For small, tuition-driven colleges and universities, the challenge of recruiting right-fit students has never been greater. And each year, as schools compete for an ever-smaller pool of students, it becomes increasingly critical to stand out–to be differentiated–in the sea of seemingly interchangeable schools. Yet, when it comes to creating a strategy for meaningful differentiation, many schools flounder.

Today’s guest argues that developing a clear competitive strategy doesn’t have to be a complicated endeavor. His name is Dr. Chuck Bamford, and he is the author of a new book on Strategy called The Strategy Mindset 2.0. We discussion:

  • What we actually mean when we say “strategy”
  • Common myths, delusions, and traps people fall into when creating a competitive strategy
  • The core steps involved in developing a well-informed strategy
  • Why good strategies are as much about what you don’t do as what you choose to do.

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Transcript

Jarrett Smith:
You’re listening to the Higher Ed Marketing Lab. I’m your host, Jarrett Smith. (singing)Welcome to the Higher Ed Marketing Lab. I’m Jarrett Smith. Each episode, it’s my job to engage with some of the brightest minds in higher education and the broader world of marketing to bring you actionable insights you can use to level up your marketing and enrollment efforts.

In this episode, we’ll be exploring how schools can develop a sound strategy to differentiate their offerings and attract more right-fit students. Joining us in the conversation is Dr. Chuck Bamford. Chuck is the author of two of the most widely used strategy and entrepreneurship textbooks, as well as The Strategy Mindset 2.0: A Practical Guide to the Design and Implementation of Strategy. We start by talking about a few of the common misconceptions leaders often have around what constitutes strategy, including why your brand isn’t actually a differentiator. Then we dive into the basic process for developing a sound strategy, including how to identify your most important competitors and how to determine what really makes your school exceptional in the eyes of prospective students. We wrap up by talking about how to manage an institution’s broader strategy with program-specific strategies.

Chuck is an energetic advocate for making strategy both accessible and practical, and while much of his work is focused on developing competitive strategies in the private sector, I think you’ll find that he offers fresh thinking for anyone looking to craft more effective strategies for their own institution. Without further ado, here’s my conversation with Dr. Chuck Bamford.

Well, Chuck, welcome to the show.

Chuck Bamford:
Thanks, Jarrett, good to be here with you.

Yeah, well, I’m so excited to have this conversation around strategy, competitive strategy specifically, and the idea of differentiating schools is really top of mind. A lot of people are talking about it, thinking about it. I just think you have such a clear and interesting way of approaching some of these really tough questions for our organizations. Before we jump into all that, I was hoping maybe you could just give us a quick snapshot of your background and professional work.

Sure. I was an M&A guy after I graduated from college, for about 12 years. I went back and got my PhD in Strategy and Entrepreneurship at the University of Tennessee, and for the next 16 years, I was a classic professor, exactly what you expect, tenured professor. I was at Texas Christian University, the University of Richmond, the University of Notre Dame.

About eight years ago, I left my tenured role, much to the chagrin of my friends, and started my consulting company. I run a strategy, design, and implementation consulting company. We’re very boutique, very small, just a few employees working with me to really assist organizations in getting clients and customers to go past competitors and come to them.

I write too many books, Jarrett. I’ve written seven books, several of which are used at these universities as textbooks. We have one of the big strategy textbooks and entrepreneurship textbooks along the way, and then, of course, I have The Strategy Mindset 2.0, which is the one that we were talking about, which is really about how to do strategy.

Jarrett Smith:
Mm-hmm (affirmative), well, and I love this book, The Strategy Mindset 2.0.

Chuck Bamford:
Thank you.

Jarrett Smith:
A lot of what we’re going to talk about today… Yeah, well, one of the things I like about it is just that, number one, it’s a slim volume, so if you’re not a full-time student, you can actually carve out time to read it. It’s a great read, and it’s just very clear, very lucid thinking that just gets to the point here. A lot of business books drive me up the wall, because they’re so lofty, and it’s like, okay, but what do I actually do with this? I just love how you get to the point, which is awesome.

Chuck Bamford:
Thank you.

Jarrett Smith:
I want to start out by just talking a bit about what we mean when we say strategy. It is a word that, I think, gets used and abused a lot. It gets thrown around pretty casually. On top of that, you also have a lot of different kinds of strategies, you know? I’m in the marketing world, so I’m always hearing things about, “What’s your social media strategy?” If we’re talking about enrollment, “What’s your recruitment strategy or retention strategy?” I’m wondering if we could just start out by defining for us, what do you mean when you say strategy? What are we really talking about, and maybe how do those other strategies fit into that picture?

