Strategy in 3D

Does every brand really need to differentiate itself?

In today’s overstuffed and noisy market, standing out is considered a mandatory goal for all brands. But often, brand-builders focus too heavily on differentiation – which can blind you to the needs of more established relationships and expose your institution to unnecessary risk.

Let’s look at three ways to focus a brand strategy — definition, distinction, and differentiation — to ensure that you’re not obsessing over the need to stand out. We’ll call it strategy in 3D.

Definition: “This is who we are and what we do.”

Definition leans on your institution’s core identity and composition. It looks inward more than outward, emphasizing your employees, culture, and existing audiences, and aligning the experience with your values.

Works best for:

  • Bringing consistency to a fragmented or neglected brand 
  • Fostering pride in your institution’s current state
  • Aligning internal audiences around a central idea

Advantages:
Authenticity. Because the strength of this strategy comes from within, its viability is long-lasting. It’s mostly unaffected by external forces, like competitors or a shifting marketplace. It calls for only slight adjustments to your existing value proposition; it’s about strengthening and tightening things up.

Risks:
Because definition is about showcasing your brand in its purest form, it can be perceived as too inward looking, out of touch, or lacking vision.

How do I know if this is the right approach?

  • Your branded assets, materials, and experiences are inconsistent or fragmented.
  • Your brand doesn’t present a clear point of view.
  • Your brand is more a collection of stories, materials, and experiences that fall short of telling a larger story.

Distinction: “We’re changing. Here’s what you need to know.”

Distinction requires you to strategically evaluate internal and external factors, making deliberate choices about what to emphasize. It strikes a healthy balance between institutional strengths and differentiators, looking for a position alongside your aspirational peers.

Works best for:

  • Shedding outdated or inaccurate perceptions
  • Moving into a different but existing category
  • Elevating your current offer to a higher tier

Advantages:
Relevance. This strategy works to evolve, elevate, or reposition your brand during a time of change — like a liberal arts college that adds pre-professional programs, or an underappreciated university looking to emerge as a leader. Distinction creates an opportunity to showcase your authentic strengths, whether they differentiate you or not.

Risks:
This approach may sacrifice differentiation so that you can join a new peer group. It tends to compete on rankings and expected features — like location, student outcomes, strong faculty, or a certain mindset.

How do I know if this is the right approach?

  • Your brand is fighting inaccurate or outdated perceptions.
  • Your institution has grown, or you’ve changed your academic composition.
  • Your brand is seeking to attract a different type of student.
  • Your prospective students cross-app with a less-than desirable peer set.

Differentiation: “We’re one of a kind. Here’s how.”

Differentiation is heavily informed by the marketplace and your competitors, looking first for an unmet need — “white space” — and then finding a way to fulfill it. It requires persistent courage, but it can return incredible value when it’s done successfully.

Works best for:

  • Carving out and claiming a unique position in the market
  • Creating accountability to live up to your brand promise
  • Attracting significant attention

 
Advantages:
Standing out. These brands foster highly engaged communities and are not afraid of skepticism, criticism, or resistance. Target audiences may embrace your brand as an extension of their own identity.

Risks:
To accommodate a differentiated message, you may have to downplay important strengths. You may also disgruntle alumni and donors who want to preserve “their” alma mater. But just as easily, it can work in your favor by inspiring and drawing in these same audiences.

How do I know if this is the right approach?

  • Your internal stakeholders can state clearly what makes your brand different.
  • Your brand has a vision for the future that’s truly differentiating.
  • Your brand’s audiences will recognize and understand what’s different. (Often, what we’d like to think is unique simply isn’t. That’s why research is critical.)
  • Your leaders are confident in taking your brand into a space where no other brands are.

Every brand strategy should be authentic yet aspirational. Every strategy should consider internal and external factors. And every strategy should articulate uniqueness to some degree — because ultimately, we aren’t all exactly the same.

Start by defining clear, realistic objectives, to establish a challenge that the strategy must solve. Then, put in the work — you’ll need a deep and comprehensive understanding of the environment your brand operates within. Finally, stay focused. And if differentiation is the route to go, go bravely.

This post originally appeared in Marketing News.