Terms of Distinction

How do you distinguish your college or university when everyone keeps telling you, "Really it is no different from your competitors?" Is Frosted Flakes really all that different from Wheaties, Raisin Bran or Life cereal?


Spend some time on any campus and you can feel the difference. My daughter attends Haverford, which is just down the road from Villanova, a short walk from Swarthmore and Bryn Mawr and in the same town as UPenn.

They are as different as Life is from Frosted Flakes.

As marketers we have to find a way to articulate this difference, because everyone can’t visit and experience your campus when compiling early consideration sets. And when our colleges do make the list, we need to reinforce these differences and close the deal in an authentic way so that expectations are calibrated and met, and our customers are satisfied and lifelong-engaged alumni.

To begin to market a college like any commodity we have to wade through the basic features and benefits of all category participants and find those that make our offering distinctive.

When marketing a commodity a useful technique for marketers is an exercise called benefit testing. This forces prospects to rank the benefits of a category offering. This process provides the marketer with the basic "table stakes" to compete in the category.

These are the minimum benefits (table stakes) for undergraduate prospects:

  • An accredited degree
  • Practical knowledge
  • A broader social network
  • A useful professional network
  • An alumni network
  • A personal growth experience
  • Extracurricular experiences
  • Study with accomplished faculty
  • An expanded worldview
  • An enlightened perspective
  • A future plan

And often these table stakes are couched in these common descriptors for higher education:

  • Fearless
  • Prestigious
  • Rigorous
  • Independent
  • Challenging
  • Leading
  • Collaborative
  • Innovative
  • Transforming
  • Mentoring

And generally all will make these claims:

  • Educating the whole person
  • Teaching critical thinking
  • Building a better citizen

Consider the list of Philadelphia schools above, is there anything on these lists that is not true of all these schools? I will save you the research; all of these schools and thousands of others offer these basic benefits in very similar terms. This is not to say that these terms and benefits are not important, they are. They are just not distinctive. Marketers have to find and use Terms of Distinction:

Departments of merit. Has a department been singled out as unusually well regarded, say so. To intimate that all departments are of equal quality is not credible.

Faculty of note. Is there a Nobel Laureate? Does this person teach, say so. Are there more? Do they teach? Say so. Is there a quirky, interesting one-of-a-kind faculty member that teaches? Describe this person in great detail, tell the personal story.

Geographic landmarks or cultural advantages. Where does the school live, what do the students do around the school, what will the parents also visit when they visit their children?

Co- and extracurricular specialties. Are there unique programs that the school sponsors or facilitates, in communities or abroad, be specific.

Academic Style. How is teaching done? Who does it, in what kind of setting, is there a story that captures the style, is this a competitive advantage, use it.

Campus personality. Describe the feeling of the campus, in the words of the people who live there, in basic humanized terms.

Institutional Lexicon. What is the common language of the institution? What words or phrases come up all the time? What are the jokes or anecdotes about the college? Use them to your advantage.

College marketers generally do all of these things, but not with the proper prominence, the basic benefits and features versus the terms of distinction are instead too often perfectly inverted in their presentation. The focus is wrongly on the universal table stakes and not on the more useful terms of distinction. This is similar to using the ingredients on the front of a box of cereal. Almost all cereals have the same basic ingredients, and almost all colleges do to. So leave the fructose for the side panel, and put Professor Tony the Tiger on the front, or two scoops of raisons, or Mikey or NFL MVP Adrian Peterson. It’s the terms of distinction that make you unique and compelling—because there is only one Tony the Tiger.




Chris Cullen is Infinia Group's resident expert in higher education, and Managing Director of its Washington, D.C. office. He can be contacted at 240-482-4966 and [email protected].