While colleges and universities face reduced funding, increased pressure to prove their value and disruptive technologies impacting the education landscape, there is still reason to be optimistic. If the record-breaking attendance of more than 900 higher education marketers at the 22nd Annual AMA Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education is any indication, there is a renewed focus on strategic branding not only to achieve business objectives but also to protect and enhance reputations.
I had the opportunity to speak with a number of higher ed marketers at the event and it became clear that colleges and universities are reinvigorating their brands and taking calculated risks in their marketing strategies to drive growth. MSL Chicago was a sponsor of the event and I have enclosed a few marketing trends that I observed at the conference:
Change management is driving brand strategy. Quite simply, the status quo doesn’t cut it anymore. Gone are the days of a client service model within marketing or as one speaker dubbed “an in-house Kinko’s” pumping out marketing collateral, logos and taglines like an unstoppable machine. Rather, today’s marketers are driving transformative change within their organizations and leading strategic communications through rebranding efforts. I think this shift is a tremendous opportunity for marketers to help redefine what’s important to the organization and communicate its core values through the development of a compelling, authentic brand narrative.
This is no small feat within decentralized organizations as Dr. Mark Putman, President, Central College in Iowa attested in his keynote, “Do You Drive the Agenda or Go Along for the Ride?” While process is certainly important, it can be painful for individuals who need to be “dislodged” or pried out of process. I also think it’s critical to have a champion at the top who is advocating this long-term change within the organization to be successful.
Research is a tool—not the end game. One of the pain points we’ve observed with our higher ed clients is the increasing pressure for education institutions to prove they are delivering value not only to students but also society as a whole. The digital age has empowered marketers to define their brand strategy and positioning by conducting comprehensive qualitative and quantitative research as discussed in the session “Knowing What We Are: Defining the DePaul Brand” by Deborah Maue, Associate VP for University Marketing, DePaul University. Research is a useful tool to understand perceptions of both internal and external audiences but in our experience with clients the real impact is how the key findings are incorporated into strategic planning.
Boldness pays off. Many institutions struggle with lower student enrollments, reduced budgets and resources. One of the bright spots I noticed at the conference was hearing about the schools that have taken big risks and reaped bigger rewards due to their marketing campaigns.
This was particularly evident in discussions regarding student enrollment. One of the more entertaining (and enlightening) sessions that I attended “Marketing to a New Generation: It’s All About the Relationship” led by James Raby, Director of Enrollment Marketing at American University and Jamie Hardin, Director of Customer Relations at WayBetter Marketing shared their success by embracing one-to-one marketing in student search.
Building a highly-customized communications approach with students to pull them in to participate in a dialogue rather than push out content led to an increased response rate, lowered costs and data-driven decision-making. The campaign incorporated video and personalized prospective student URLs that evoked humor, organizational personality and “edginess” and was worth the risk. As stated in the session by Raby, ‘what do you have to lose?’
At MSL Chicago, we have worked with several colleges and universities in our Reputation On Course specialty practice who have encountered similar challenges. We’ve found that building a strong university brand requires listening and understanding the needs of all key stakeholder audiences. We’ve helped our higher education clients develop differentiated brand strategies that keep their reputations on course and convert reputations into results.