Chuck Bamford:
Yeah, I think you hit on it. Everybody uses the word strategy, and when it’s used for everything, then it’s nothing, right?

Jarrett Smith:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Chuck Bamford:
Strategy’s not that hard. I think people over-complicate strategy, but strategy, at its core, is about getting customers or clients or whoever it is, in the nonprofit world it’s donors, to go past my competitors and come to me. That’s what it’s about.

The fun thing about strategy is it really consists of just two things. I don’t care how much effort you want to put into it or how many little nomenclatures they want to put in it. Half of strategy is not frustrating your customers. Half of strategy is not frustrating your clients. It’s the table stakes things that are simply expectations. Let’s make sure that on all the table stake things, we’re at about the same level as all of the other organizations we’re competing with.

Chuck Bamford:
Then the other half of strategy is having two or three things that truly separate you, not fake things, like, “We’ve just got better people.” No, you don’t have better people. There are really great people at all these places. There’s about two or three things that are true separators, so that we could go eyeball to eyeball with the customer or with the client and go, “You should choose us because…” and it be real.

Jarrett Smith:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). In the strategy mindset, you have a whole chapter. It’s the first chapter of the book devoted to different ways people go wrong with strategy. It’s like the greatest hits of strategy myths. It’s an entertaining read. You list out some things that are commonly confused with strategy. One of them is brand.

You say that our brand is not a competitive advantage. Can you talk to me a little bit about that? Why?

Chuck Bamford:
Sure. As you know, because you’ve read it, the opening part of this book, I’m pretty snarky. I decided to go after all the classic myths. It’s kind of like an exorcism. If we can go through it and get rid of those, then we might be able to actually do something.

Brand is one of the classics, right, Jarrett? People talk about their brand strategy and what their brand is. The reality is everybody has a brand. Every organization has a brand, so brand is not a differentiator. What makes the brand have value, right? It’s made up of two, three, four things down here that are our competitive advantages that lift up that brand, and hopefully a layer of doing the orthodox well, doing the table stakes well. It lifts them up.

You think about brands. They rise and fall all the time, right? The value of the brand rises and falls. It’s not because the name changed. It’s not because of the logo, or the cute little colors that they came up with, or the fact that we just keep pushing it out there. It’s about what it really stands for.

Brand is simply a way of recognizing current competitive advantages. You’ve heard me use this example, but I’ll apologize before I do it for everybody. Back in the ’80s, there were two brands that were out there that everybody knew about, that are still out there. One was cool and cutting edge, and you had to have all of their stuff, and you had to have the Walkman and the Trinitron TV. Sony was it.

Then there was this joke company called Apple that couldn’t even sell their computers, so he gave them away to junior high school students. To this day, we still have Apple and Sony, but Apple is up through the roof because of the things they’ve done, what their competitive advantages are, and Sony is way down, because they lost their way, become table stakes in the industry. Sorry for the long answer here, Jarrett, but brand is not a strategy. It’s what makes up these things that then you assign to your particular brand.

Jarrett Smith:
Mm-hmm (affirmative), interesting. Another one that you take to task is the SWOT analysis. How do you feel about SWOT, Chuck?

Chuck Bamford:
It’s funny you should say this. We reposted out my SWOT is not strategy post out there, and it’s got thousands and thousands of people out there on LinkedIn arguing right now. Look, SWOT was never a strategy. When you go back to the original Michael Porter work, SWOT was a conceptual framework.

Do we want to know what our strengths are? Of course, we do. Do we want to know what our weaknesses are? Of course, we do, but just calling it a strength doesn’t make it a strength. Just because a bunch of people in a room put little Post-It notes up on it doesn’t make it a strength.

What we need is an analysis tool. What can we do? We’ve got these tools that determine what our competitive advantages are. What are the tools to determine which weaknesses we should really focus on? What are the tools we can do to take advantage of opportunities? I can work my way through this.

At the end of the day, people want to put it into a framework and put it up on a wall and list it, I’m okay with that, but to call SWOT analysis just because we all did it? No, it’s not analysis, and quite honestly, totally unnecessary.

Jarrett Smith:
Right. Okay, there’s a whole bunch of other ways you talk about strategy going wrong and different mistakes people make, but let’s talk about what we should do. You said there is a way to approach this. At a high level, how do we appropriately approach questions around strategy? How do we go about determining the right strategy at a high level?

Chuck Bamford:
Yeah, so I’m assuming you’re okay if I take up the next, say, hour and 45 minutes.

Jarrett Smith:
Go for it! Go for it. It’ll be great.

