There are 4,300 colleges and universities in the U.S. alone, and while Millennials are the largest generation that has ever lived, most of them are done with their education. While it is true that they are now having kids of their own, most of those children— the grandchildren of the Baby Boomers—won’t be enrolling in a place of higher education for at least another decade.
This means there are fewer kids going to college and more competition to attract each one.
That was the situation Simmons University—a small, selective, all-women’s undergraduate college (but a co-ed graduate school) in Boston—found itself in as it entered the second decade of the 21st century. And the school’s leaders knew as the battle for students— primarily women in their case—heated up, they were at a decided disadvantage.
For one thing, research by the College Board showed that only two percent of university-bound, 18-year-old female high schoolers were even thinking about applying to an all-women’s college. And for another, the school simply was not well-known outside of New England. Alumnae were proud of the school, and parents who sent their daughters there to earn an undergraduate degree were happy with the return on their investment. Still, the aggregate number of both groups was relatively small.
“I kept hearing from people who knew of Simmons that we were colleges’ best-kept secret,” says Cheryl E. Howard, the school’s senior vice president. “When I worked in the corporate world, I was in marketing, and the last thing you wanted to hear was such and such was the best-kept secret. If you are a secret, not enough people know about you.”
That anecdotal evidence about Simmons being a secret was confirmed by research that the college conducted. The people who knew of the college thought highly of it. But those who didn’t said one of the reasons was there was nothing distinctive about it.
“There were no negatives, but there was nothing positive,” says Howard. “It was like nothing.”
This really didn’t come as a surprise to Howard, who had seen firsthand that the college did not have a clear image. “When I started 11 years ago at Simmons, there wasn’t a unified message. Everyone had their own message that they were trying to communicate to students.”
That is no way to market, especially in an extremely crowded marketplace. Something had to change.
Research and Insights
Howard sums up the situation that the school was facing, stating, “we had done this enormous piece of research that was very insightful and very valuable, even if it was not what we wanted to hear. We were being told there wasn’t a perception of what we stood for in the marketplace. That was the bad news. The good news was we felt that we had a lot to offer.”
The school “just” needed to figure out how to communicate it.
As Simmons prepared to create a new approach to attracting students, leaders at the school made the decision to concentrate on promoting the undergraduate college.
“Even though our graduate program is much bigger, in terms of students,” says Howard, “our president believed that universities live and die on the strength of their undergraduate reputation. So, we wanted to enhance our undergraduate reputation, and we wanted to be able to take it national.”
And as senior leadership at Simmons set to work, they did have a slight head start. As part of the work it had done earlier, the college had created a firm handle on what it was and what it wanted to be and was explicitly clear about its mission.
That was good, of course, but the school needed to determine four things:
- What it wanted to accomplish with the new positioning, i.e., what success would look like
- Where there were opportunities in the marketplace for it to achieve its objectives
- Which ones it would go after
- Determine the best way to communicate the fact that Simmons was relevant to the young women—remember the focus was going to be on the undergraduate college which was all- women’s—who they knew would thrive at the school
There were many things that the college could try to accomplish, such as appealing to older (over 24-years-old) students—a fast-growing segment of the college population—and pointing out that its undergraduate program prepared students to excel in grad school.
But if you try to accomplish too much, you just end up diluting your efforts. So, the college decided on three objectives:
- Build a brand position that sought first and foremost to help Simmons University recruit new students. Here’s the way the university put it: “With just two percent of female high school seniors indicating an interest in single-sex education, it is critical for Simmons to offer a very strong, competitive education to these women. A transformative, single-sex education is one of the key differentiators that we have when compared with the other colleges to which our undergraduate students apply.”
- Provide a common messaging framework for Simmons leadership, faculty, students, guidance counselors, parents, friends, alumnae, and prospective students to rally around and use consistently to tell the Simmons’ story both internally and externally.
