4 ways for small brands to win big PR

November 14, 2023

A version of this piece was originally published by Dustin Siggins at PR Daily. While it focuses on small colleges and universities, its principles are universal.

Small brands often have less money, fewer team resources, and less prominence than bigger competitors. This makes reaching and influencing target audiences harder.

You can either give up – or find ways to win the marketing and branding war. Here are four tactics that any brand can use:

1. Dominate your smaller pond. Focusing your resources brings far better ROI than spreading resources too thinly competing in the bigger waterways.

2. Find your good news and spread it around. You have a lot more to share than you think.

3. Create promotional partnerships for synergy far greater than the sum of their parts.

4. Provide lots of data to prove your value.

Below is how community colleges and non-flagship four-year state schools can use these tactics to prove their legitimacy and get the word out.

Don’t try to swim with the big fish; dominate your smaller pond

Lesser-known schools with significant impact in industry niches or geographic regions should be proud of their smaller pond. Not everyone needs to compete against the sharks in the sea. Let them eat other alive while you build relationships with employers, influencers, media, community and industry leaders, and other important stakeholders.

There are several benefits to this approach:

  1. Fewer resources focused more effectively can have an outsized positive impact, especially when the competition is elsewhere. Purdue University was already a significant school before former president Mitch Daniels took the reins. After 11 years of frozen tuition and a narrow focus on building a nationally-recognized STEM program, Purdue saw huge increases in student population and relationships with key STEM-related employers.
  2. It’s easier to build relationships with the right employers because – contrary to popular rumor – many hiring managers don’t care about the fancy letters on the diploma. Spokespeople for two large technology companies told me what matters far more are talent and desire – even in specialty industries like national security and IT.
  3. Messages stand out more and reach target audiences better when they are narrowly tailored. For example, prospective students and their parents dread large student loans, so schools that are not well-known have the opportunity to show how students will receive a great education and have the fast-track to a great job without a large debt load.

Small brands become big brands by doing what they do best – and focusing resources where they do the most good.

Create a veritable rainfall of positive news

Big opportunities rise and fall – but hockey stick growth happens when the foundation is solid. Colleges and universities have hundreds of opportunities each year to achieve the “drip, drip, drip” of good news that many PR campaigns lack, such as:

  • Student success stories, such as winning inter-school sports, academic, and music competitions.
  • Graduates getting great jobs…and employers bragging about those students.
  • New hires and partnerships.
  • Grants and donations from alumni, businesses, non-profits, and government agencies.
  • Events, especially ones that bring key influencers together.
  • Graduation ceremonies.

Good news begets good news…and primes your target audiences to make the choice(s) you want when opportunities arise. Small brands have news that people want to know. Dig deep to find it.

Create promotional partnerships

PR is powerful in part because it includes third-party endorsements of a message or narrative. Self-promotion eventually becomes background noise at best – and unbearable bragging at worst.

Partnerships alleviate this problem because target audiences hear the same message in different ways from diverse mouthpieces. Good news becomes:

  • Hiring announcements on the college’s website and social media…and the employer’s platforms.
  • High-profile events that are in the local paper because of the regional Chamber of Commerce and in trade outlets because of two industry sponsors.
  • Ads getting through to prospective students and their parents because they can see the path to success.
  • Alumni seeing how their donations of time, expertise, and money are making a difference.

Don’t forget about data 

Stories sell better than numbers. That’s why anecdotes lead articles; and it’s why data is often wrapped in a storytelling sandwich.

But facts are also the foundation of trust. The smooth-talking guy had better put his money where his mouth is to win the girl’s heart, and the right data drives home claims made in a communications campaign.

For smaller, or simply lesser-known colleges and universities, these data points can include:

  • Low debt compared to national averages and elite schools.
  • What students do with their savings, such as buying a better car, putting a bigger down payment on a home, or starting a retirement account sooner.
  • Rates at which students get jobs in their degree field – which is a lot easier when students don’t have debt forcing a choice on them.

Hockey sticks happen when the time is right

Nobody can predict when the competition will have a scandal, go bankrupt, or simply miss the obvious opportunity. But well-prepared small brands – whether schools, pizza shops, or tech firms – will be ready to turn that mistake into long-term, sustainable PR and hockey stick growth.

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