Chuck Bamford:
Here we go. No, I won’t do it. You really break up strategy in thinking in terms of formulation and implementation. You have to think about them together, but fundamentally we do that.

Strategy starts outside of the organization. Strategy starts with whom you’re competing with. Strategy starts with who you think your customer is right now, who your client is right now. You need to have a framework for that. We always talk about bump competitors, right? If we lose a deal, who got it? If we get the deal, who didn’t get it? We need to understand whom we are competing with and what their real advantages are.

Once we have that as the framework, and there’s quite a bit to that, we can go inside the organization. Now, when I split it up, much like I just did with you, I won’t go into detail again, but let’s look at everything that’s table stakes and make sure that we’re at the meeting expectation of customers. Then, let’s figure out what we think our competitive advantages might be, what we think they might be. Then we can evaluate each one of those through a tool. The one that’s most well-honed is some version of resource-based analysis. It’s sometimes called VRIN or VRIST or VRIO. At heart, I’m a professor, so it’s called resource-based analysis. If I had made it up, it would be referred to as the Bamford Approach.

Jarrett Smith:
Of course.

Chuck Bamford:
Yes, I might be on a yacht in the Caribbean.

Jarrett Smith:
[crosstalk 00:11:25].

Chuck Bamford:
It is not that. It is actually that we have a real tool. What we use is a modified version of resource-based analysis, modified just for practicality point of view, right? Let’s just be practical about how we go through and do this.

Once you’ve figured those things out, you’ve got your orthodox things, table stake things we have to work on. We’ve got two or three competitive advantages sitting over here. Then it’s all about implementation, Jarrett. We’re a strategy design, kind of fun, at least I think it is. Strategy implementation is messy, because it involves people. I’ve got to get all the people now, all the employees on board, so it’s all about communication. It’s all about the approach that we take. It’s all about the way we’re going to move it forward.

What would be the metrics we’re going to use? What are activity metrics? What do we want to hear customers say? What might be the mission of the organization? How are we going to structure the organization? It goes on like that.

It cycles through all the way to that end part where, given what our competitive advantages are, given what we have to do with implementation, now who is our perfect customer, right? Now that we’ve got this more refined, I want to increase the hit rate of my sales efforts. I want to increase the success of the sales efforts that we make, not just broad gunshots.

If we know now that these things are really constant or competitive advantage, which customers, which clients would be most wanting to go after that. What we typically craft that into is something we call the perfect customer. That is, they instantly get our value proposition, and they’re willing to pay it for you.

That, in a short version, is sort of the cycle. Then it sort of keeps going, depending on what happens in your environment. I did that pretty fast, Jarrett.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah, that was great.

Chuck Bamford:
Given the fact that it can often take me hours.

Jarrett Smith:
Well, to do it well, to understand the broad strokes is one thing, to do it well is another.

Chuck Bamford:
True enough.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah, so you talk about… Let’s kind of go back to the very beginning. In the beginning of the process, you’re looking outside of your organization, right?

Chuck Bamford:
Yep.

Jarrett Smith:
If I’m in senior leadership at a school, we’re looking to revisit our school strategy and think about how can we be more competitive, how can we attract more students, in that external analysis piece, you talked both about understanding the competitors and also understanding, in this case, who your ideal student would be. Maybe, let’s just dive into the ideal student. I mean, maybe this is too obvious of a question, but why is it so critical to have a really clear picture of your ideal student, or your ideal customer? Why does that matter so much?

Chuck Bamford:
Yeah, and I may frustrate some of your viewers on this, as well. I frustrate people. I did all the time, when I was in academia full-time. I view students as customers. I don’t have a job in front of the room unless they buy into it.

Now, what they’re buying is to work very hard, to be able to do something when they finish my course that they couldn’t do when they started my course. What they’re buying is a lot of effort, but that’s what they’re… absolutely customers. Every university, every college, it would seem to me, has got an ideal set of customers, those who are going to be most successful in my programs, in the offering that I have, in the environment that I’ve created, right?

I want more of those that would be successful, happy, because what I want is advocates, when they graduate, to go out and advocate for their university and for their school. It’s crucially important to really understand not just what you’re offering. A lot of what we offer at universities… Come on. A lot of what we offer is generic. It’s orthodox. We have to offer all kinds of things.

We have to offer all kinds of services to students. We have to offer… There’s so many things we do, because the bar is high in our student expectations, and quite honestly, being raised higher by a number of universities that keep ratcheting this kind of expectation up.

Above that, besides that, there are things that hopefully we have that are real competitive advantages, and those students who that would apply to most, they’re going to join us faster. They’re going to stay with us through their entire program and graduate with a degree, and they’re going to be advocates when we leave.

