On Casting and Directing for Higher Ed Brand

In my experience, if you want to put your higher education brand to a quick and dirty reality check — what engineers call “stress and failure” analysis — there are two places to look.

First, review any and all content that’s scored high enough to be placed in the feature area of your home page over the past six to 12 months. Does it consistently provide visitors compelling, living proof of what makes your particular approach to higher education distinct and worthy? Does it invite prospects to easily project themselves into the experience — a.k.a. does it advance the hero’s story, instead of simply spouting an institutional claim? Finally, does it overachieve as content — by delighting, stirring or otherwise inspiring our prospective hero?

A second “stress and failure point” involves the campus tour — where well-intended student guides and admissions counselors often receive little or no training in how to translate a brand line or position into tangible examples and meaningful language.

In an essay published last Spring in the Chronicle of Higher Education, James M. Lang, associate professor of English and director of the college honors program at Assumption College, an Elliance client, brings the question home.

Lang recounts how seven or eight campus tours left both he and his daughter wanting more.  In particular, Lang  craved “dialogue — from tour guides, admissions representatives, or promotional literature — about what most people see as the main functions of college: teaching and learning.”

Lang offers a “modest proposal” — work with student guides to translate moments of classroom engagement and transformation (value) into succinct stories worth telling on a campus tour. As someone charged with soliciting such “aha” teaching and learning moments from faculty and students, I can say that it’s no easy act of discovery or translation.

Studies abound reminding enrollment offices that attention to such higher education brand details matter — especially for über involved and discerning parents.

A 2010 co-sponsored study by Longmire & Company underscores how parents “expect a high level of service from the first point of contact with a college and beyond.”

While everyone involved recognizes the campus visit as a moment of truth, not enough care is given to casting and directing volunteers, work study and junior staff. In a recent Fresh Air interview, American film director and screenwriter Alexander Payne (Election, Sideways, The Descendants, Nebraska) explains a simple measure he applies when sifting through reels and reels of audition tapes.

“What I’m thinking all the time while casting and while directing is do I believe it,” says Payne. “When I’m in an audition, I just think oh, do I believe this person. And while directing, after I say action, I kind of mentally wish away the camera and the boom microphone and the technicians, and I pretend I’m just, you know, I’m not looking at a monitor, I’m right by camera, and I’m watching the actors just asking myself do I believe this, if this were really happening.”

Good guidance for all of us, whether developing a brand line and position that should endure for at least a decade, or weighing tough choices about home page content, or cultivating an understanding of the brand’s core meaning among all front line staff.