- Create an overall brand position for Simmons that resonates with each of the schools within the college (business, library science, nursing, social work) while providing a cohesive and unifying narrative supporting the undergraduate school’s mission, values, and vision.
The most important one, of course, was the first: creating a brand position that would allow the college to recruit new students.
Development of Brand Tagline and Positioning
- March–May 2010: Core Purpose, Values, and Positioning for College developed.
- October–November 2010: Five Strategic Opportunities identified:
- Enhancements to strengthen the undergraduate college to make it more appealing.
- An organization-wide effort focused on creating a student-centered culture. “At Simmons, we have always valued and promoted our close connection to students. Yet this value does not always translate into everything we do. In such a competitive and increasingly impersonal marketplace, improved efforts on this opportunity will set us apart from many competitors.”
- Substantial expansion of our non-traditional undergraduate program for women over 24. “This is the largest and fastest-growing segment of potential new students.”
- Collaborative efforts—both within Simmons and externally—to articulate a wide array of flexible undergraduate to graduate school opportunities. “Students want more value and more career-readiness from their private education.”
- Opportunities for online graduate education to enhance the national reach and stature of our notable schools to the overall benefit of the entire college.
“In order to remain competitive, Simmons has to provide more flexible times, schedules, and learning media for our students. Online options can serve as an additional source of revenue for the college, and allow us to expand beyond our current geographic and competitive boundaries; they also allow us to sustain growth in programs where we are physically at capacity.”
- September 2011–October 2012: Primary research conducted on prospective undergraduate students and their parents.
- January 2015: New tagline and positioning launched.
Messaging and Positioning
Armed with goals and objectives, and with help from Brodeur Partners, the college conducted a number of focus groups on campus and talked to faculty and staff to come up with potential positioning and taglines.
The results were four different possible approaches:
“The four were tested among the prospects, both the prospective students and their parents,” Howard recalls. “We were looking for the one that was most appealing and drew the broadest diverse audience, including wealthier students. We needed the wealthier students so that we could have funds to pay for students who did not have the funds to go to Simmons because at that time (2015) it cost $50,000 a year to attend as an undergraduate.” (For the 2020-21 academic year, it was slightly more than $61,000.)
The testing quickly revealed that options 3 and 4 were not going to work with the target audiences. (Only 7 percent liked “Simmons Works.” Just 15 percent approved of option 4, “Achieve/Lead.”)
So, it was down to two.
Concept 1, as you saw, revolved around “Your Move; Your Simmons,” which was seen as personal, inspiring, and easy to understand. It reflected how students thought about the process of deciding to come to Simmons. This quote is representative: “I was deciding to make a move. It was my time to do it.” People interviewed said the concept communicated that “it is all about you, and that is good.” Many current students said this concept would resonate with their younger sisters or cousins.
With Concept 2, a new kind of leader, students liked the “personal narrative” of the stories about different students. The concept was seen as special— “redefining” what they are all doing right now at Simmons. “Redefining” equaled transformative in many of their minds. “At Simmons, you are the one who redefines what a leader is, what you are. It says there is the freedom to be who you are or who you want to be,” was a representative quote.
Many said “a new kind of” was language that resonated. It spoke to them personally and communicated, “you are different and new, and you can be whatever you want to be.” It recognized that “you are an individual.” One person surveyed said, “this is the perfect way to describe Simmons.”
The concepts were refined a bit so that Option 1 became “Your moment. Your move. Your Simmons.” And Option 2 was: “A new kind of great.”
It seemed clear that Simmons had come up with two potential positioning statements that were relevant, i.e., that created an emotional connection to the target audience and would motivate them to change their behavior, i.e., get more college-age women to consider applying to Simmons as undergraduates.
The next step was to ask if both of them differentiated Simmons, i.e., to determine if other institutions were also using the keywords in their taglines. (It does you little good to use the same messaging as someone else if you are hoping to break through a crowded marketplace.)
