Repositioning to Compete




Macalester College is a renowned educational institution in the midwest, known nationally for its quality liberal arts education and its commitment to internationalism, multiculturalism, and service to society.

Higher education is an increasingly competitive space. Even with a unique and strong reputation, Macalester wished to see an increase in qualified applications to ensure a stable and successful future. The learning objective for this project was to identify key drivers of choice among qualified applicants, and to then develop the most powerful positioning to drive preference.



Screen Shot 2019-01-15 at 3.03.08 PM.png


Educational institutions have many constituencies, from students and parents to faculty and administrators. We began by understanding all perspectives through:

  • Focus groups with Macalester’s first-year students

  • In-depth interviews with faculty, leadership and administrators

  • Two facilitated sessions with the steering committee

  • A review of all recent institutional research


To gather the perspective from those who chose a competitor, we conducted one-on-one in-depth interviews among n=40 students and parents that either (1) inquired, but did not apply, or (2) were accepted by Macalester, but chose to go elsewhere.


A facilitated steering committee session to present and discuss qualitative findings, refine our hypotheses, and develop student-inspired positioning statements for evaluation in the next phase of study.


To gain the confidence of numbers, we evaluated hypotheses, attitudes, drivers, media behavior, and positioning statements through an online survey of n=8,924 students and parents.


Macalester College was very pleased with the outcome of our work together. The institution learned that their prior positioning was well known by students and parents, indicating that they’d done a superb job of delivering a focused and differentiated message. That said, the past positioning also had some flaws; for some, the concept of “internationalism” no longer felt unique in the crowded space of small liberal arts colleges, and others perceived Mac to be solely focused on International Studies, which is a decidedly undesirable perception for a liberal arts institution that has strong academic programs across many areas of study.

A new, unique, believable and relevant positioning has been embraced by Macalester College, and it will appear in their new materials for 2020.

Steve Kesselman