On Purpose: #HigherEd, Branding and the Elusive Differentiator – Part 2

Kelly O'Keefe

A couple weeks ago, in part 1 of my conversation, Kelly O’Keefe shared his thoughts on why colleges struggle to differentiate and how branding can help. 

It starts with “choosing to be different,” says O’Keefe, a professor at the Virginia Commonwealth University Brandcenter, the number one graduate advertising program in the country, and a partner at PadillaCRT.

This week, I continue my conversation with Kelly, taking a look at the choice made by one school at VCU and at how colleges can implement brand decisions.  

Christian Munson: You’ve talked about differentiation in higher education beginning with a decision “to be different.” Give me an example of this.

Kelly O’Keefe: The Brandcenter is part of the VCU School of Business. In aligning its brand and strategic plan, the School of Business identified qualities that separated it from other successful business schools like Darden, Kellogg, Harvard and others. They learned that the VCU School of Business had an outstanding chance of pushing against the way that traditional business schools deliver education. They decided on an educational approach more firmly rooted in creative thinking than other institutions. The result was a statement that reads: “Our Vision: To drive the future of business through the power of creativity.”

Now how does that play out in experience? For two years in a row now, the VCU School of Business has been providing training to every faculty member about how to introduce more creative thinking into every course that they teach. They are doing shared readings. Last year, it was “Creativity, Inc.” about Pixar’s success. In their executive MBA program, they have added several new courses on creative thinking and creativity in business. They’ve even created an epic challenge to award grants of up to $200,000 to implement ideas that can add to the creative experience. So they’re literally pushing this in a much bigger way. And what we hope to see in the future years is that this emphasis expands to physical space, that the next building should be much more creative in structure and design than current buildings.

When the choices are clear, the students that you recruit are the ones who are most likely to be satisfied with what you have to offer.

CM: Once a decision about being different is made, how can a college advance it as part of the brand positioning?

KO: Let’s say you believe that your university has the opportunity to focus on innovation more than other universities. You’d want to see faculty writing a lot articles about innovation. You’d want your people in your business school to be talking about innovation’s role in operations and management. You’d want your people in the nursing school to talk about the value of innovation in healthcare. And you’d want your people in liberal arts to talk about innovative ideas and the thought processes of the world’s most innovative thinkers, leaders, inventors, artists, etc. Externally and internally, establish a leadership position around the chosen theme.

But also look at areas like human resources. How do we hire, reward and recognize people?  Do we have a way of recognizing an individual who is really doing great work at delivering an experience that’s consistent with the “innovation” brand that we’ve established? What specific programs have we put in place? Look at every category of the organizational chart and determine how each can play a role in supporting differentiation.

People involved with the physical environment of the school have a big role to play, too. I think this is one of the areas, honestly, where higher education has fallen woefully short because the school design is so similar from one school to another. Architecture – even site planning – is a great unused tool for expressing differences in colleges. If you believe that a strength is the interaction between different academic tracks, then plan to put your business school as close to your art school as possible so that interaction happens. That’s an example of how a philosophy about education can lead directly to a physical experience that mirrors it.

CM: That’s a tall order for most colleges, isn’t it?

KO: Yes, but don’t be intimidated by the task. This is the time to be making these changes because the road ahead is going to be bumpy for higher education. At least over the next few years, the best path to succeeding against the headwinds is to make sure that you have a strong brand that’s well understood internally and is well communicated externally.

A strong brand doesn’t require you to be the biggest or the best, or have the largest endowment, or the most active and loyal alumni base. It is something that you can cultivate at any level – small school or large, small town or huge metropolis. Whoever you are, wherever you are, take the things that you see as constraints and use them to your advantage.

A rural school in a very small town, for example, can be a deterrent to enrollment. Instead of running away from that, run straight at it. Talk about the advantages of being able to study in a small town without the distractions of a large city and its frantic pace. Talk about the community and the ability to be more connected to the surrounding environment, to the mountains, to the creeks and the rivers, to the local community and the businesses there. If you’re in the middle of an urban environment like VCU is, surrounded by graffiti-clad walls and not a bit of ivy nearby, then take advantage of that. Talk about how you’re not an academic enclave, but tight smack down in the middle of the real world, moving at the speed of innovation. Whatever your constraints are, they are those things that make you unique, and you can leverage those unique advantages.

DifferentiateCM: It gets back to choice, doesn’t it?

KO: Yes. These are very legitimate ways to build brands because they enhance the consumer’s understanding of choice. “Oh, I have a choice between a huge school with a very diverse educational environment, but one where I might feel a little bit lost, or I could go to this really small school. Everybody’s going to know who I am and I’m going to know who they are, but I might lose a little bit of the action of the city.”

Those are two very finite choices that can help people make decisions. And the wonderful thing about that is, when the choices are clear, the students that you recruit are the ones who are most likely to be satisfied with what you have to offer. Use what you have. It’s a great path to differentiating your brand and making it stronger.

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For part 1 of this Q&A, please click here.

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