The Distinctiveness Trap

I hear it all the time from institutional leaders:

  • “We need to identify what makes us distinctive.”
  • “Our strategic plan/viewbook/brochure/website/direct mail letter/(you name it)  should highlight the distinctive aspects of our programs.”
  • “Our institution has to show how it is different from every other institution out there.”

It seems that most institutional and advancement leaders believe if they can simply identify and articulate their institutional distinctives, charitable gift income will increase, enrollment or membership will skyrocket, and reputation rankings will be enhanced.

In the world of marketing and branding, distinctiveness is akin to the Holy Grail – everyone believes it is incredibly valuable, but no one really knows what it looks like.

Here is an idea:

Institutional distinctiveness is over-rated.

Institutional distinctiveness is over-rated for at least 2 big reasons.  First, it is exceedingly difficult to identify important characteristics of the institution that are truly distinctive.  Think about this, almost all of our friends in the private college setting have identified their distinctives as something like:

  • Personalized education, and;
  • Small class sizes, and;
  • A nurturing environment

In other words, most every private college is distinctive – but in a similar way! Sort of defeats the purpose.  And they come up with these “distinctives” after months of focus groups and more meetings than one can count.

Second, institutions searching for distinctiveness typically drill down so far as to become meaningless.  For example:  the signage in each of an institution’s buildings uses the same, commissioned typeface.  No other signs in the world have this typeface.  That’s distinctiveness!  My guess, though, is that the institution won’t attract hordes of new donors because of this distinction.  Yes, the institution has a distinctive, but signage typeface is a meaningless distinctive.

Instead of distinctiveness, what institutions should really focus on are core strengths.  First, answer the question:  what do we do exceedingly well?  Even if other institutions claim the same core strengths, start with what you do well.

Next, identify ways in which you can expand or enhance your core strengths.  If your institution has a core strength of personalized service, think about ways to make your service even more personalized and expand it to all aspects of your work.

Finally, focus on core strengths daily.  Don’t allow what you do exceptionally to become the exception!  Instead, focus all of your resources, activities, events, on highlighting what you do well.  Make your core strengths your core work.

If you really want to become distinctive, focus on core strengths and deliver on them – day in, day out, everyday.  Reaching your institution’s far edge of promise is not about identifying something different from every other institution, it’s about implementing your core strengths better than any other institution.


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