Jarrett Smith:
Listening to you talk about that, I think, probably a lot of folks listening would say, “Well, of course, we have our right fit student.” I kind of wanted to pursue that question, because what I found is that, in practice, if you’re at a tuition-driven school that really has to work hard to attract students, there’s just the natural instinct of, okay, but how are we going to appeal to more and more people?

I know there’s a balancing act here. I think you talk about it. You’ve got your ideal set of customers, your ideal set of students. Everybody has to broaden to a certain extent, because there may not be enough of those that you can get in the door, but at the same time, if you ultimately default to trying to appeal to everybody, it’s just not going to succeed.

Chuck Bamford:
Yeah, it’s going to fail. You know this. I continue. I’m and adjunct professor still. I get to teach all my classes in a six-week period of time, which is very nice, up at Duke University. Duke doesn’t have to spend a lot of time on this kind of stuff. A lot of people will apply to them automatically.

For many years, I was a professor, a tenured professor at Queens University of Charlotte. We were exactly what you just described, Jarrett. They were a tuition-driven university, and the key became, what are we going to focus on? What is it that a group of students would really like that they’re not going to get at every other university, right?

Jarrett Smith:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Chuck Bamford:
The very first thing is, who are we really, who are they really comparing us to? Who are the students that we believe, and it’s an opinion, but we believe are a perfect fit for us, who else are they considering? Great. Let’s go do some competitive mapping. Sorry. Let’s list across the top all the things that we claim are why you should come to us and all the things that each of these competitor’s schools are claiming about why you should come to them. We put us and the competitors down the left hand side. We put all those things across the top, and we literally map it out, right? Keep your life simple. Make it green check marks and red X marks, and let’s look for opportunities.

What I think you will find is that most of these schools are claiming a lot of the exact same things, so now we’ve got to dig down deeper. Now we’ve got a good framework for this stuff. This is not differentiating us. It’s good. It’s important, but it’s not differentiating us.

What can or do we do that could truly differentiate us? I’ve worked with a couple of universities that were tuition-run universities on this, and it is deep digging to figure this out. Some of those competitive advantages will be at the university level. It might be these two, three, four things we put together. That’s one advantage for the whole university, but others are very college specific, sometimes program specific, that draw in the students we want that, of course, then do lots of other things.

Jarrett Smith:
Gosh, there’s so much to unpack there in so many different directions.

Chuck Bamford:
Yeah, there’s a lot to it.

Jarrett Smith:
I want to take this… There’s a lot to it. It’s such a fun conversation. Circling back to the competitors question real quick, I mean one… Obviously there are thousands of schools out there. You can’t monitor, you can’t benchmark yourself against all these competitors.

Chuck Bamford:
Nope.

Jarrett Smith:
How do you go about narrowing down your comparison set, your competitive set, to something that’s manageable? How do you recommend going about doing that?

Chuck Bamford:
It’s funny. That occurs in every organization, for profit, nonprofit, associations, manufacturing, services, academic. It doesn’t make any difference. It’s all the same. If you ask the whole university, whom do we compete with? You will end up with a list of 100-plus long, and some will throw in schools that we barely compete with along the way.

Jarrett Smith:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Chuck Bamford:
We have to narrow that list down. Whom do we bump up against on a regular basis, right? What’s the school that is most chosen by the students that we offered admission to that didn’t come? Let’s get that list of schools. Who is it we most lose to? There may be too many of those. Let’s pick two or three of those as our competitors.

By the way, I typically… Just to get to your point, five to six is what I’m looking for, so two or three of those that I’m going to pick. Then pick some proxy schools, somebody who’s doing something very unique or different or that concerns you about what they’re doing. Then if you want to pick another proxy school for something that’s totally maybe where you’re hoping to go in the next 10 years or something like that.

You narrow this list down to a group of schools. It’s not that you can go eyeball to eyeball with the student and say, “You should come to our university and not X because,” and absolutely nail it, but because you’ve done a good job of the proxies, to make sure you’ve got [inaudible 00:20:44] proxy, you probably somewhere around 95% have that argument down pat.

Some do little things that are unique, and you’re not going to win on those things, but you will have a fundamental group. It may sound messy, Jarrett, but typically what I do is I ask everybody whom we compete with. We get them all in. I ask them who we bump up against most. We narrow. We narrow. We narrow. We narrow. We finally get to a list of schools, and what we call it is our comparison-competitive set.

On a strategy map, when you’re doing a strategy map, it’s not called our competitors. It’s called our comparison-competitive set. From that, we can do a pretty good job of doing this.

