We’ve all heard about how company culture eats company strategy for lunch, yeah?
Last week, we wrote about how folks often confuse strategy and tactics. And we gave a little side eye to those colleagues among us who use the word “strategy” to appear smart and make others feel less than.
The cheat sheet on that one: replace the word “strategy” or “strategic” with “different” or “differentiation” and you’ll be able to get to the nub of the discussion topic quickly. Strategy has everything to do with position in the marketplace, which means how you stand out and leverage your differences against the competition. Tactics are all about the marketing tools and channels you use to make your institution’s valuable differences shine, be heard, and understood.
But in academic marketing (and virtually every other operation we can think of), how we achieve our strategic differentiation, how we meet our institutional goals, has everything to do with the team we have to do the work (the team that creates and delivers the product).
An interesting observation here: academic institutions really are all the same, right? Sure, there is R1 and R2, public and private, not-for-profit and for-profit, 4-year and 2-year, but these categorizations, when you get down to it, are not that significant, at least at the undergraduate level, right? They are all producing the same thing and in the eyes of the consumer, what is really different? They all have the same administrative and academic departments. And the rankings are a sham anyway, right?
Read on for how to counter that sad and ineffective point of view.
When you get a bunch of marketers together behind the scenes there is always some set of cynical smarties who will share this perspective. They will tell you the marketing plan is the same for each institution. Cookie cutter stuff. And while each institution likes to think they are different, you can actually take the same marketing plan, replace the logo with the new school, and off you go.
I hope you never run into these marketing types, but chances are, they are running in your circles. They are frustrated, superior, and they hide these low-talent marketing thoughts well because they know their bosses or clients all want to think each institution is unique, different.
Same thing with private high schools, right? Same departments, same academic programs by and large. So why create a whole new marketing plan? They are all the same.
For all these institutions, these cynical marketers will tell you the standard storyline is this:
- We have great people here who really care about the academic progress of every single student.
- We have fabulous faculty.
- Our environment is full of friendly students doing fun things. Oh, and sports.
- We successfully prepare you for the future you want.
Those ideas can be delivered with a whole bunch of hype and glitz. Fancy videos presented with digital ad campaigns. You know the drill.
And if this is all you have, your institution is just like all the others and your marketing plan truly is the type of thing that allows a marketing agency to take one institution’s marketing plan, swap out the logo, and Boom! There’s a fresh marketing plan. Ugh.
Really, so much Ugh.
Putting Cynics In Their Place
What you truly have to offer to your discerning audience is value. Doesn’t matter what you are selling. Toasters, laptops, gardening tools, vacations, or an education, what you have to offer is value for the level of effort and money I have to give you in exchange for that value.
Your job as a marketer, a communicator, is to give me reasons to believe your toaster, laptop, wheelbarrow, hotel room, or academic degree has value to me right now. And even the shallowest consumers among us are discerning consumers. We evaluate the options we hear about and are either convinced to believe in what you are selling, or your competitor convinces us better.
Quality and authenticity win in the end. Hype has short term gains that are seen for what they are sooner or later. Usually sooner, given our instant word of mouth environment. (TikTok anyone?).
So enough with the observation and critique of the bad influences. What’s an institution to do?
- Give your audience real reasons to believe that you deliver value – establish credible, relatable justifications. Real stories win the day here. Students, faculty, alumni.
- Develop and encourage your internal team’s culture to celebrate innovation and trying new things.
In my experience, the first one, identifying authentic, provable reasons to believe is the easier one. The second, and this is where we started today’s blog post, is really, really hard.
Culture eats strategy for lunch. So many institutional leaders are producing a culture of laziness or fear. They tout that they are an institution that wins, that thrives, on innovation. They point to a few innovative successes from the past and celebrate those who led an innovative initiative that achieved great things for the institution.
And what of the failed experiments? Those who pursued innovative ideas and did not succeed were chewed up and spit out.
And the lessons from that failed effort were lost to the team. Except one: don’t stick your neck out, don’t try anything new. Because if you don’t succeed, you’ll go down in very embarrassing flames.
Innovation involves risk. Trying something new, by definition, means that you don’t have historical data to offer you confidence in the results. Sure, there’s data needed to support the direction, the plan, but it only goes so far in developing confidence in the risk averse. The risk averse typically say no to unproven initiatives. And when they say yes, they underfund, which typically produces less than stellar results. Which then allows them to point to the innovative initiative and say, "I was right, not worth it." The proverbial self-fulfilling prophecy. And there we have the company culture encouraging laziness and fear rather than innovation.
To get your team to embrace the risk and take the smart chances, they must feel safe and supported. Watching your colleagues get chewed out (or worse) has a chilling effect (or worse).
7 Next Steps
- Read the landscape in front of you (trend data and competitor monitoring)
- Look to the horizon and point to where you want to go (strategic planning)
- Align the team around the plan and the destination, get their creative input
- Be clear-eyed, action-oriented, adaptive, measured, supportive of the team
- Track progress, because proof is in the pudding. Good planning requires tracking and reflecting (interpret the data)
- Learn from the effort. Celebrate the results (even poor results) because you now know something you didn't know before. Consider what you and your team talked about in March and where you are today, 6 months later and adapt, improve
- Always improve on what went before
Let's move people.