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McCauley on Building Enrollment: Brand your program!

Walk the walk, don’t just talk the talk. I used to use this phrase with my students when their efforts didn’t seem to match their words.  Then I realized it applied to me as well. If we are professional educators, in the field of business, shouldn’t we use the same principles and skills we teach our students?  Of course. But do we?

One area in need of improvement is our effort to brand our programs or organizations.  I believe, to a great degree, we need to treat our programs like a business, and every business knows the importance of branding.

There was a time when a brand was simply a logo.  No longer.  Yes, you need a logo, but a logo alone does not make a brand any more than standing in a garage makes you a car!

Seth Godin defines a brand as the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another.  Let me make this more personal. A brand is set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a student’s/parent’s decision to choose your program or classes over the other options.

This begs the question:  What are our expectations, memories, stories and relationships that distinguish our program from others? This is one of those questions where “answers may vary.” Nonetheless, let’s look at each in more detail.

Expectations: Are students in your program expected to take a pathway or series of classes? Are they expected to participate in your student organization? Are expectations such that students who enroll in your classes understand that they will be challenging and rigorous?

I have observed a variety of expectations over the years.  Some programs focus on community service activities, and others emphasize competition.  Unfortunately, there are also programs with very low expectations—“it’s fun and you don’t have to work,” or “it’s an easy grade and we take cool trips.”  That is a point of differentiation from other programs.  However, I don’t believe it’s a positive positioning – especially in today’s education environment.

Rather, we need to establish expectations focused on relevant and current content, realistic and challenging projects and activities, cutting edge technology, disciplined and organized classrooms, and the list goes on.

Memories/Stories: Search out a book called “Managing By Storying Around,” written by David Armstrong, of Armstrong International. The book tells how stories can communicate important points that lectures, brochures or mission statements can’t. What are memories but an opportunity to tell a story?

Do you have stories about successful students, creative projects or changed lives?  Share them.  Share stories about your personal experience and those of your students.  Connect through these stories.  The good ones will be repeated.  As you collect these stories you will use them strategically—to make a point or capitalize on a “teaching moment.”  Students will remember the stories, and if the timing is right they will also remember the point of the story.

Relationships: Facebook has made it possible for me to reach out to former students from the past 30+ years of teaching.  It has been amazing to me to hear what they remember about their time in the program.  I have yet to have a student thank me for teaching them the 4 P’s or the Steps of the Sale.  Without exception they remember a particular book I gave them to read (The Greatest Miracle in the World) or a specific comment about being  the best  they could be, or how I was there for them during the loss of  a loved one or another of life’s challenges.  It’s nearly always about a relationship built during their time in the program.  It’s hard to explain how that happens—but you know as well as I do that in our programs it does.  That is often what separates what we do from “the competition.”

Getting Started: All of us need to put more of a concerted effort into developing our brand.  But where do we begin.  I like the exercise developed by Richard Mosley, author of The Employer Brand and consultant at People in Business.  He calls it Sunny Side Up.  Ask yourself the following questions to begin to get a “feel” for your brand.

  • Best of: What would you put in an advertisement to present the very best of what your program has to offer?
  • Heroes: Who would appear in your hall of fame and why?
  • Legend: How would Disney tell your program’s story if they made it into a film?
  • Greatest hits: What songs would you choose for a celebratory party mix?
  • Perfect day: Describe a perfect day in one of your classes.


Use questions like these for a great start toward a vision. Then, begin to deliberately build your brand. Along with my notes above, maybe start by thinking about all those touch points where you and your program interact with students and with gatekeepers like parents. Why not get started today?