By Kent Barnds
For most of us in higher education, it’s nearly impossible to convey a brand that is genuinely distinguishable in a crowded college landscape.
We must convince our consumers (students) we are worth more than another college with essentially the same brand, even if they have a cooler mascot and logo.
We need to convince people to pay more for what we offer, because we are worth it.
To do that, we need to focus on a worth claim.
The worth claim at its core should be centered on something, or some things, for which students and families will be inclined to pay more.
The worth claim has to be market-smart first, and mission-centered second.
The Worth Claim
Some will say the worth claim simply is just another name for a brand promise or value proposition. However, I see some key differences:
- Where a brand reflects personality, a worth claim suggests attitude and an orientation. Where a brands says, “this is who we are,” a worth claim says “this is what you will be, and why.”
- If a set of distinctions reflects a combination of factors that make a college unique, a worth claim suggests a singular focus shared by the distinctions, and therefore of greater worth than the distinctions alone. Where distinctions say, “this is what we have, what makes us unique,” a worth claim says, “this is why we have these distinctions, and why they will be valuable to you in unique ways.”
- If a value proposition reflects a reasonable return on investment, a worth claim suggests a reason for paying more for the results offered. You will not only get a return, you will get results that go beyond.
- If a brand, distinctions and a value proposition reflect what a college wants a student to get out of the experience, but a successful worth claim will align what a student expects out of an education (a “better job”) with those experiences they also want, and for which they will pay more.
A worth claim should have the following qualities:
- Bold symbols and language
- A base built on advantages and reinforced by evidence
- Anticipatory thinking, because worth is fully comprehended through future success
- Attendance to the primary and emotional needs of a deciding student, because worth is appreciated when a commitment is at hand
One framework for thinking about a worth claim in marketing a college is to consider these three questions that might asked of graduating seniors:
- Would you choose to attend again if you could make the choice again?
- Are you confident you are on the right path to achieve your goals?
- Have you already secured a job or graduate school placement?
The answers will reveal the strength of a college’s worth claim. Ideally, these questions would be asked of alumni to determine whether the worth of the college experience and degree increases or decreases over time.
A Hypothetical Example
The following hypothetical example may help bring the concept to life:
Worth claim: You will have access to a premier alumni career network, creating professional and social connections to reinforce your knowledge base, and help you find your first job, your next job, and your best job.
Symbols and language: A highly visible alumni network on campus and throughout recruitment (e.g., address from president of alumni network during open houses; tour stops in career services emphasizing the alumni network; sustained use of alumni network testimonials in recruitment and publications; faculty who stay in contact with alumni and use them as examples, etc.); high placement rates with consistent attribution to the alumni network.
Anticipatory action: A focus on getting a job, which aligns with what deciding students want from the college experience, as well as subsequent careers of increasing value, which underlines the value of the liberal arts experience.
Emotion: An uncommon level of support for graduates, which gives deciding students confidence.
The genuine worth claim must have, at its center, a great investment of resources – financial and otherwise – that is obvious to deciding students, and emphasized throughout the campus community.
When a strong brand emerges, genuine distinctions have surfaced, and everyone on campus appreciates the value proposition, a college should be proud. But it’s not enough. Convincing today’s families to recognize the difference between good value and an education worth more – for the experiences, services, and outcomes beyond graduation – is a challenge for residential liberal arts colleges.
This challenge cannot be met without presenting a compelling worth claim to students trying to make the best decision when choosing a college.