Mission and brand positioning differences

A mission statement describes an institution’s purpose and primary objectives. An internally focused statement, it’s meant to drive leadership’s decisions and to provide measures of success.

Meanwhile, a brand positioning is externally focused.  It describes an institution’s primary and differentiating value in the way it addresses the education needs of its target audience. An inspiring brand positioning aligns what your school does uniquely and better than others with the hopes and dreams of your target market.

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Mission statements result from looking in the mirror,
while brand positioning results from looking out the window.


Case in Point – Simmons College

To illustrate the difference between mission and brand positioning statements, consider the experience of Simmons College.

For 15 years, enrollment and student quality were declining and the college’s discount rate had risen to more than double the national average. Simmons had recently completed an intensive strategic planning process, which they hoped would provide focus and positive momentum.

The strategic plan outlined the following objective, among others: “To position Simmons as an authority on women, education for the professions, leadership and diversity.” In addition, the Dean and faculty of the undergraduate school wanted the liberal arts to feature prominently in Simmons’s positioning.

Simmons had organized all of its undergraduate admissions communications around three related messages:

  1. Leadership opportunities for women
  2. Liberal arts education as a foundation for life
  3. The importance of diversity

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With this new clarity, Simmons expected interest and applications to increase. They did not. In fact, the numbers continued to decline.  The problem?

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Simmons was marketing what Simmons thought was important.
They spent too much time looking in the mirror
and no time looking out the window.


They did not ask prospective families what was important to them.

Our market research identified what Simmon’s target market—composed of many first-generation college applicants—was looking for. The most important college selection criteria for prospective families were

  • Quality of desired major
  • Value of the education
  • Employment opportunities after graduation

There was no overlap with Simmons’s admissions messages.  The research showed that the least important selection criteria for prospective families were:

  • Leadership for women
  • Liberal arts
  • Diversity

For years, Simmons had organized their messaging around their market’s least important qualities. They had communicated what they valued without considering what the prospects valued.

Armed with this knowledge, their new brand positioning centered on the concept of “Learning with Purpose,” which captured the target audience’s desire to learn with an economic purpose and a higher purpose – to elevate oneself and one’s family, as well as to do good in the world.

The new messaging and admissions materials addressed the three selection criteria that were most important to the target market in support of the new positioning.  Simmons’s core values of a women’s college, liberal arts, and diversity were also explained in terms of how they would help a student achieve her goals.

Within one admission cycle, inquiries, applications, and enrollment increased. Four years after implementation, the undergraduate college was operating at maximum capacity, average SAT scores were at record highs, and the discount rate fell to the national average.

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Learn More

To learn how to move from mission to brand, read our ebook and more of our Branding Insight in Brief series…


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