So, was the positioning different enough?
For “Your Moment. Your Move. Your Simmons,” the answer was yes; the positioning was unique. A handful of colleges used some variations of either the word “move” or “moment” (Eureka College: “The moment of discovery;” San Diego State: “Minds that move the world”) but there weren’t many—six in total—and none of them were even close to delivering the same message.
However, “A new kind of great,” the second option being considered, was a different matter. There were 60 colleges that used the word great, and many of them did so in a context that came remark- ably close to what Simmons was considering. (The University of Louisville’s “Dare to be Great,” and nearby University of Vermont’s “The Greatness within our Grasp,” and the University of Maine’s “You’re in a Great Place” are just three examples.)
That was a problem.
But no matter which one the school selected, it was clear that leadership, either directly or implicitly, would be part of the final message. Parents loved the idea of their daughters becoming leaders because it meant they would have a chance of landing a good job. And the research showed that the students liked the idea as well because to them, it communicated that they would be in charge of their own future.
To some, the idea that 18-year-olds would find a pitch about leadership relevant is surprising, but Howard is quick to explain why it shouldn’t be.
“What doesn’t resonate is to say women’s leadership,” Howard says. “They don’t want to hear any of that stuff. But as to the concept of leadership itself, yes, it really does resonate. It’s relevant.
And, of course, this is the kind of student we were looking for. So, we’re looking for a student who wants to make a difference, wants to have an impact.”
As they thought it through, it was clear that Option 1, with its emphasis on leadership, was the way to go.
“The idea that leaders make themselves was very Simmons,” Howard says. “You know, it’s not about you telling me what I’m gonna do as a leader. It’s not about someone else saying you have to do this. It’s about me developing myself and making myself into a leader. So those words resonated very well with the prospective students. We then tested the concept with our first-year students to see their responses as well, and it was also relevant. They liked the idea that you won’t be sitting back and waiting for instructions. You’ll seize moments of opportunity in your career, your passion, or your life.”
The language was tweaked a bit, and a new subhead—stressing that Simmons is a place where leaders make themselves—was added and here is what the messaging and tag line ended up being:
The campaign was a success. You can’t attribute all the recent gains at the college to one marketing decision, “but having one message that ties everything together has made a huge difference,” Howard says.
Since Simmons has been using the new positioning, class size has increased—no small thing when there is a relative dearth of college-age students—and the college has become even more selective about whom it accepts. SAT and ACT scores have been in- creasing, and the college has become more diverse as well. Some 36 percent of those accepted to the class of 2022 identified as African American, Latina, Native American, and Asian American.
But perhaps all these gains should not be surprising when you think back to the “Relevance Egg.” The new positioning resonated in all four quadrants.
Why did it work?
An intriguing question to ask, in the aftermath of the success of the campaign, is why did it work? Was the college able to find potential students who responded to the message, or did the students self-select?
“I would say it was a combination,” says Howard. “Yes, we were good at finding them, using the right lists, and meeting with guidance counselors so that they would understand what Simmons is like and so they could recommend us. But we are also attracting the student leaders, the ones who are activists. The issues are so intense now with immigration, transgender issues, and the like. We are finding them, and they are finding us, students who are very caring, very activist-oriented, people who believe in equity and what is right.
“But we also have a segment of students—and I don’t mean to make it sound like the two extremes—who are truly focused on their development in whatever their career is, whether it’s communication, business, or nursing. They’re just intensely focused on getting the most out of their education so that they have a breadth of experiences in their field.
“And then you have those who are both, activists who are very focused on their career and getting a great job or going to graduate school.”
What ties this all together is the kind of student Simmons is looking for at the undergraduate level: a smart young woman who wants to accomplish something with her life. It is now clear to everyone that this is the person the undergraduate school is trying to attract.
“It’s all about having something to sell,” Howard says. “When I first started in admissions, honestly, we didn’t have anything to sell.”
They do now.