To many, this headline will reflect an egregious contradiction. Higher Education is not to be sold like a bottle of beer or a new sport utility vehicle, they’ll say. I agree.
Further, marketers use analogies of war or sports as a means to explain how they will compete. In higher education we are not in a game of war or a sporting contest, we are trying to advance knowledge. I agree.
These “we must be the best” tactics foster the idea of a zero sum game where there is only one winner in war and second place in sports is the loser.1 I agree.
What is presented here is a concept about outperforming the competition, not annihilating them. It is about discovering what we do best and finding the individual who craves it.
The role of marketing we will discuss is to focus on the unique way the organization delivers value; and building a compelling proposition for all involved—students, faculty, staff, alums, benefactors, parents, and the general community.
It is not about being best, or number 1. How would you even define the best? What is the criteria that constitutes number 1? Yet, there are many leaders chanting the mantra of being the best and being number 1. This leads to the mistaken idea that success requires that everyone work harder, fly faster, and take no prisoners. Nonsense. The best depends on what your institution is uniquely qualified to do and defines it as the promise it makes to all constituencies.
I don’t expect you to set aside the importance of great performance. Rather, what I am proposing is that we move past the glittering generalities of greatness down to what really matters to your prime market.
Example. The best for McDonald’s is speed of service, and delivery of a consistent product. But, for In-n-Out Burger, it’s about fresh, high quality food. Further, In-n-Out Burger provides employees a team-oriented workplace where goal setting and communication are practiced. And, for the community, the burger chain seeks to strengthen and make safer the places in which it operates. And all you thought they did was make burgers!
This is contemporary marketing. It recognizes that people expect more than what is shoved out through the drive-up window in record time. McDonalds has significantly greater revenue than In-n-Out, yet would we call McDonald’s the best? They may be #1 in sales, but not in your heart.
Marketing is about creating competitive advantage; and that is accomplished by doing what your organization does better than anybody, and then putting that proposition in front of people who value what you do. To be effective, the value statement must resonate with multiple constituencies, because today consumers make their choices based on not just what you do, but how you do it.
What follows is a brief framework for competing in a highly charged and volatile environment where introducing a disciplined process aimed at creating, capturing, and sustaining value at your college or university will deliver meaningful purpose and demonstrable competitive advantage for decades to come.
First, let’s look at why we need to take a fresh look.
Since 2006 the motivation students state for attending college has shifted from to learn more about things that interest me to get a better job.2 Experts attribute this to any number of factors, including the recent recession, the increase in women and minorities enrolling in college, and the rising cost of college. These factors conspire to bump up ROI expectations of a college degree demonstrating a brutal reality that has politicians jumping in to legislate the solution. Yikes!
This, particularly for tuition-dependent private institutions, is a slippery slope. If getting a college degree is all about landing a high-paying job, then students who majored in psychology and social work; education; arts; and, humanities and liberal arts placed bad ROI bets on their undergraduate education. They will earn approximately 60% of what their peers who majored in engineering will earn with their STEM bachelors degree.3
These facts paint a disturbing picture if you are in the business of running a college or university. It raises the question of viability, dare I say, survival. However, the thesis offered here is that successful marketing is premised on identifying the segment of the market that uniquely seeks what your institution has to offer. That answer is not found in the boxcar statistics, it lies beneath the headlines and can be effectively mined through marketing analytics and exhaustive dialogue with members of the community.
So, do not despair, you can refute the ROI trap, by tapping into the motivations and demands of students who will make a big difference in our world, but will seldom be easily measured on their first-year earning capacity. However, it will take a disciplined process to tease out and generate understanding and support for high-demand education. This goes beyond a snappy tagline or clever headline.
Three martinis and a bolt of lightning
An old boss of mine used to refer to the advertising business as three martinis and a bolt of lightning! Unfortunately, those Mad Men days are in the past. Marketing is dependent on creating, capturing, and sustaining value. In marketing terminology, value is what buyers are willing to pay, and superior value stems from offering lower prices than competitors for equivalent benefits; or providing unique benefits that more than offset a higher price.4
Marketing is a disciplined process; and it relies on strategy developed in five rigorously executed steps surrounding value:
- Discern what the organization does well;
- Identify the segment of prospective customers who will see what you do well as something they value;
- Articulate a clear value proposition;
- Stake out a plan to generate prospects, and convert them into committed relationships; and
- Put practices in place to capture and retain the right faculty, staff, students, and other constituencies vital to the value proposition.
Hopefully, you can see the role that value plays in this scheme. By focusing on those things we do well, we lift the spirits of our faculty, enrich the experiences of our students, affirm the decisions of our alumni in attending our institution; and gratify the benefactors who invest in our future. In other words, when we articulate the critical role each of these constituencies play in the vitality of the institution, we advance all causes.
So, why do so many management decisions in higher education favor a plan in which success is contingent upon working harder, containing costs, running more ads, getting more apps, increasing yield, providing more discounts, and moving courses online to reduce cost of instruction?
You tell me. But, my hunch is that without a compelling position to offer, people default to the stuff everyone does when they to compete to be the best: work harder, fly faster, and take no prisoners. This strategy is tiresome and zaps the strength of participants.
By the way, adopting kind of marketing approach advocated here is fertile ground. Based on a brief audit of competitive appeals, most seem to pursue a generic “we are the best” strategy. Maybe they think it will work this time because we have a new tagline to rally the troops! Something like Your Future is Bright! or Find Yourself Here! or The Faculty is Fabulous! (The faculty really liked that last one, by the way.) All kidding aside, the “this time with feeling” campaign has run its course. No administration offsite or Town Hall meeting or award-winning ad campaign is going to reverse the fortunes of an institution that knows not who it is and knows not which students it seeks?
