Appendix B
Episode 047 -

Brand Differentiation vs Personality

Text reads Appendix B - Brand Differentiation vs Personality

When we talk about branding in higher ed, are we considering the differences between brand differentiation and personality? Kristin Van Dorn has studied branding in higher ed for years and has a few thoughts. Bravery Media can help you with all manner of brand research.


Learn how to make your college or university’s website faster with Benchmark from Bravery. In seven days or less we’ll show you the opportunities you have to increase your search engine rankings, improve conversion rates, and drive higher enrollment. It’s affordable, fast, and packed with value.


Joel Goodman
From Bravery Media, this is Appendix B. My name is Joel Goodman. I’m joined by Kristin Van Dorn. Hi, Kristin.

Kristin Van Dorn
Hi, Joel. How’s it going?

Great. How are you?

doing good. So, today, I want to talk a little bit about brand differentiation in higher education.

Joel Oo!

You might remember that we did this last year almost right around this time. That time, we talked about why differentiation was so difficult. But this time, I want to get more into the structure of differentiation strategies, how they work, what they’re meant to do, and what we’re really talking about when we say the word differentiation.

Because here’s my hot take: I don’t think that we’re really talking about differentiation.

I’m very excited about this because differentiation, especially brand differentiation is something that we see a lot of higher ed pros talking about on LinkedIn. You know, how do we differentiate ourselves? How do we make our brand stand out? You know, all that kind of stuff. And, yeah, I think there’s a lot of searching, so hopefully, we can help, clarify different strategies, and figure out how to differentiate.

Yeah, so the first thing, just to recap what we talked about a year ago, was that differentiation strategies in higher education are difficult because we’re differentiating from our partners and our friends, our collaborators. Faculty tend to run a lot of decision-making in higher education, and when their advisors from when they were grad students work at a competitor or when their advisees move on to other institutions and wind up at their competitor institutions, the last thing that they want to do is go after another institution’s market share in a very direct and deliberate way.

Because it feels like they’re undercutting the success of the people that they work most closely with, but then on top of it, just by the nature of the higher education ecosystem, from funders to accreditors, we’re expected to have really similar structures and really similar structures mean similar workflows, mean similar services, and those services mean that we don’t have a lot of differentiating features and benefits that we can compare to our competitors and say that we’re worth more because we have more, or we’re worth the same, but we actually charge a little less. Does that make sense?

Yeah, it’s working on the value prop here. It’s figuring out why someone should like us, and in most cases, that’s probably not just going to be because we’re cheaper, or at least it probably shouldn’t be because we’re cheaper.

Yeah. So, um, let me get a little bit into the science of how brand differentiation works. So, Brand Differentiation is a partner to another close topic, Brand Parity. So, you either take a differentiation or a parity strategy. So the way that it works is that if you want to protect your market share from other people.

So that means you think that you have customer loyalty, that people have some name recognition for you, they know who you are, and they definitely want to attend your school. That’s loyalty that you want to protect. So, you do that by differentiating yourself with the features and benefits you offer your most loyal customers.

Now, if I were trying to steal your market share, the way that I’d go about doing it is I’d say I have the exact same features and benefits, but I cost a little less. And that is the kind of Equation that excites customers and gets them interested in switching to a different brand.

So this is, uh, this is kind of like when you’re surfing around on, and you see a knockoff brand.

Oh, exactly!

There are certain products we like to use, especially for podcasting, right?

There are certain lighting and microphone types of stuff, but when you look on Amazon, you find things that are $5 to $10 cheaper than the brand name you wanted. And if you’re like me, you always think like, huh. Is the quality of it worth it for that cost reduction, and who knows?

I’ll give it a try because it’s ten bucks less.

That’s exactly how it works in all marketplaces, except the unique facet of higher education is that we’re not transparent about our costs. We’re trying to get better, but the tricky thing is that we’re governed by a Department of Education financial landscape that completely changes the cost for each individual student.

So it’s hard to provide guarantees that we’re going to be cheaper or that we’re going to be more cost-effective based on the services that a unique student needs because we need them to submit their financial information in the first place, which means they’ve probably applied before we can even put together a package for them to be compared against other institutions.

So the only thing you have to go on is, Hey, we cost less, and you’re going to do a whole bunch of work to try and figure that out. But at the same time, I think there’s a bigger question: is that what people want in higher education? You know, the vast majority of people, especially when you look at a college or university, does “less expensive” trigger in someone’s mind, I’m going to get just as good of an education? We have just as good opportunities when I graduate. Or does it affect that mental calculus around quality?

Kristin I

I mean, it might; the tricky thing is that we can never have that just plain Jane conversation about the school offering these things for this cost and the school offering these things for this cost. It is just that the student has to apply first for them to get anywhere with that kind of conversation.

So, this is part of why I don’t think we’re even talking about differentiation. What I think we’re typically talking about is brand personality. And so, brand personality looks at not your features and benefits and how they weigh up against your direct competitors. Brand personality looks at how confident you are at delivering your services, how sincere you are as a community, what your values are, and how sophisticated, exciting, and innovative you might be.

So, that’s usually what people talk about when trying to build a brand. Because our products tend to be pretty similar, what are people getting out of them that’s unique?

So does brand personality and that community that you develop or the quality of the service affect and kind of cross over into that brand differentiation space?

Well, if you consider it a feature or a benefit of the product. So, on the feature side, those are things you get with a product when you’re using it, right? So, features of an education might be how flexible you are or how much support you have. Then, the benefits are the benefits that you receive after you’ve used the product.

So a benefit might be an engaged alumni association where there’s lots of sharing of job prospects, there’s lots of helping each other out. It feels like a community that lives on beyond the product. So, absolutely, that community aspect that feels embedded in the brand personality does transcend into brand differentiation.

Where I would instead focus, though, is that brand personality can be built up and shared and increase your sense of community in a way that I don’t think differentiation gets to. Differentiation probably winds up a lot on your program pages, but it’s not speaking for your entire institution. Because your different programs have different features and benefits, so I think where you want to look at building up that personality is on your main website, on like how you begin to interact with students, on your process for recruiting them, on your process for the admittance and the melt prevention strategies. Those are where that personality can really come through and where it can be effective in your brand strategy.

So, Kristin, how do we suss out how we should be doing this? What should we be doing around this? What kinds of research can we put into it?

Well, I think that you can do a lot of competitor brand research so you can look at what your competitors are known for and compare that against what you’re known for, and then that gives you some raw material in terms of making decisions regarding what to promote. I also think you can do a lot of brand salience research to figure out who knows about you and what they know.

What are their thoughts about your equity, like what you bring to the table and what you can provide for them? And that kind of gives your marketing a cue as to what they should be focusing on when they’re putting out information about you to the broader public. And then, I think you also need to be able to track what your brand is in the minds of your prospective students with what you’re putting out on your website.

Do they match? Do the things that you’re hoping people walk away with and remember, are those the same things your website is effectively saying? Because that’s what this is all about. Branding is about planting seeds inside prospects’ minds that you exist and offer them something meaningful and engaging.

And if you haven’t quite figured out how to plant those seeds or what they need to look like for them to have the correct associations with your brand, that would be a really good start in research.