Jarrett Smith:
Right, and so then that’s where you’re really digging in and saying, “Okay, on our website, we talk about how we have internships and experiential education,” and you’re looking at your comparison-competitive set and saying, “Okay, are they saying the same things? Are they making the same claims?”

Chuck Bamford:
Right.

Jarrett Smith:
What if I know that when we say experiential education, we’re really good at it, but when our competitor says it, it’s just lip service. Everybody says that. I mean, what if we know that our offering is actually better?

Chuck Bamford:
It’s such a classic. It’s such a classic question. I knew where you were going from the first three words that came out of your mouth, where you were going to go with this.

There’s two issues here. Let’s start with the self-delusional issue here. We love to self-delude ourselves that the competitor’s schools are not doing nearly as good a job as us, right?

Jarrett Smith:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Chuck Bamford:
Well, yeah, they say that, but they’re not… We love to delude ourselves. Let’s just set aside delusion. Let’s just go with what they claim, all right? We typically go with perception rather than actuality, and then dig in to figure out whether it’s actual. Let’s go with perception. That’s what they’re claiming, right?

If they claim it, what are they really doing it? Can I show that we are qualitatively doing it at a much higher level than they’re doing it at, right? Now, it’s going to have to be so high that it can be recognized by the student.

Jarrett Smith:
Got it.

Chuck Bamford:
That they can see it, but that we can do something like that. We start with what they claim. Here’s what they’re claiming guys. Now, let’s go prove that it’s not right. It’s unfortunate that we’ve got to get away from the tendency, and it happens in every company, every organization, every nonprofit.

Oh, they’re not nearly as good as us. Yeah, they really are. Just to frustrate everybody, so that they all sign off on your thing right now at this particular point, I have sat in faculty meetings for 25 years, where I have listened to people talk about how our faculty are better than the faculty at X school, and how we just have better faculty. Every single time, my line is, “No we do not. We have really good faculty, at least I hope we do, but I can tell you, and my field’s strategy on entrepreneurship. I know strategy and entrepreneurship professors at X school, and they’re just as good as me. Well, they’re not as good as me, but they’re really close,” and we could… No, not quite, but you get the point.

Jarrett Smith:
They’re a really strong second.

Chuck Bamford:
They’re a really strong second. If you really want to do it, you can do it, but you know…

Jarrett Smith:
That’s interesting, so what I hear you saying, the way I interpret this is if we’re going to say that our… I’ll just stick with this experiential led thing, because I brought it up.

Chuck Bamford:
Sure.

Jarrett Smith:
If that’s something we do exceptionally well, and we think we can really go to the mat with this, then what I hear you saying is we need to convey that. We need to be able to convey that in such a way that our prospects, they get it. It’s a more persuasive argument, essentially, and we need to find a way to either dramatize that or communicate that in just a really outstanding way that our competitors can’t match.

There has to be substance there. We have to have things that are substantively different, and we need to be able to convey that. If we can’t, even if we do know that we’re better, if there’s not a way for us to convey that, then we need to set that aside as something we can really go to market with. Am I taking the right read on that?

Chuck Bamford:
Yeah, I think that you hit right on it. Look, it has to be real, right?

Jarrett Smith:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Chuck Bamford:
I’ve got to be able to go eyeball to eyeball with the student and say, “You should choose us over X, Y, Z, because…” and it’s got to be real. What I always tell people is, “Tell the students. Tell the parents. Test us. I’m telling you it’s real. I’m telling you it’s different. Test us. See what we’re doing. Talk to people. Look at what the other university is…” This is an important thing, and we’re real about it. We’re going to win.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah, so you spend a lot of time talking about, and you’ve talked about, kind of hinted at this, already, things that are standard operating procedure, the standard elements or orthodox things, and then things that are potentially quite differentiating, the unorthodox things. Can you elaborate on that a little bit? How do we differentiate between the two? What do you mean in this differentiation that you create here?

Chuck Bamford:
So much of what we… When we walk onto a college campus, so much of it is we simply expect to be there, right?

Jarrett Smith:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Chuck Bamford:
We expect there to be an admissions group, and we expect them to be able to handle our admissions. They expect to be able to go on a tour, preferably with fellow students, who are on [inaudible 00:26:20]. We expect to have facilities for… I’m going to pick on it for a minute here, Jarrett. We expect to have dining facilities that are really nice. We expect to have dorms that are really nice and open for us to be able to see. We expect classrooms that have modern technology. We expect the professors to show up in the fricking classroom when it’s on time. We expect an awful lot. The lights are supposed to be on. The air conditioning’s supposed to work.

