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About 14 years ago, in the wake of the Great Recession, something strange began to happen at colleges and universities around the country, among the multifarious fallout across industries: U.S. undergraduate enrollment declined for the first time in nearly 60 years. Institutions across the country began to close or consolidate, especially small liberal arts colleges whose degree programs had grown outmoded and unwanted by new generations of students. Competition for prospective students grew intense. This moment of reckoning provides an especially illustrative example of one of the most important lessons I’ve ever learned as a leader.
As the 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 precisely communicate the value of a SCAD degree for this shrinking cohort of prospective students? To boost enrollment, some university presidents gamble on grand new football stadiums and other pricey niceties ancillary to education. At SCAD, we already had the draw: our one-of-a-kind degree programs, along with the sophisticated, specialized academic resources to support those programs. We just needed to tell that story.
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I called each department chair and school dean at SCAD into my office and charged them, collectively and individually, with identifying what was most distinctive about our degree programs. What were the distinguishing factors of their departments compared to programs at thousands of other colleges around the world? How were we first, best, most, only? In what categories should we be ranked #1?
I got a few blank stares. SCAD had already been ranked by U.S. News and World Report among the top universities in the nation. Did we really need to dig down and say how each individual degree program was also #1? “Yes,” I said. I wanted every leader to identify the “ne 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 every discipline we teach.
We had homework to do. It was an audacious undertaking: endless analysis and collective self-reflection, digging into the data, studying our alumni, articulating on white boards how we stood apart. The results would change SCAD forever.
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Discover your ne plus ultra
Study the dynamics of other successful organizations and businesses, and you see the same mindset at work. In 1959, a small carmaker developed a new safety mechanism — the three-point safety belt — that would go on to revolutionize the industry. This same brand soon developed the Side Impact Protection System, the Whiplash Protection System, the Roll-Over Protection System and many other life-saving technologies. You already know the name of this company: Volvo, the ne plus ultra of automotive safety.
Identify your distinguishing factors. What is your first, best, most, only? Among airlines, Delta flies highest in the firmament, 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 just about everywhere (offering among the most routes). They get customers to destinations on time (named the most reliable) and with a smile (named one of the best places to work). Delta continues to build on these strengths to soar even higher above the industry.
For decades, Nike has been the “the biggest, baddest name in the sneaker business.” Who among us hasn’t rocked that swoosh? Legendary fashion critic, Vanessa Friedman, was recently on campus and reminded me that Nike is the ne plus ultra in another area, too, as the world’s most recognizable and valuable apparel brand for the eighth year in a row. Nike is worth more than twice as much as Adidas, their closest rival.
Look at those superlatives! Safest. Best. Most admired. Most reliable. Most valuable. Volvo, Delta and Nike know their distinguishing 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 outsole at his kitchen table by pouring rubber into his wife’s waffle iron. You may not (yet) be the biggest business in your sector, or even on your block, 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 arts university in the world to focus on creative careers. Nobody 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 quintessential distinguishing factors across the university, we articulated many more ne plus ultras already in our midst: We offer the most degree programs and specializations of any other art and design university. We employ the most art history PhDs at any university in the world. We offer the first and only MFA degree programs in motion media and sequential art. We’re home to the largest School of Fashion in the world. Our focus on careers has resulted in a higher alumni employment rate than our peer institutions. (For the last five years in a row, we’ve earned a remarkable 99% employment rate for our graduates.)
The ne plus 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-ever enrollment this year with nearly 16,000 students.
Why? Well, our Savannah Film Studios is the most comprehensive university 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 commercial gallery service. We now offer the only MFA in theme park design, the only BFA in the business of beauty and fragrance, the only BFA in user experience design created in partnership with Google.
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Study your brand
Most universities have one campus. We have three, on two continents. Most universities don’t 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, partnering with dozens of Fortune 100 and Fortune 500 clients, and hundreds of others. 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’ve got homework. Study your brand, your clients and your competition. Resolve to offer the lowest prices on the most interesting products, the longest-lasting merchandise, the most efficient, humane services, the greenest production processes, the speediest delivery. Start small, and think big. Like Volvo, Delta, Nike and SCAD, you can lead the superlative brand in your sector. All you need to do is sharpen your pencil, identify your distinguishing factors, tell the story, and watch yourself rise to best-in-class.