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Integrated Marketing & Branding in Seattle

Ken Steele was among 113 higher education marketers in Seattle Washington for the 2008 CASE Institute for Integrated Marketing and Branding, May 19-21, 2008. Much of the program focused on fundamentals, but Ken summarizes the highlights: interesting or thought-provoking examples, new ideas, and observations about the US approach to integrated marketing and branding.


A Different World

Seattle, “the Emerald City,” is just 150 km south of Vancouver, but like Dorothy in Oz, I am clearly in a different world.  It’s not just the little sign in the hotel restaurant: “No Minors. No Firearms.” The presenters epitomize some key ways in which the higher education marketplace in the US is vastly different from most parts of Canada.

All Four P’s

When Canadians agonize over “Integrated Marketing” on campus, they’re usually struggling to coordinate and build collaboration between dozens or even hundreds of communications/marketing professionals across campus, with little or no central marketing staff or budget. Athletics can be a challenge, but in Canada it tends to be the Business faculties that have the most independence of thought and budget.

But right off the bat in Seattle, it is made unabashedly clear that “Integrated Marketing” (as distinct from mere “promotion”) involves listening to the customer, identifying needs and wants, and designing product or service offering to meet those needs. Integrated Marketing, says Joe Hice of the University of Florida, must manage all 4 P’s: promotion, place, price and PRODUCT. College marketers need to integrate management of marketing communications with academic curriculum planning. (The day when Canadian university marketers can speak openly about shaping program offerings to market demands still seems to be a long way off!) Deborah Wiltrout, of the University of Maryland, emphasizes that in a perfect world, marketers should be at the university’s strategic planning table. Tom Hayes, of Xavier University, goes so far as to urge institutions to merge their departments of Marketing and Institutional Research & Planning!

Ed Sevilla, of Massachusetts’ Stonehill College, predicts that college marketing departments will be taking a much more active role in student financial aid operations over the coming years, to manage the PRICE component of the 4 Ps, which is vital to students facing a growing credit crunch and whose parents are suffering in a tough economy. (American recruiters calculate “tuition discounting” with a bluntness that again is seldom seen in Canada.)

And Hice and Hayes both encourage greater use of sales promotions — like $2 off coupons for Swiffers, immediate incentives to take action, like t-shirt giveaways, draw prizes, or even free tuition, “it’s all about stuff” they insist. Certainly in Canada we’ve seen a growing trend toward giveaway T-shirts (such asLakehead U) and tuition contests (UNB’s “Only One U” and Memorial’s “Rant Like Rick” come immediately to mind). But again, these are still the exception rather than the rule in Canada.

In the US, Branding often Leverages Athletics

Collegiate athletics is big business in the US, and many critics would say it has become far too big, withcoaches’ salaries dwarfing those of college presidents, and academic standards being subverted to support athletic success. Most of the examples we’re shown of successful institutional brands are built on college sports cheers: the University of Florida’s “Gator Nation,” the University of Maryland’s “Fear the Turtle,” and NorthEastern University’s partnership with the Boston Red Sox. The student cheers in particular — spontaneous, grassroots expressions of school spirit, established by students through years of sports championships, designed to position themselves competitively and distinctly — have powerful roots with alumni, and appeal to students and prospective applicants.

Go Gators!  Joe Hice explains that the market research arrived at an institutional positioning for uFlorida that would emphasize “an unparalleled university experience that stays with you for a lifetime.” Building on the college cheer, the creative solution was “The University of Florida is in Gainesville. The Gator Nation is Everywhere.” In addition to the TV spot I covered in November 2007, Hice showed us a newer spot, and also a very amusing parody film trailer, “The Undergraduate,” which drew an ovation from the conference and is definitely worth a look. It was designed to appeal to a mixed audience of prospective students and their parents, and appears to have been successful. (The YouTube version, linked below, does not seem to work consistently, sorry.)

Fear the Turtle!  Deborah Wiltrout is quick to emphasize that “Fear the Turtle” is a five-year marketing campaign, expressive of the institutional brand, but it is not the actual brand of the University of Maryland. But “Fear the Turtle” is used on all recruitment marketing materials, campus signage, seasonal greeting cards, and much more. The campaign launched in 2003, based on the sports mascot for the UM Terrapins, and ironically following a campaign more explicitly emphasizing the institution’s momentum (the “Zoom” campaign). The bumper stickers and brochures are eye-catching and appealing, and several spots have been uploaded to YouTube:

Partnering with the Boston Red Sox: Sandra King, now at Bentley College near Boston, described a powerful campaign she created at Northeastern University by partnering with major league baseball — the first time it had been done in America. NU got exclusive signage in Fenway Park, internships for students with the Red Sox and the Park, and a spring training game against their own team which turned into a major alumni event.