That’s all orthodox. Nobody is choosing your university or college because of that, because quite honestly, it’s an orthodox expectation. When we watch these schools try to raise the bar on orthodox things, what they do is they force everybody else to keep spending money on something that is not a differentiator. Go ahead.

Jarrett Smith:
Oh, no, no, no, no, no.

Chuck Bamford:
I can tell you want to say something.

Jarrett Smith:
No, no, no, no, no. Actually, I was just thinking of, I think it’s LSU has the lazy river, and then… We’ll just set that aside. Then there’s no offense to anybody listening from LSU, but you know. Then, of course, you find this sort of thing is increasingly more common, and we can debate the value of that.

Chuck Bamford:
Oh, no, no, no.

Jarrett Smith:
It’s an example of, okay, this is unique, and then a decade later it’s no longer unique.

Chuck Bamford:
That’s right. What it did was it forced all the other schools that were their competitors to raise the bar on something that didn’t really differentiate. It’s pretty much of a waste of money, waste of effort, and waste of time, but you have to do it. You have no choice.

I mean, unfortunately, what happens is this orthodox bar gets raised, and it’s been studied in every industry. In every industry, except for the airline industry. In every industry, things get better over time, not in the airline industry, but that’s okay. We do watch this kind of ratcheting up.

I watched my former school, TCU, just spend billions to ratchet up the student feel and experience. Well, that’s an orthodox thing now. We simply have to expect it.

What we want to do is we want to at least come close. We want to match close. It turns out, in that world, plus or minus about 5% of median students can’t detect the difference, so as long as you’re in the ballpark. You don’t have to have a lazy river, but you have such and such that’s whatever. You have to be [inaudible 00:28:41] for the ones you’re competing with. Now, look, if you’re not competing with LSU, don’t put them in the darn list, right?

Jarrett Smith:
Right.

Chuck Bamford:
If you’re not competing with TCU, don’t put them… Lock them out of the list. For that group, Jarrett, you’ve got to at least have it level, so the student can’t say, “Well, I’d love to come here because you’ve got this and this and this, but holy Toledo, your dorms are horrible, and I just can’t imagine spending four years in your dorms.” You just lost them for an orthodox, table stake thing.

Jarrett Smith:
Right, right. Then also, to your point, being very strategic about the way you view that thing and realizing that it’s very important that we also don’t over-invest in that thing.

Chuck Bamford:
Oh yeah, yeah. That’s where I save money, Jarrett. Don’t overspend on orthodox. Make sure you’re at or near the median on the things that matter. There’s a methodology for going through and figuring that out, by the way. Make sure you’re doing that kind of thing. Then, put as much time, money, mental firepower as you can on the things that are true differentiators.

Jarrett Smith:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). I want to dig in a little bit more around this conversation around when we think we have uncovered some things in our analysis that are potentially unique, let’s say, potentially exceptional about our institution. You’ve already pointed out, there’s a tendency. We delude ourselves. We all have this inherent confirmation bias, that we want to believe ours is the best. How do we avoid fooling ourselves? How do we systematically go about making sure that we’re actually legitimately hitting on some things that really matter?

Chuck Bamford:
Yeah, there’s a long, multi-part answer to this question. The first is to have a process, right? There’s a real process, so that we’re being forced through to think about it from a process point of view. The nice thing about some version, whatever version you all like of resource-based analysis, fundamentally you’re looking at this relatively rare, unique… How long can I hold onto this cool thing? What are the substitutes for it? And how can I get value?

The nice thing about this, when you look at it statistically, and actually it’s been evaluated several thousand times in the research now, that those things are relatively orthogonal to each other, so we’re looking at it from different quadrants. We found, in a set of studies that was done, one of which I got to be a part of, that if you put a sufficient number of people in the room, and we usually try to get pretty large groups together to do these things, and everybody understands that we’re there to be honest and open, let’s disagree right here in the room, that the chance is for us to make an error drop dramatically, but at the end of the day, it’s probably 35% science and 65% art, Jarrett.

At the end of the day, I could be standing in front of a group and just fighting them, and then going, “No, you’re wrong, Bamford. We’re going to do it this way!” Right? You can delude yourself. You can go on and do it.

By the way, I also had a client that did that exact thing. I fought them and fought them, and it turned out they were right. Oh!

Jarrett Smith:
Ouch.

Chuck Bamford:
They made sure I knew about it. I had all kinds of mea culpas. They nailed it, and I didn’t see it. That’s because, think about this, no matter how good you are, no matter how good your team is, no matter how good I am or my team is, we’re process experts. The people who are running these universities live it every day in that college. They’re the content experts.

