Should universities be worrying about branding? Discuss.
It’s big news on college campuses that the CMO’s have arrived, but the outside world is wondering what took so long. The WSJ (“Marketing Pros: Big Brand on Campus,” Aug 15, 2012) is correct that budget cuts, rising tuition and more competition for students are leading to new branding efforts, but there is a much more fundamental problem.
The basic product is the same everywhere. Wherever you go it is the same 4-year 120-credit degrees with the same majors and the same brochures about personal growth, life-long memories and alumni connections. What’s to market? “We’re the same, only better!” This is an opportunity to start a new conversation about both value and distinctiveness. Maybe your dorms are better or your rock wall is higher, but which schools focus on job skills, or have a broader education? Maybe we offer a five year degree (with an entry year for high school dropouts) while you offer majors that no one else does. The marketing teams will have a hard time until we start to think more carefully about our individual missions and products.
Instead of all trying to be more like the residential leafy campuses with research programs (that trained most of our faculty) we might examine the needs of students in our local area. One of the main differentiators in higher education is location: even Ivy League schools have a higher local profile. State schools already have an in-state monopoly on tuition costs and we all tout our alumni networks, but for most of us, this is still mostly a regional benefit.
Such undifferentiated competition has not been good for students or universities. Just like any other organization, universities need a focused and unique mission. It is silly to all claim that we are more “excellent” than the next school and if we all continue to chase a ranking in the top 100 schools, we make the playing field very narrow. We don’t want all of our universities to be like Harvard.
Universities are already segmented by types of students and areas of content, especially in the arts and professional areas like nursing, or business. We have not seen as much segmentation for undergraduate science or pre-med, but we will. The new business model of the “long tail” suggests even more segmentation and more niche markets will emerge. In addition to specializing in content areas or even broad types of students (like commuter vs residential or part-time vs full-time), schools could focus on even smaller sub-categories.
One of the lessons of Borders is to leverage your assets. When Borders arrived, it had something the smaller independents did not have: inventory. As Amazon began to compete with Borders for inventory, Borders should have found some other way to stay vital that leveraged its other assets and market position. Borders had loyal customers who liked to visit. Instead of reducing staff and letting the stores get run-down, Borders should have done the opposite: give people more reasons to visit. Borders is gone, but many of the more idiosyncratic independent booksellers that once feared Borders survive. Universities will each need to find a niche.
There is a reason why there is only one Amazon: they are the best and cheapest at what they do. If you want to compete, you need to offer something better, unique or cheaper. Higher education has become too generic. With the same increasingly expensive products on every campus, we compete only through discounting. While online degrees won’t affect the best brands or appeal to the best students, they will carve into the market share in the middle. For those middle universities, a new culture of innovation and change will be required.
We’ve actually had plenty of marketing in higher education, but we call it athletics. When Georgetown won the NCAA Basketball tournament in 1984, it got a boost in applications, but so did George Washington University and George Mason University. Athletics budgets are large, but the marketing people will know that it would take even more money (or a bad news scandal) to buy the same media impact as a winning team.
Real marketing will be good for higher education. It is a chance to tell prospective students about what is different about your campus or your courses. It should stimulate a conversation on campuses about the unique mission of each institution.
This, however, is a pretty radical idea. As a faculty member, I recognize my own desire to be “left alone to teach what I want to teach and how I want to teach it–just bring me students.” To ask “what does the market need and what is unique about what we might provide?” is routine for other organizations. But it will be new for higher education.
Before we put a new label on our can, we had better stop and think about what we want in the can. This is an opportunity. Let’s think about what we do that is distinctive, but let’s also make sure we deliver as promised. What’s in your can?
This is a short blog version of my new article “More Marketing, More Mission: How Technology is Driving the Branding of Higher Education—and Why that Might be Good For Us” that appears this month in Spectra, a Publication of the National Communications Association 49/1 (March, 2013) p. 11-13.