Have You Found Your "Onlyness"?

Recently I addressed a large group of college admissions and marketing professionals in Silicon Valley.  We are known for our factual approach to the world of college, and college selection, and I provided my audience with some insights that were quite shocking to them judging from the looks on their faces.

There are 60,317 potential choices a student could make to study a major somewhere in a traditional 4-year college or university.

Multiply the number of colleges or universities in the United States by the number of programs and majors offered by each college. The result is sixty thousand, three hundred seventeen.

This is a problem for both students and colleges. Students are overwhelmed with options and often have little guidance on making the best decision. Their options are also expensive and time-consuming meaning mistakes have huge consequences.

Colleges have many competitors and the significance of their particular program is often lost in the crowd. They are also tempted to simply add programs to keep up with their peers rather than putting real thought into specializing what they do best.

Colleges spend hundreds of millions of dollars per year on marketing. Much of those marketing dollars are wasted on broad and vague statements reaching a broad and vague audience who has little interest. 

How does a consumer differentiate among all the potential choices? How do colleges and universities differentiate their offerings to stand out among a market filled with too many choices?

Creating a Brand

I recently read a great book called Brand Flip by Marty Neumeier, a legend in Silicon Valley for his pioneering work with some of the leading technology brands of our time. Marty makes an important observation in his book about the consumer today:

The most successful brands we all buy from every day understand the only way for them to really succeed is to enable the consumer to employ the products or services they sell to create their own brand.  

For example, Uber lets me re-define my relationship to travel as well as my automobile. Uber has successfully established its “Onlyness” for the consumer. It is the only brand that offers the ease of use and low-cost to allow consumers to live without the hassle of owning a car! 

Young people who live in urban areas are ready to forgo the dream of owning a shiny brand new car in return for the utility of getting from point A to point B for a fraction of the annual cost of ownership. For longer weekend trips, they know they can also turn to the same smartphone to order up a Zipcar.  
This is important for higher education. Colleges and Universities are working with a completely different generation of education consumers who all live digital lives and are used to having it “their” way, making very rational decisions. The next generation of leaders in the competitive world of higher education will need to re-define their brands to place more power in the hands of extremely sophisticated consumers.  

The cost of a car is nothing compared to the cost of a college education and the associated student debt burden. The automobile has just been reduced from the dreamy shiny thing to its utility value. Expect the consumer to focus on educational decisions driven by their economic value.  

Among the more than 2,500 Colleges and Universities in the United States today, there are a very small number of schools with “super-premium” brands and they will remain the super-premium brands to a relatively small number of educational consumers who are accepted. Then there is everyone else.

The winners will be the colleges and universities focused on differentiating their offerings in a crowded field with too many choices.

In order to differentiate, a college or university needs to establish its “Onlyness.”  Try out this headache inducing exercise:

We are the only [college or university] offering a [major, program, specialization] in [_________________] that [_______________].

For example:

We are the only university offering a program in Business that involves students creating their own business.


We are the only college offering a major in Journalism that has students contribute major news stories to the local paper via an internship.

Finding Your "Onlyness"

We rank every one of the 60,217 potential programs or majors in more than 5 different dimensions. We encourage you to begin by looking at your institution’s rankings on the College Factual site.

We also provide badges to assist institutions in calling out their “Onlyness.” We are sure you can find plenty of great places to start building out your unique brand.

If you are not demonstrating the value of the programs and majors you offer to the consumer, you will be unfortunately be surprised to find that an innovator like Uber will be doing it for you.