Sameness Disease

Many of you know that I am at the end of my term as a UCDA board member, a fabulous experience. This week, I’m going through my last group of RFPs for hotels, for the 2014 conference. This is another terrific learning experience. And, as I pour through the 30 hotels that came back, I’m struck by the sameness of many of them.

Oh sure, there are the differences. I’d love to stay at the hotel that offers spritzes of Evian on those that are lounging at the pool, but I don’t think most of our attendees could afford to attend. Staying on an anchored Queen Mary could be extremely interesting. And while I’m intrigued about staying at a hotel with a casino, I’m not sure we could sell that to our attendees.

And those statements show what people are afraid of being in their marketing. They are afraid of being a reason to be eliminated from the search process. This just flies in the face of everything we as marketers are told to do. We are told to find what makes you unique and then sell that. But then … we don’t. We play it safe. We try to appeal to everyone.

I could make a drinking game out of some of these phrases that come up over and over again. “Our kitchen is always open.” “Our luxurious ballrooms …” “Relax in our spa (or a the pool or in our gardens or on the golf course …” “Our top notch staff is at your service …” OK. You know what? That’s kind of my expectation. I’m not really looking for a ballroom where you’re scrimped a bit. And if I’m going to stay there, I hope the staff is willing to help me with my event. Last I’ve looked, no one has said “our staff is a bit jaded, but they’re nice people, honest!”

When I’m going through RFPs, I do need to know that you have my basic needs, sure. But I’d also like to know what makes you different. Do you have an unusual space that might be of interest for an event? That’s how we ended up going to Louisville. Are you near a fun shopping space? Maybe you should just look up my organization and figure out who we are and why your space is perfect for us. We came really close to picking a hotel simply because the representative didn’t respond with “golf!” when we asked what there was to do. (Designers aren’t typically big golfers.)

We have the same problem in higher education recruiting. Name a school not described with these phrases: academic excellence, beautiful campus, professors who care. Patrick DiMichele of mStoner made this point in his excellent talk to us at the 2010 UCDA Design Summit in Nashville. (BTW, we stayed at the Hutton because of the great deal AND because it was a truly unique, beautiful hotel that appealed to our attendees.) How many of you use this to describe your school? We do, I’ll admit it. I also hope that we talk about how we’re different too.

Once, I had the great fortune of talking to a student who got accepted in our honors program. I mentioned that she must have gotten a LOT of mail and she did. She said “I’ve got three boxes of it in my living room!” We drove over there that night and put it in the back of my car. I then went through every single piece. No wonder high school students are so confused. I could hardly tell one from the other when I was done with the 300+ pieces. One letter even tried to have fun with the fact that we all use the same phrases. It didn’t work.

Do I have a solution to this saminess disease? Well, not exactly, but maybe a few suggestions.

1. Get away from your desk and participate in your school’s activities. Last night, I went to our Dance Marathon, mostly to take pictures since we forgot to schedule it for photography. It helped me understand the kind of student that might want to attend our institution. (Plus it made me feel really good about our student body.)

2. Enjoy the local surroundings. Eat at the local restaurants, shop at the local stores. I took up running last year (mostly because I wanted to get a medal for running a half marathon) and so now I run around town. I LOVE running around campus. We have these two dikes that hold back the lake from campus. What a magical experience, and I see tons of students up there running. Now will I put that on the front cover? Probably not. Will it come up somewhere? Oh yeah.

3. Talk to those on campus. Talk to everyone. EVERYONE. Alumna, students, prospective students, professors, locals, heck even administrators. (Definitely administrators.) If you’ve got a #1 program, great! But find the programs that are really unique. For us, one example is ice cream. We have a history of student-made ice cream that is sold in a student-run store, full of ice cream flavors that have been invented by food science majors. Is it a #1 program? It’s an excellent one, sure. That said, how many campuses have student-made ice cream for sale? Again, am I putting that on the front cover? Nah, but I know prospective students will think it’s unique and fun.

I guess what I’m telling you is good old Marketing 101. In the words of my VP, get to really know your brand DNA. Find those stories. And don’t let those clients insist you play it safe. If you back up your ideas with well-intentioned research, they will listen. Administrators are really under a lot of pressure to perform. Prove to them that if you sell what makes your institution something special, then everybody wins.

What suggestions do you have to conquer sameness disease? (Seriously, I’m open to suggestions!)

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