Increasing educational attainment among underserved populations is critical to the health and vitality of our nation, yet recent news about college enrollment among lower income students has been dire. According to the American Council on Education (ACE), low income student enrollment at two and four year colleges immediately after high school graduation has declined by 10% since 2008, despite large increases in grant aid. At the same time, the cost of NOT going to college has never been higher.
Thankfully, colleges, foundations and the federal government are working to encourage high need students to enroll in college and to succeed once on campus. The Lumina Foundation, in conjunction with Education Design Lab (EDL), has recently launched an initiative to help public colleges with high need student populations reengineer their processes to better recruit these students, sustain them on campus, and assist them in their successful transition to working life, while also improving the longterm health of the institutions themselves. My company, Noetic Consultants, had the good fortune recently to assist in a Lumina Foundation “Convening” of college leaders, helping 10 public institutions create unique and compelling value statements aimed at attracting high need students.
A value statement is a short, clear expression of the value that a college or university (or business or product) provides to a specific audience. Ideally, this audience is focused enough to allow you to bring depth, specificity, and most importantly, credibility to the value that your institution promises. Unfortunately, most colleges have not succeeded at articulating their value to high need students. EDL and the Lumina Foundation Convening set about to change this, putting the development of effective value statements aimed at high need students at the heart of their efforts.
As marketing strategy experts, we took away much from the Convening that we believe will be of use to both educational and business marketing leaders, all of whom struggle with defining their best prospects and conveying their value in a competitive market. Here are some tips for creating a compelling value statement based on our learning:
1. See your offering through the eyes of who you serve
Anyone who works with Noetic will be very familiar with our oft-repeated mantra: “Start with the WHO.” This is a shorthand way of saying that to develop any customer relevant messaging, you must start by understanding that customer: who they are and what they want or need.
In our value statement work at the Convening, we started by asking each of the schools to identify and capture the highest priority high need segments for their institution. Next we asked them to articulate and capture the needs of these students, followed by the offerings that their school possessed that could directly answer these needs. Lastly they were asked to name and describe their competition to ensure that we kept a realistic idea of the landscape within which these students would be assessing them. With these elements as their raw materials, school representatives were able to better see their institutions through the eyes of those who would consider them and create value statements to speak to these students.
2. The kitchen sink is hard to resist—but resist it you must
Learning institutions are living, breathing organizations that have a treasure trove of important characteristics and aspects to offer. To narrow this down to “one thing” that your institution stands for is difficult, to say the least, and may even feel reductive. Nonetheless, it is essential to simplify and clarify your value to your audience. Too much complexity will leave your audience with no sense for who you really are and what you distinctively offer.
When you look at your institution from the perspective of your audience, you quickly realize that they are not just looking at your institution, but at many institutions. These can be public, private, for-profit and even options outside of the educational space. When you are looking through their eyes, you realize that they are seeking a place where they can see themselves, based upon who they know themselves to be and based upon their developing understanding of what they want and need in their college education.
From this viewpoint, it is easy for higher education marketers and enrollment officers to see that what students need is a single-minded, clear statement that enables them to easily and specifically understand who you are and what you offer. If instead they receive “the kitchen sink,” the volume and varied nature of your promises bounce off of them as white noise. You fail to make an impression and they fail to see who you truly are. But how do you get to that one statement? This is the challenge.
3. A Mad Lib™ formula provides a speedy and helpful structure
Of all of the smart design features that Education Design Lab brought to the Convening (and there were many), the Mad Lib or “fill-in-the-blank” formula was most inspirational. It is a simple yet profound construct that can help any institution or business succinctly and consistently draft a value statement in a brief period of time without losing rigor or focus.
For the Convening, this fill-in-the-blank formula was employed: “We offer students ______ (this core benefit) to help them ______ (address this core need) and unlike _______ (these competitors) we ______ (this unique benefit to students).” Following the first exercise asking college administrators to see their institutions through their target students’ eyes–which produced an abundance of information regarding priority segments, needs, offerings and competition–the Value Statement Mad Lib helped leaders make tough choices from among their options, creating the specificity that is essential for effective communications. The beauty of the fill-in-the-blank formula is that any organization can use it, with minor adaptations, to develop a distinctive and clear value statement aimed at a specific audience.
4. Use a rubric to guide your decision making
As helpful as a Mad Lib formula is for crafting an initial value statement, so a rubric is for assessing that statement’s strength. A rubric is a rating scale that helps a group assess how well a proposed value statement delivers on the most critical factors of a strong value statement. The rubric we use helps the working group determine if a value statement is:
- specific and clear
- competitively distinct
- relevant and motivating to our audience
- credible and believable coming from us
- a clear guide for decision making and growth – now and in the future.
Test statements are rated Green, Yellow or Red for each factor. When utilizing a rubric, it is rare, particularly on the first pass, to get all green votes. This leads to powerful strategic discussion and decision making that ultimately leads to an optimized statement.
5. Vanilla is easiest, but not safest
When crafting a value statement, not only is determining the general direction of the statement challenging, but so also is selecting the specific words. Before starting your writing, it’s very helpful to have a good sense of what your competitors’ value statements are in order to arrive at a differentiated and compelling statement of your own. In the case of the Convening, we were able to develop and compare draft statements among the 10 attending institutions. As is very common, the first round of statements was remarkably consistent across institutions: in other words, they were bland, safe “vanilla” statements that likely wouldn’t stand out to prospective students.
Vanilla value statements are the easiest to develop—since they don’t involve any sacrifices or tough choices!—but they won’t help move your institution, brand or product forward in the marketplace. If, as at the Convening, you compare your first round statement of choice to your competitors (or similar institutions) and it sounds very similar, you will know that it is time to get back to work on developing a focused statement that truly stands out. Strive for distinctive language that feels authentic and specific to your institution and speaks to your target audience’s needs.
Value statement creation is an iterative process with a tremendous amount of hard data and soft data judgement that comes into play. Hopefully with these guidelines you may feel a bit more confident in pursuing this crucial brand strategy work.
Noetic is a marketing consultancy specializing in brand strategy, research & training.
We are built upon an avid curiosity about varied businesses and their unique strategic challenges. We provide a fresh perspective and intelligent thinking without a rigid agenda that requires starting from scratch.
Our “I.D.E.A.” approach always starts with the vision our senior executive clients set. And our mission is to help our clients release their team’s full potential to achieve that vision.