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Strategic differentiation: part one of a two-part column on institutional competition.

A DEFINITION OF STRATEGY that centers around the idea of "more"--we will serve more students, offer more programs, and be in more places--is highly likely to fail. Dollars are finite, so doing more will actually decrease quality because tight resources are spread even more thinly.

Rather than "more," consider an understanding of strategy that focuses on the idea of "different." In this view, the purpose of strategy is to differentiate yourself from your competitors in ways that target audiences will value.

Differentiation means that when your competitors zig, you must, as Marty Neumeier suggests in the title of his 2006 best-seller, zag. Instead of offering the same programs as your competitors, you offer either different programs, or the same programs in different ways. "Onliness," being the only one in your competitor set doing something, is the key to differentiation.

The goal of this strategy is to help you differentiate your institution from your true competitors, not from all 3,600 colleges and universities in the United States.

The next component of this strategy involves the notion of value. This is pivotal. If you differentiate your institution in ways that audiences don't care about, you will be overlooked. If you differentiate your institution in ways that audiences do care about, you will be compelling.

One of the best strategic moves you can make is to develop a clear sense of who your competitors are. The focus here is on competing for students, but the same tools can be used to define competitors in other area, such as for donors.


In what follows, several experts answer some key questions about how to define a competitor set:

* Jeff Bialik, vice president for finance and enrollment management, Dominican University of California

* Kenton Pauls, director of enrollment services, North Dakota State University

* Greg Carroll, vice president for marketing and public relations, Furman University (S.C.)

* Tina Pugel, director of communication, Asbury Theological Seminary (Ky., Fla.)

* Jay Blanton, executive director for public relations/marketing, University of Kentucky

Why is it important to have a clear sense of who your competitors are?

Blanton notes, "The recruitment of undergraduate students is an increasingly competitive process. Young men and women, particularly those with high test scores and GPAs, have a lot of choices. They are sophisticated consumers in the commercial marketplace, and they are increasingly sophisticated consumers in the educational marketplace as well.

"Therefore, it's important for us--as an institution with some high aspirations for improving both the perception and the reality of our quality--to compete more effectively for the best students. You can't do this without an in-depth understanding of who your competition is," he adds.

Carroll says that knowing your true competition is the first step in differentiation. "Although it doesn't sound collegial, you need to 'know your enemy.' If you don't understand who you are competing with and what their strengths and weaknesses are, then you can't begin to differentiate yourself from them."

Pugel says, "Twenty years ago our competition was strictly other seminaries. Today there is a multitude of faith-based universities offering master's degree programs similar to what Asbury offers. As a result, our list of potential competitors has expanded. It is very important for ATS to focus on differentiating itself from the true competitors--the schools with which we compete most often and to a larger degree."

Pauls says the gathering of competitive intelligence allows North Dakota State to better communicate with its audience by letting the university increase and maximize what he calls its "differentiation quotient." He says, "Our goal is to identify messages, and message delivery methods, that are not only authentic, relevant, and 'on-message' for our target audience, but different in as many ways as possible from the messages used by our major competitors. This level of differentiation cannot be achieved without competitive intelligence that improves our ability to better convey messages about us, to help us develop messages that more effectively speak against them."

How do you determine your top five competitors for undergraduate students?

According to Bialik, Dominican determined its competitor set by first identifying the schools with which it shares admitted students and then computing how often Dominican enrolls those students (its "win-loss" ratio). "A 50-50 win-loss ratio represents a truly competitive situation. If we always win or rarely win against an institution, we are not really competing. We are focusing our attention on the institutions where we win 30 percent to 70 percent of the time," he says.

Pauls explains that North Dakota State uses both data and anecdotes. Nonmatriculant studies ask students what schools they considered and where they actually enrolled. By participating in the National Student Clearinghouse, the university's leaders receive a list of schools its potential students actually attended. "We enrich these data with anecdotes that are collected through more informal ways," Pauls says.

What kind of competitive intelligence do you routinely gather?

Carroll routinely looks at the following data sets for Furman:

* Tuition, room, and board

* Enrollment

* Student quality

* Yield rates

* Tuition discount rates

* Unfunded discount rate

* Endowment per student

* Alumni giving

At Dominican, meanwhile, whether the school is first, second, or third choice against key competitors is examined. According to Bialik, the institution's leaders also seek information on new or discontinued programs. "We routinely visit [those schools'] websites; look at their advertising and promotional materials; talk to or sometimes survey their staff, faculty, and students; and 'secret shop' their communications flow."

Pauls adds another dimension: "We routinely try to determine what our competitors may be saying or demonstrating more effectively than we are. This helps us identify opportunities we should highlight differently and/or competencies we should or need to develop further."

How do you differentiate your institution from its competitors?

Says Carroll, "We believe strongly in the concept of 'know yourself.' You have to portray who you are as it corresponds to your institutional vision and mission and your strategic plan. Furman's brand really hasn't tracked far from where we were a decade ago. What differentiated us then, still for the most part, differentiates us now. We've tweaked and reprioritized things as we've matured, but who we are is who we are. 'Engaged learning' is our brand. Within that, we've added some new features, redefined some of the tenets, but I don't see a lot of 'they're doing that so we need to be doing that too' from our end. We do a great job of staying focused."

Pugel says, "Research is the most effective tool for defining 'distinctive.' We look carefully at both nonmatriculant and admitted student data. Outside of research, it is all speculative."

Blanton notes that the University of Kentucky is mandated by the state to become a top 20 public research institution by 2020. "As part of our top 20 business plan, our president, Lee T. Todd Jr., charged us to develop an effective brand strategy for the university," he says. "Our campaign--dubbed 'See Blue'--attempts to communicate more directly and in a more resonant fashion with targeted students, counselors, and teachers about some of the brand attributes that make UK special. At the same time, we are trying to leverage off of the long-term athletics success of our institution and transfer that to the academic aspirations, ambitions, and successes of UK. We are thinking of our institution more as a brand--and all that entails--and about its position and perception in a very competitive marketplace."

Differentiating Dominican, notes Bialik, is primarily about knowing which students are most likely to be successful and then targeting messages well enough, and early enough, to reach them. Bialik says, "Our greatest differentiators are our students, our faculty, and our campus, and we engage all three in our recruitment process. When we present ourselves honestly and accurately we are more likely to enroll students who will persist and graduate from our school. We work hard to understand why students select us, which ones persist and graduate, and which ones transfer out. To truly differentiate, we must also know our competition well enough to be able to accurately represent it to a prospective student or parent, even to the point of recommending the competitor school if we believe it is a better match." Clearly, it's important to identify your competitor set.

Part two of this column will explore more options for differentiation.

Robert A. Sevier is a senior vice president at Stamats Communications ( He can be reached at
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Title Annotation:MARKETING
Author:Sevier, Robert A.
Publication:University Business
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2008
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