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About 14 years ago, in the wake of the Great Recession, a strange thing began to happen at colleges and universities across the country, among the many ramifications across industries: U.S. undergraduate enrollment declined by first time in almost 60 years. Institutions across the country began to close or consolidate, especially small liberal arts schools whose degree programs had become outdated and unwanted by new generations of students. Competition for prospective students grew intense. This moment of reckoning provides a particularly telling example of one of the most important lessons I’ve learned as a leader.
As president of the world’s most comprehensive university for creative professions, I knew we offered unique degree programs, but I wondered: How could we more accurately communicate the value of a SCAD degree to this shrinking cohort of ‘potential students? To boost enrollment, some college presidents are pushing for big new football stadiums and other expensive education add-ons. At SCAD, we already had the draw: our unique degree programs, along with the specialized and sophisticated academic resources to support those programs. We just needed to tell this story.
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I called every department head and school dean at SCAD into my office and tasked them, collectively and individually, with identifying what was most distinctive about our undergraduate programs. What were the distinguishing factors of their departments compared to the programs of thousands of other universities around the world? How were we the first, the best, the most, just? In which categories should we be number 1?
I got a few blank stares. SCAD had already been classified by US News and World Report among the best universities in the country. Did I really need to dig deeper and say how every single degree program was also #1? “Yes,” I said. I wanted every leader to identify “no plus ultra” of their departments and schools. I wanted every student, parent, and employer on the planet to know that SCAD was the preeminent source of knowledge in all the disciplines we teach.
We had homework to do. It was a bold undertaking: endless analysis and collective self-reflection, digging into the data, studying our alumni, articulating on whiteboards how we differentiated ourselves. The results would change SCAD forever.
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Discover your ne plus ultra
Study the dynamics of other successful organizations and companies and you’ll see the same mindset at work. In 1959, a small car manufacturer developed a new safety mechanism, the three-point seat belt, that would revolutionize the industry. This same brand soon developed the Side Impact Protection System, the Whiplash Protection System, the Blast Protection System and many other life-saving technologies. You already know the name of this company: Volvo, the not ultra car safety.
Identify your differentiating factors. What is your first, best, most, unique? Among airlines, Delta flies high in the sky, named by Fortune as one of the world’s most admired companies for the ninth year in a row, the highest-rated airline on the list. They continue to build on excellence by flying almost everywhere (they offer on most routes). Get customers to their destinations on time (named the most reliable) and with a smile (named one of the best places to work). Delta continues to leverage these strengths to further rise above the industry.
For decades, Nike has been “the biggest, baddest name in the sneaker business.” Who among us hasn’t stepped on that swoosh? Legendary fashion critic Vanessa Friedman was on campus recently and reminded me that Nike is not ultra in another area, too, as the most recognized and valuable clothing brand in the world for the eighth consecutive year. Nike is worth more than twice as much as Adidas, its closest rival.
Look at these superlatives! The safest. The best. The most admired. The most reliable. The most valuable. Volvo, Delta and Nike know their differentiating factors. Do you know yours?
I know, I know: you don’t have $45 billion in annual revenue. Neither did Nike when Bill Bowerman created the first iconic sole at the kitchen table by pouring rubber into his wife’s waffle iron. You may not (yet) be the biggest company in your industry, or even on your blog, but you can start now.
In 1978, when I wrote the mission statement for SCAD, I declared that we would be the first and only liberal arts college in the world to focus on creative careers. No one else was doing it. The older, more established competition settled for vague mission statements. We would get specific. “No starving artists” was our motto.
Many decades later, when I partnered with leaders to determine the differentiators for excellence across the university, we articulated many more no more ultras already among us: we offer the most degree programs and specializations of any other university of art and design. We hold the most PhDs in art history of any university in the world. We offer the first and only MFA degree programs in Motion Media and Sequential Art. We are home to the largest fashion school in the world. Our focus on careers has resulted in a higher alumni employment rate than our peer institutions. (For the past five consecutive years, we have achieved a remarkable 99% employment rate for our graduates).
The no more ultras of SCAD have only grown more impressive over the years, which is why, even in the wake of Covid-19, SCAD has continued to grow, achieving our highest enrollment this year at nearly 16,000 students.
Because? Well, our Savannah Film Studios is the most comprehensive college film studio complex in the country. SCAD is the only university with its own full-service casting office and the only university with a professional service of commercial galleries. We now offer the only MFA in Theme Park Design, the only BFA in Beauty and Fragrance Business, the only BFA in User Experience Design created in partnership with Google.
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Study your brand
Most universities have a campus. We have three, on two continents. Most universities do not have a teaching museum. We have four. SCAD degree programs in fashion, animation, film, interior design and more have been ranked #1. And we’re also home to the most elite in-house business research studio in higher education, partnered with dozens of Fortune 100 and Fortune 500 clients and hundreds more. Among our clients, you can find Volvo, Delta and Nike, who work with SCAD to stay ahead of their own competition. Like other elite brands, SCAD knows our superlatives and we talk about them as often as we can.
you have homework Study your brand, your customers and your competition. Resolve to offer the lowest prices on the most interesting products, the most durable goods, the most efficient and humane services, the greenest production processes, the fastest delivery. Start small and think big. Like Volvo, Delta, Nike and SCAD, you can lead the superlative brand in your sector. All you have to do is sharpen your pencil, identify your distinguishing factors, tell your story and watch yourself rise to the top of your class.