Warning signs ahead … face reality and take the high road
We know there is a need for a disciplined marketing approach in higher education. The evidence states approximately one-third of U.S. colleges and universities have deteriorating financial statements.5 On the balance sheet, these institutions are highly leveraged thereby reducing access to capital and increasing the cost of carrying debt. On the income statement, costs are up against slumping revenue reducing available cash for significant investment in strategic opportunities.
Adding fuel to the fire, there is widespread acrimony on many campuses as trust has dissipated between administrators and faculty, leaving students, alums, staff, and benefactors less than enthusiastic about their commitment to an institution that is increasingly becoming unsustainable.
This is reflected in votes of no confidence, reports of low morale, and a general lack of faith in the abilities of leaders to lead. So, the first act of marketing is to bring these constituencies together.
As a student of leadership, one thing I know is that a leader must be trustworthy; and that is the product of caring, character, and competence. If the leader genuinely cares; is a person with moral and mental qualities we admire; and has demonstrated knowledge that pertains to the challenge at hand; then that person is considered trustworthy and people will follow; or at least open up in honest dialogue.
Dialogue is necessary to gather honest, widespread input from across the campus. In a sense, crafting a marketing strategy is a negotiation, of sorts, in that it must focus on “basic interests, mutually satisfying options, and fair standards”6 for those involved in its implementation. Practically speaking, if we are to surface and articulate the unique capabilities of the institution we will need to engage in productive dialogue aimed at creating testable value propositions that we can effectively deliver. Only then, can we consider identifying our prime prospect.
When faculty and staff are aligned on purpose and mission their buy-in is authentic and perceptible. It creates an ethos that is emblematic of the culture and evokes the true nature of the “product” your institution delivers. When such conditions are present, your marketing appeals will resonate with prospects in a genuine and meaningful way. So, involving faculty in this process leads to buy-in because they have genuinely had a role in fashioning the value statement that will affect the composition of their classroom; and the ultimate vibrancy of the institution.
What you have read thus far, is something that may be quite different from your perception of marketing the old school way. The final component is no different as we’ll discuss is the environment in which messages are delivered and reality is constructed. Today, headphones replace the megaphone as listening trumps amplification. As we have demonstrated here, marketing uses feedback to construct, test, and refine meaningful appeals far surpassing the elliptical focus groups of days gone by. So too, when it comes to putting the strategy in place, the rules have changed.
It’s a brave, new world
In case you have slept through the last decade, the world has changed dramatically, and especially in the way we construct meaning. The days of running a saturation schedule on TV and then waiting for the customer to come pounding on the door demanding your product have slipped away. In part, this is because the open space in the market is fully occupied. We now must work harder at demonstrating relevance.
This is true because the single biggest change—one that many marketers have yet to grasp—is how people make choices. McKinsey’s Consumer Decision Journey (CDJ) captures the reality that the old funnel metaphor—where we perceived consumers to enter with a wide range of options and then progressively narrow them down to a single best choice—is antiquated. The speed and transparency of the digital/social environment demands active involvement from an organization seeking to get and keep customers. Today, consumers expand their choices once their interest in an item is triggered. As a result, everything the consumer encounters matters in their decision journey.
A recent article in the Economist characterized it this way: Attracting customers “is not just about having a friendly and informed sales person, an efficient call center, or a great site. It’s about having ALL of those things working together like a relay team handing off the customer from one touch point to the next in a smooth way.”7 The marketing model today must recognize that we are all in this together—employees, consumers, pundits, and supporters.
The truly powerful buying motivations today settle on values and beliefs. This is good news for an organization that truly knows who it is, because culture is hard to copy. As we have all heard, culture eats strategy for breakfast. Likewise, a culture that is aligned with the promise is a difficult advantage for competitors to overcome.
While we may be lured into believing college choices are purely about the economics of the job market, when one digs beneath the surface, powerful motivation lies in deeper student needs that are seldom clearly articulated but genuinely felt. Branding plays a big role in defining and attracting prospects motivated by these unstated needs. (I'll know it when I see it!)
Branding must build a bond. Bonds are made between people. So, if there is confusion about your mission, a lack of trust between your administration and faculty, or a failure to recognize that the students you recruit must not only bring their money, but their minds, hearts, and souls, then marketing in the 21st century is going to be a long, disappointing slog.
On the positive side, the content that flows freely and openly from an enlightened organization is the stuff that attracts and builds relationships with potential students, faculty, staff, and donors.
This scheme is not something new; I have conducted it successfully in many industries and many organizations. The new part is how the social/digital component has radically transformed the way we: communicate (truly two-way and symmetric); construct and test our consumer propositions; and create enduring relationships.
While the process is quite straightforward and aimed at creating transparent marketing that brings vitality to the organization, it is not easy. Crystallizing the value proposition in the minds of your faculty and staff while finding prospects who will know, understand, and value the experience the institution delivers can be quite dicey. But, well worth the effort.
I welcome discussion, questions, and further dialogue. This is an area of great passion for me as there are few endeavors more rewarding than learning and teaching.
1 Competition: The right mindset by Joan Magretta (2012)
2 Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at UCLA (2014)
3 The economic value of college majors by Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce (2015)
4 Competitive Advantage by Michael Porter (1983)
5 The financially sustainable university by Bain & Company (2012)
6 Getting to yes by Roger Fisher and William Ury (1981)
7 The funnel is dead. Long live the consumer decision journey. The Economist. (02/14/2014).
8 The suicide of liberal arts by John Agresto in The Wall Street Journal. (08/07/2015)