Colleges and universities today find themselves in a hyper-aggressive competition to attract and retain students. Adult learners and traditional students see themselves as “buyers” of a higher-education product. They have different demands, different expectations. They want colleges and universities to serve their individual needs in curriculum, degree offerings, facilities and extracurricular activities.

To compete and win, colleges and universities must embrace a business mindset. They must focus on building world-class brands that speak to targeted students in a meaningful, relevant way. They must address three fundamental challenges — and opportunities — in developing their brands:

1. Define what you want to be — and own it

Many colleges try to be all things to all people. It seems to be a common approach in higher education. Take a look at a few college websites, skim through their recruitment literature, or better yet, talk with their admissions counselors, staff and faculty. Many of them look and sound the same.

What many institutions lack is a clear focus on what they want to become, a defined positioning that establishes the college’s target market and how the school can uniquely own that market segment within its competitive set. The key is to tailor the product, education and the collegial experience, so that it has significant appeal to a defined target audience, and it is packaged in a way that stands apart from competing institutions.

Establishing a positioning means the college has made a commitment to focus its efforts, definitively take a position, and drive all of its resources into owning a unique standing in the market. By embracing a defined position, the college has the opportunity to establish powerful differentiation from competing institutions and become the college of choice among targeted, prospective students – a far better approach than trying to be all things to all people.

2. Make a promise — and live it

Many college and university leaders are seeing the value of developing a brand strategy for their institutions, a strategy that articulates what the institution stands for, showcases its unique attributes and makes a powerful “promise” to its students and other stakeholders.

Living the promise is the challenge and the opportunity. The promise must come to life in the quality of education; the student experience; how staff, faculty and students interact and communicate with each other; in the culture that lives within the college community; and, of course, it should drive all institutional marketing communications and public relations.

If a college or university forms a brand strategy centered on the concept of providing a “personalized education,” strategic business decisions need to be made and implemented to assure that the majority of students actually receive the personal attention promised. If a college or university is positioned based on the strengths of its academics, investments need to be made to ensure it truly is delivering a “best-in-class” education.

A brand promise can’t just be nice words on paper. It has to be real, relatable and actionable. All three of those objectives are achieved when there is involvement, collaboration and engagement.

The faculty, staff and leadership of the college should be involved in the development of the brand strategy. They should be asked to feed back and collaborate on the creation of each brand element and should remain engaged throughout the entire strategic process. After all, the brand promise must be embraced by the campus community in order for the brand to be effective. Involvement needs to come from all corners. College leadership, including the board of directors and/or trustees, need to endorse the brand strategy and recognize their roles in making decisions that reinforce the brand.

3. Create an experience — and deliver it

We talk with clients all the time about the importance of creating a unique brand experience — fantastic products, terrific customer service, passionate employees and integrated marketing communications and public relations that all come together to tell a powerful story about who they are and what they’re about.

The same holds true for colleges and universities. During a brand engagement, we use research to study the touchpoints that combine to form the larger experience. Touchpoints are the interactions students and other stakeholders experience during their engagement and relationship with the college. When those touchpoints are carefully choreographed, the college delivers a powerful brand experience.

One touchpoint that really stands out is the campus visit for a prospective student.

The campus visit must be an experience, not just a visit. It should “celebrate” the institution’s brand, showcase the college’s promise to the student and how the institution stands apart from other colleges. It must “wow” the student in a way that is authentic, interactive and speaks to them on their terms.

A great brand experience creates a “buzz-worthy” experience. When prospective students have a great visit, they share it online, they share it with their friends. When current students are happy at school, they evangelize it -everywhere. The experiences themselves, whether it is a planned event or a simple interaction with a professor, should be commonplace. All it takes is a willingness to identify and develop those key touchpoints, to engage and train faculty and staff, and to continually improve so that brand delivery becomes second nature.