During a recent visit to my neighborhood barber, I overheard a conversation between a new customer and his stylist about his previous profession. Upon learning her customer was a former jewelry designer, the stylist remarked: "Oh, I bet you loved working with all of that sparkle!"
In response, the customer said: "Yes, I always prioritized sparkle over flash."
His statement struck me, and immediately I began thinking about higher education in this same context. As the industry continues to writhe its way through its many challenges, it can be easy to choose flash over sparkle to meet short-term goals.
"We need a 'viral' video on TikTok."
"We need a billboard in University of X's backyard to try to get more students."
"Y University just built a new dorm. We should probably consider that as well."
This is flash. Flash is episodic, short-sighted, not strategic, and won't end up moving the needle the way you need it to in the long run. The "throw-it-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks" approach to marketing can ultimately result in a diluted, aimless brand. Flash isn't nuanced or sophisticated. Flash is a hammer in search of a nail.
Sparkle, on the other hand, is long-term and strategic. Sparkle comes from within. Sparkle calls attention to the unique parts that deserve to be noticed. Sparkle is authenticity. Sparkle isn't concerned with what others are doing because it's too busy shining in its way.
"University A believes that mental health is critical to student success.
That's why we offer every student, faculty, and staff member....."
"We are committed to increasing access to higher education to those who seek it -
and we do that in the following, measurable ways..."
"How can we use social media to better connect with our audiences instead of talking at them?"
Sparkle can vary depending on what angle at which it is observed. Our audiences hold your institution in their hands to view it from different angles, assessing every facet to see what might catch their eye. The student experience can sparkle just as brilliantly as your academic offer. The glisten of athletics can resonate alongside the twinkle of career readiness.
Sparkle is forever, whereas flash lasts but only a minute.
But how do we move from flash to sparkle? Thinking less about what the institution down the street (or in that other state) is doing and focus more on what your institution does best—in other words, being distinctive. What topics are important to your primary audience, and how does your institution approach talking about those things?
In our upcoming National Student Survey webinar, we will share some of those high-level topics, which may inform how you message your offer and what makes it distinct. Information that will surely help you shine.
Higher education has reached a point that calls for more sparkle and less flash. The days of the 'hidden gem' are long over. Tell your authentic story and sparkle for the world to see.
As Director of Community Engagement, Kevin works with CMOs from institutions across the country to help them reach their strategic goals with data, insights, and programming, while moving the higher ed marketing industry forward in important ways. Kevin has a degree in poetry from the University of Pittsburgh and has worked in a number of fields, including politics, government, non-profits, charter schools, agencies, corporations, and institutions. He also hosts Higher Voltage, a podcast about higher education marketing and branding.