The Higher Education Marketing Crisis

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At colleges and universities across the country, marketing departments are failing to differentiate their institutions in an increasingly complex and competitive higher education market.  There has never been a more critical time in higher education to stand out – the economic pressures are more stark and the race to get the best students, faculty, and resources has become more and more competitive. Branding continues to be a very hot topic in higher education, as many institutions struggle to find the right way to discover and articulate their distinct market position and competitively brand their institutions.

Over the next ten years, the strength of an institution’s marketing and branding will be the differentiator for which universities survive and thrive. Some colleges will close while students and faculty will continue to try to get into the school with the most recognizable name and valuable brand. So what’s the hope for everyone else? The biggest thing colleges can do is to claim and occupy their own distinct market position – the way to stand out is to do something that no one else does and be the best at it. Then you have to brand it, market it, and sell it. So who is going to help you do that? Well you see, that’s the problem – most marketing firms create pretty ads that look the same and say similar things to everyone else. Most marketing firms have no real marketing strategy.

Over the past year, I have noticed a sharp rise in the number of strategic marketing companies that provide brand related services – from copy, to logos, and advertisements. On their blogs and at their conference booths they talk a lot about “strategy” but when you dig a bit deeper it’s easy to see that “strategy” really means “communication” and not “branding” or “competitive” strategy. They will help you say something, but more than likely it won’t mean anything. Have you seen the recent Capella University ad campaign built around the word  “Matter.” What does that mean? It tells you nothing about the institution or what makes it unique. In fact, I would go as far to say that it offends prospective students – the only way you “Matter” is if you attend Capella. These campaigns, and others where you typically see a bunch of stock photos of students smiling, are happening all over the country and they are a symptom of the higher education marketing crisis.

So what’s a good example? Take a look at this brand positioning strategy for a top business school in China, The Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business. The goal was to position CKGSB as not only a top business school in China, but as a top global business school that has an unrivaled understanding of business in China and the most influential alumni network. The “Know What’s Next” campaign art and taglines are conceptually meant to bridge East and West and showcase the increasing importance and role of the CKGSB in the global “one economy.”

In order for institutions to increase their competitiveness there needs to be a direct and distinct correlation between the product, the experience, and the positioning. Most strategic marketing companies don’t analyze what really makes an institution distinct in the market – from the product, to experience, to outcomes, to impact, to perceptions.  “Strategy” needs to go beyond communications and perception management. Institutions need to sell what makes them unique. Higher education is becoming more and more market driven – so sell something different. Not just the same pretty picture and cheeky tagline.

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Grant Sabatier has 10 years of experience in technology, consulting, marketing, and higher education. He previously worked for both The University of Chicago and The Chronicle of Higher Education. To learn more about Grant, visit his blog at http://grantsabatier.com

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