At the end of the day, they have to decide that this is something that they can pass, and then my take is, “Okay, you say it’s going to pass. You think it got all the way through. Let’s implement it. Let’s see if it works, because if it does, rock and roll, and if it doesn’t, then we have ways of going on and doing something else, doing something different.” This stuff is never in stone, and it moves because competitors move. Darn those competitors, won’t let us just make money, right?

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah, well, that reminds me of… You do mention in the book that you should not be revisiting your strategy annually, right? That’s a big mistake, folks, and because strategy… My take on that is strategy runs deeper than that. You can’t legitimately shift strategy, but what does set the tempo of when we adjust strategy? Is it really just driven in response to our competitors? How do we think about that? When do we know it is time to shift strategy, I guess, is my question?

Chuck Bamford:
You hit on it first. We want strategy to last as long as is possible, right? I get all my employees moving in one direction. I get all my professors moving in one direction, all the administrators. Then I go and next year, “Hey, we’re going to change it.” No! When does it change?

We look for big, apologies to the word, although your audience will get this and love it, is discontinuities, so a big competitor change or move, a big move in technology. I mean, technology has changed everything we do in academia and the way that we operate, right? I have an iPad sitting back here that I do all of my teaching on, even when I’m in person, so I can draw and write and do stuff. I used to use chalkboards back in the day.

When big technology changes, big regulatory changes, or big environmental shocks… When one of these things happens, what we should be doing, we should have a leadership team. The leadership of the university should be watching what’s going on. One of these shocks comes through, and it’s like, wow, that’s a big change in the way they’re doing technology, or that’s a really big change in what they’re offering here.

It doesn’t mean we change the strategy. It means that it’s time for us to go look at the strategy. Let’s go look. Given this change, did it impact our competitive advantage? Did it impact what is considered table stakes? If the answer is no, we keep rolling on, but we at least keep looking. The goal is to keep it rolling.

By the way, I don’t tell anybody we’re doing this. Let’s keep this at the upper administration level. We’re going to look and constantly be evaluating, making sure that none of these changes.

Now, one of these changes impacts our competitive advantage, negates it, or reduces it, or impacts what our table stakes are, then we’ve got to address it. Then you’ve got to change the strategy. You’ve got to change your efforts, right?

Jarrett Smith:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Chuck Bamford:
Strategy is probably, realistically, 80% table stakes stuff and 20% really unique stuff. We’ve got to be aware and constantly on evaluation, but absent that, I want to keep it steady as I go for as long as I can.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah, we’re talking about strategy and thinking about the institution strategy, but you noted earlier in the conversation that, well, there could be some things that are competitive advantages that span every program, every offering that we have. There could be some that are very program specific. I guess my question is, when do I know that I need a unique strategy for this program or this college or whatever, this offering versus, hey, one institutional strategy to rule them all? How do I navigate that? Because I can see that, depending on the school, a large, flagship state school, you could have, it feels like, hundreds of strategies. How do I make this manageable, I guess, is my real question?

Chuck Bamford:
I always tell them, “Let’s have one strategy, one strategy map, with our one set of competitive advantages for the entire university, entire college.” People blow back on me constantly. I’m like, “No, no. This is what we’ve got to do.” Finally, I relent.

If the customer, the student set, is substantially different, or if the comparison set is substantially different, we probably need a separate strategy map for that, for whatever that is. Here’s what happens. Might as well just play this all the way out.

Groups throughout the organization, throughout the university, like, “We’ve got to have our own.” We do theirs. We do theirs. We do this, and we do one for the university. Gosh darn, what happens is that almost all of them have at least one competitive advantage that’s the same across the entire… all the programs that all thought they were separate.

Then they honestly have some separators, some unique things within their particular programs. This is actually great from a university level. Now I can pitch that this is an overarching set of competitive advantages for all of this, but within this school, we have this set of competitive advantages. Within this, we’ve got this, or within this program or this offering, we have this.

We have sub-maps, but they align with it. Every single time I do this, Jarrett, every time I do it, it always ends up the same way. They think it’s all unique, but it’s not. By the way, we want that to be the case, because otherwise, why are we all under one roof as this particular college?

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah, that’s a really interesting point. It seems like if there were no commonalities, well then there’s a real problem, or at the very least, a real missed opportunity.

Chuck Bamford:
Yeah.

Jarrett Smith:
The school that kept popping into my mind was a school right down the road from us, UCF, an enormous school. I think they’re the second largest state school in the country. They’re massive, and they, in their marketing… I don’t know if they’re doing this currently, but within the past couple of years, in their marketing, they lead with, “We’re a huge university.” That is… They kind of own it, which I think is interesting. I assume it’s working for them.

