February 2

How to Articulate Brand Distinctives

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by | Feb 2, 2023 | Featured, Strategies, Podcast

Even a small school can stand out in the crowd of educational options by highlighting their brand distinctives through storytelling. 

As a small school, it’s normal to feel like you don’t have the resources you need to accomplish your enrollment goals. 

But you don’t have to have a big school budget to hit your goals and grow your enrollment numbers!

In this episode of The Higher Ed Marketer podcast, we spoke with Dr. Nathan Long, President of Saybrook University, about how they have boosted their enrollment numbers over a short span of time.

Dr. Long gave us the secret sauce on how they doubled their enrollment in less than a decade by telling stories that showed off their brand distinctives.

Saybrook: Small School, Big Impact

While we are privileged to speak to leaders from really big players in the higher ed space, like Jennifer McChord at Asbury University, Terri Hughes-Lazzell at Michigan State University, or Tim Bohling at Notre Dame, most of our listeners are marketing relatively small schools. 

Dr. Nathan Long knows exactly what marketing a small school is like. 

Saybrook University was founded almost 52 years ago in 1971. It’s the humanistic psychology institute. It grew out of a whole series of institutes across the country that were steeped in humanistic psychology, which is known as the third force in psychology. 

Over those 52 years, Saybrook has grown from one PhD program in the 70’s to today offering roughly 26 Master’s and PhD programs across a range of disciplines including counseling, psychology, clinical psychology, integrative medicine, and health sciences. We also have business programming, as well as some other unique certificate programs that support practitioners out in the field. 

We just hit 1,014 students! We have grown from around 450 back in 2014 to 1,014 just about eight years later. 

Despite their small size, they have an out-sized impact in their field of expertise. 

In fact, in our conversation, Dr. Long mentioned how their marketing team has been the recipient of a number of Eddie and Ozzie Awards several years in a row.

This is an incredible accomplishment in light of all the challenges small schools—really, all schools—face as they seek to boost their enrollment and highlight their brand distinctives.

Challenges to Higher Ed Marketing

In our talk, Dr. Long identified some of the common marketing challenges all schools are facing in these unique modern times. 

Challenge #1: Lack of Trust

The first [challenge] would be a crisis of confidence in higher education from the general public.

In the news and media, we’re seeing more and more questions around the value of a degree, questions around what is being taught and how it’s being taught. I think this is really one of the more psychological components that higher education institutions broadly are challenged with. 

Challenge #2: Earning Potential Concerns

Secondly, is the [challenge of showing] return on investment. 

If I, as a student, am going to take out numerous student loans, I want to have some relative assurance that I’m going to be able to pay those back with a career that is going to be lucrative enough to help me pay those back and have a long-term earning potential. 

It’s important to note that colleges and universities are seeing such a dramatic shift from those days of yesteryear. [Back then,] it wasn’t about getting the job at the end of the rainbow. It was about expanding your mind, living your life, and leading a better, more civically-minded life. 

Nowadays, [the feeling is more like] “Those are important, but what job can I get with this degree? How am I going to be successful?”

Challenge #3: Cost of Higher Education

The third challenge is the cost of a higher education experience. 

One of the key pieces around the costs of higher education in the national discourse is that colleges and universities are overpriced. They’re charging too much. 

But that doesn’t get at the nuance of educational pricing. One of the problems we have as an industry is articulating clearly what that nuance is. 

For example, small, nonprofit, private institutions are required to fund everything soup to nuts within their infrastructure. 

State institutions have state subsidies and federal subsidies that support their work. So, you see varying different degrees of cost levels for students. It’s hard to [communicate] that to the public about what actually goes into [the costs]. 

While these challenges do affect all schools in some ways, they really impact small schools in particular. 

But even as a small school, you can highlight your brand distinctives through content storytelling in your marketing materials to stand out among the crowd.

Sticking Out as a Small School

Recently I spoke with a friend about how so many small schools think they compete against other small schools.

The reality is that they are competing against the state systems. 

Having that mindset and being able to highlight your brand distinctives will help differentiate you from the options of community colleges and other state systems.

As a small school, you’ve got to explain why a small school might be a better or more intimate setting for your prospective students’ educational experience.

Leverage the Brand Distinctives of a Small School

The core reality is that technically we are competing [with those state systems]. But [a better way to look at it is that] we are providing greater capacity for the numbers of individuals who are looking to get into programs to which state institutions can’t necessarily provide access. 

Because there’s a limitation on the number of students in a cohort, for example. 

If we can lean into what we can offer, and what we can offer in a better, more integrated, individualized experience, for those students who are seeking us out, and then deliver it, that’s going to be key. 

Essentially, Dr. Long is pointing out the natural limitations of larger, state systems and encouraging us to merely highlight the brand distinctives of our small schools.

While state systems might have an advantage when it comes to cost, the fact is that the number of students entering those systems takes away the feeling of intimacy between faculty and students. 

Ultimately, the opportunities at large state programs can be limited due to the sheer number of students trying to get into them.

Highlighting Brand Distinctives through Telling Your Authentic Story

The second piece is that we’re a part of authentically telling the story of you and of us. 

When we start focusing on everything else around us, when we start talking about, you know, the things that don’t really enter Saybrook’s orbit, we start to drift. Once we start to pull things back in about who we are, what our legacy is, what our mission is, why we have so much to offer to our students, and talking about that value proposition as a small nonprofit private school—the sky’s the limit!

It’s so critical that we tell our story

We need to talk about the opportunities our schools uniquely offer.

Too many times small schools tend to focus on what they don’t have compared to others as opposed to what they do have. 

Instead, we should lean into our brand distinctives and show how smallness is actually a feature, not a bug.

Discover more when you listen to the podcast!

Like all of our blog post reviews of The Higher Ed Marketer podcasts, there’s so much more to learn in the podcasts themselves.

Listen to our interview with Dr. Nathan Long to get even more insights into:

  • Challenges facing smaller institutions and higher ed (6:30)
  • How intentional collaboration helped Saybrook boost enrollment (13:00)
  • Advice on social media opportunities for engagement (25:44)


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Featured image via saybrook.edu

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