Appendix B
Episode 005 -

Higher Ed’s Differentiation Problem

Appendix B Episode 5, text is present that reads, "Higher Ed's Differentiation Problem."

Why is it so difficult for Higher Education institutions to differentiate themselves from each other?

Some institutions push their MBA programs as being new, different, and innovative, but the perceived product of education remains the same.

And trying to differentiate based on corporate marketing techniques won’t work in Higher Education marketing because most institutions are in a model of co-opetition with their peers.

Then there are all of the various structures in place that limit institutional flexibility.

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Carl Gratiot: From Bravery Media, this is Appendix B, candid conversations about Higher Ed in 10 minutes or less. On today’s episode, “Higher Ed’s Differentiation Problem.” Here’s Kristin Van Dorn and Joel Goodman.

Kristin Van Dorn: You know what bugs me in Higher Education Marketing? LOL, oh, sorry, was that too on the nose?

Joel Goodman: What Kristin? No, that’s great. What’s bugging you?

Kristin Van Dorn: So there’s been a lot of conversation lately about how Higher Education institutions can differentiate themselves. What do you think about that, Joel?

Joel Goodman: I think it’s a really big task, and yeah, if you can differentiate, you probably should, but I don’t know that anyone’s actually differentiating themselves because basically, the perceived product of this education is the same, right?

I mean, like everyone’s pushing their MBA and how their MBA is so different from everyone else, but from a brand perspective, no, you’re actually not really differentiating your MBA from a global popularity perspective. MBAs are, you know, maybe just starting to recover the luster that they once had. And, really it doesn’t really speak to the real differentiators that every college or university has. And then to some extent, sometimes you just can’t differentiate because, you’re generic.

Kristin Van Dorn: Okay, I’m gonna jump in right there. And I need to fully confess, this is a pet peeve of mine because everyone wants to differentiate based on what they hear about in corporate marketing, but it doesn’t work for the Higher Ed market at all or the Higher Ed model.

The reason it doesn’t, well, there are a few, but the big thing is, is that Higher Education is in a model of co-opetition with other institutions. So when you think about the trajectory of faculty in their careers, first of all, they have mentors and they study under professors. Then they have mentees when they become professors, and many of them, their closest mentees, and their closest mentors, stay or work in Higher Education.

And what happens is, is they’re the least likely people to support wanting to be better than or in direct competition with their mentors and mentees. They affiliate closer with their field, than they do their institution in many cases.

So, what happens is, is they want to back off from any differentiating messaging, not to mention if they’ve learned from and therefore trained your competition, how different can you be? Not very. Okay. So that’s my faculty rant. But then on top of it you have administration. So when faculty are research active, they’re going to have collaborators across the United States in their field.

And what’s gonna happen is, when they accept a large grant from a foundation or from the National Institute of Health or the National Institute of Mental Health, one of these big foundational organizations, they’re going to want parity across their administration because if they don’t have it, they have to learn how to sequentially allocate grant monies or how to set up funding in different lab settings.

So they have the exact same administrative structure. It’s why there can’t be any changes in administrative structure internally because they have to match. Sometimes they’re even stipulated by the foundation. The foundation sort of expects a certain level of management to occur for the monies that they’re dispensing, so research organizations have the same focus, the same people, the same structures in order to get that money rolling.

Consequently, when you have created these specific ways that organizations are set up, that means that you have a very specific expectation for how that money is gonna trickle through the organization and what those student experiences are gonna be like based on what you have.

Joel Goodman: Yeah. So, a brief analogy, It’s sort of like when you have a website designed and built for you and you are trying to like reign in all this stuff that’s been happening forever, like the wild, you know, the Wild West web stuff that’s gone on for years and what you end up doing is building something that is fit to the purpose at the time.

Like exactly what you wanted to do with your website, but it isn’t flexible enough for any future changes to happen. So you put that really rigid structure in place and then you’re not able to actually progress and change or modify because it’s so entrenched without spending a whole bunch of money, to, you know, to do a full rebuild or, a full redesign on it.

And so, similar to what you were just saying, if you are beholden to, you know, these accrediting bodies or to these, these research foundations, to all this, all these different structures, I guess this is similar to like lobbying in the government, then you, then you’re kind of stuck there because of the structures that are put into place.

It could be the expectations of these external organizations are, you know, guiding those structures, it could just be that you’ve put the, as you were saying, all this administrative work into setting up various specific structures internally on how students are gonna act, how they’re gonna learn, and that sort of a thing.

Very similar to if you, you know, the website, it would be those external in weird ways. The website that you built to be very rigid. Rigid would be these external, foundations or these structures that are very specifically you put into place and you’re not able to kind of break free. You kind of like, you kind of entrap yourself within these, right?

Kristin Van Dorn: Right.

So you kind of nailed it, there’s this ecosystem that Higher Education is dependent upon in order to operate. So we’re talking research dollars, you’re talking accreditation bodies. All of those ecosystem partners expect a certain structure and employ that structure, and you don’t have a lot of flexibility to change it.

Then on top of it, you’ve, just the nature of how faculty educate and partner with one another that are also going to entrench those same structures. Then on top of it, once you have that parity in style, in delivery, in administration, then you’re gonna be looking at having parity in programs, and that goes from anything to direct academic programs all the way through to the kinds of study abroad opportunities or co-op or internship programs, career services, all of those factors create an environment where, all of your organizations automatically look the same.

So differentiation is not possible on that level. It’s not gonna be like how Target differentiates from Walmart. It’s gonna be intensely different because Walmart and Target, in this case, are cooperating with each other, and they’re dictated by other surrounding forces in the market.

Joel Goodman: So Kristin, how does this affect an institution on a brand level? So, you know, cuz it feels like, okay, you’re kind of stuck because you can’t fix all this kind of stuff that works in the background. You know, that is the, actually the core of the, at least part of the core of the product that you’re trying to sell, right?

When, you get to the standpoint of trying to market that and message that, you know, the marketing offices that are generally completely disconnected from all of that behind the scenes wrangling and, and everything else. How do those rigid structures affect being able to differentiate, differentiate air quotes, you know, with, with messaging alone?

Kristin Van Dorn: Well, I think that there’s a couple of different strategies you can take for it. If you adopt a model where you look at learning as being a primarily social endeavor, then you understand that your community is your product. That’s what people are interested in. That’s what they’re getting excited for.

That’s what they wanna feel when they. Do a campus visit. You know, they always talk about, it’s a vibe thing. Well, it’s a vibe about whether or not they’re gonna fit into your community. If your community is something that feels authentic and real and connective and open. So one way is to brand and market the community.

Another piece of it, I think, is to take cues from disciplines where you see more of that cooperation model. And that would be looking at sports, for example. Like sports don’t market each other. Like they don’t treat each other like, oh, I’m only gonna market this and not this in order, like I’m gonna try to find the differentiation for the Seattle Mariners.

You know, like that’s not gonna happen. They’re a baseball team. They’re gonna look like other baseball teams, right? So it’s not that you’re trying to differentiate in that sense. You’re marketing the whole field together. And then you’re saying that this particular team offers a community in a sense of place and an environment that you can hang your hat on at the end of the day, or that you can be part of, you know, that you could develop a relationship with.

That’s the kind of marketing and branding style that Higher Education needs to move towards in order to be effective.

Carl Gratiot: Thanks for listening to Appendix B. If you enjoyed this theme music, please let Joel Goodman know, he made it. If you’ve got thoughts, we’d love for you to share them with us. You can do so at Apple Podcasts in the form of a review, or you can leave a comment on our YouTube channel, or if you just want to email us or hit us up on social, that’s fine too.

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