Chuck Bamford:
I rail against my organizations that try to play that big game.

Jarrett Smith:
Okay, hit me.

Chuck Bamford:
Big is relative. University of Texas at Austin is a huge university.

Jarrett Smith:
Right.

Chuck Bamford:
The University of Michigan is a huge university. UCF is a huge university. It’s like, okay, I get it. What you’re really trying to say is that you have the widest possible offerings because we all know what the typical 17-year-old is doing. They don’t have a clue as to what they’re going to major in when they are coming in, so maybe that appeals to especially the ones where, “I just don’t know where it’s going to go, but I want lots.”

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah, yeah, well, so I guess that really… You look at something like that, like let’s take the institution’s size, and now that I think about it, I’m like, would this pass the sort of filters in our modified resource-based analysis? If you make that claim, it is true that there’s a set of schools, a fairly small group of schools that can also make that claim, but then the question is like, okay, but is that really compelling to your target, to your ideal student? Is that really the thing that’s driving them coming to you? Maybe for some, maybe for a handful, it is.

Chuck Bamford:
I think the question then becomes, do you really want to hang your strategy hat on that?

Jarrett Smith:
Right.

Chuck Bamford:
I tell people all the time, “You’ll get things where you might be somewhat rare. You might be. You might even have some durability, maybe or maybe not, but the real question is, okay, let’s think this through. Is it valuable to you? Do you really want to hang your strategy hat on it draws some people? Or do you want to hang your strategy hat on something that really is compelling to get you the kinds of students that you really want?”

Jarrett Smith:
Well, and another way to look at that, just to pressure test this idea a little bit, is would it be to our advantage to become bigger? In and of itself, is this inherently so valuable that we need to invest more resources in just growing the size, the sheer size, of the institution? Is that helpful? That’s interesting, because to me, it would seem that if you have a real competitive advantage, that is the sort of thing that you want to invest in as much as you can.

Chuck Bamford:
That’s correct.

Jarrett Smith:
Continue to grow and extend.

Chuck Bamford:
I do this with companies, too. Let’s just play that all the way out. At some point, is claiming that you’re the biggest matter? Or is big, big? Right? How much more do you offer me? How much more? At some point, don’t I just become a generic individual on the campus, right? If it’s about what the offering is and what the opportunities are for the students, then maybe it can play, but I think what happens is, relatively quickly, it fails at valuable. You can’t get value out of it. It’s costing you so much to pour in to do this, that the question becomes, what’s the value on the other side for the customer, right? At the end of the day, all that matters is what the student sees as the value, as to be what they’re going to draw.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah, so interesting. Chuck, this is such a fun conversation. I feel like we could go on for days and days talking about this. A couple of questions for you as we wrap up. Number one, if folks want to pick up a copy of The Strategy Mindset, where’s the best place to do that? How can they go about getting a copy?

Chuck Bamford:
The book is now The Strategy Mindset 2.0 because, unfortunately, so much changed, I had to update the book, which we did. Amazon’s probably the best place. Let’s just be honest. I’ve got it in paperback. Like you said, it’s under 200 pages. It’s on eBook, and it’s also in Audible, because we got this brilliant guy from Hollywood do the Audible version of the book, so probably Amazon’s the easiest and fastest place to get it.

Jarrett Smith:
Good deal. Chuck, if folks want to reach out to you, they like what you’re saying, they want to connect with you, what’s the best way to go about doing that?

Chuck Bamford:
I would say, just my website is probably the best way, Jarrett, so it’s, although my name’s weird, it’s bamfordassociates.com, so probably the best way. I always tell my students, when they’re… I tell them, “Reach out to me if you need anything.” I said, “Look, I’m a consultant. I want to be found. If you type my name into Google, I’m the first three pages that comes up. Any way that you all want to get to me, that sounds great. That’s a great way to do it.”

Jarrett Smith:
That’s great. Good stuff. All right, well, sir, it’s been a great conversation. Thank you so much for your time.

Chuck Bamford:
Thank you, Jarrett. Thanks for the opportunity.

Jarrett Smith:
The Higher Ed Marketing Lab is produced by Echo Delta, a full service enrollment marketing agency for colleges and universities of all sizes. To see some of the work we’ve done and how we’ve helped schools just like yours, visit echodelta.co. If you enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on Apple Podcasts. As always, if you have a comment, question, suggestion, or episode idea, feel free to drop us a line at podcasts@echodelta.co.