their culture is too humble. More often though, they just aren’t that different. Or they don’t recognize the assets that make them different.

THink Broadly

Consider brand development as a comprehensive process, not just a marketing campaign.

That is your best chance to discover what could be really different about your brand, if positioned properly in your market.

So forget authentic or different — by themselves. Look for the overlap of those traits, along with being relevant to your audiences and aspirational for your institution. There’s your brand, over there.

Learn More

Is your brand authentic, aspirational, relevant and different? Let us help you find your brand’s sweet spot. Read more about our branding services.