Innovative Media Partnerships

Several case studies presented at the conference describe fairly innovative partnerships with major media outlets, beyond the usual radio or TV station on-sites during campus open houses.

Bentley College’s “Tomorrow 25”: Sandra King told us how Bentley College partnered with Timemagazine to create a Leadership Forum on campus, an annual high school contest to nominate ‘the Tomorrow 25,” and a national and international advertising campaign including 10 insertions in Timemagazine. (All of Bentley College’s campaigns are online and worth a look at  ).

uMaryland’s 150th Anniversary Video: Deborah Wiltrout described how the University of Maryland partnered with the alumni association, student government, a major corporate sponsor, and the local PBS station to create an 85-minute historical documentary about UM for its 150th Anniversary. Although the total costs were about $125,000, UM broke even on the project, selling copies of the DVD to alumni, students and deans (as gifts). It’s particularly cool that the idea for the video came from the students, not the administration.

“Fear the Turtle” Sculptures: Wiltrout also described how UM raised $300,000 to pay for advertising and promotion of a turtle sculpture competition. 50 artists created customized turtle sculptures which were exhibited throughout the state, eventually auctioned for as much as $30,000 each. The sculpture project has its own website, where you can check out all the details.

Creating Support on Campus

The questions asked of speakers, and much discussion over drinks after hours, focus on internal campus politics, and lessons learned so far as motivating collective action or additional resources for serious market research, brand development and integrated marketing initiatives. Sevilla observes that the “burning platform” creates a sense of urgency in any organization: if demographic trends are dropping, or enrolment is already starting to wane, senior administration will make market research a priority. The launch of strategic planning processes and major capital campaigns also tend to trigger an openness to solid market research.

At several institutions, it is clear that the appointment of a new president is the catalyst for a thorough assessment of market perceptions.  Another presenter observes that it is frequently intensely motivating for senior administration to see competing institutions either closing in, or surpassing them, in reputation or marketing initiatives. As Sevilla says, the “Faustian bargain” colleges have with media rankings can also prompt a sense of urgency when the news is bad.

Hayes says bluntly, “if you don’t have a crisis, create one.” And he also observes that the entrance of a new player (typically the University of Phoenix) into a marketplace can also be a sudden catalyst for action. On average, uPhoenix snaps up 10% of the PSE market immediately upon entering a market. (Watch out, Fredericton!)

King emphasizes the importance of engaging key influencers in the faculty Senate to ensure support from the academic side of the institution for sometimes controversial “big ideas.” She recommends “taking the curmudgeon to lunch,” because inevitably they will ask challenging, good questions.

Hayes often uses the ROI argument to justify investment in research and marketing: the lifetime value of a typical student (4 years tuition, plus alumni donations and possibly second-generation student referrals) can easily be $60,000 for many institutions. If that’s the case, a major market research project (typically $120,000-$240,000) can be justified if it attracts just a couple of additional students. Hayes also suggests that you may be able to sway your Chief Financial Officer if you get him to speak with a CFO at another college that has made the investment in research and marketing.

Measurability and Accountability

Presenters in Seattle frequently emphasize the value of metrics and measurement to justify college investments in marketing and market research. Teresa Flannery, from American University, summarizes the most common measurement approaches: web metrics (hits, domain and geographic origins, click-thrus), dedicated 800 numbers, “Forwarding” functions, subscriptions, polls, licensing revenue, inquiry volumes, applications, donations, and even “tell us what you think” feedback. She also recommends Google Trends as a quick and easy way to graph media hits for your institution and compare it to others over time (here’s an example I put together in a few moments — try it yourself!).

Gnashing of Teeth over Web 2.0

Many of the presentations in Seattle have been surprisingly “old-school” about marketing strategies and tactics. One presenter showed us a unidirectional flowchart representing marketing communication from a transmitter to a receiver, dismissing all other messages as “noise”.  Several speakers use “Web 2.0” to refer to video and audio content such as podcasts and vodcasts, and blogs and RSS feeds — but without commenting functions turned on. Some here seem to believe that “Web 2.0” means you post your ads on YouTube.

In the new social media context, bidirectional communication is growing in importance and is critical to leverage — the key marketing exercise is now responding to inquiries, entering a dialogue, not pushing a message — and peer communication makes social media strategies vital. As our social media consultantswill tell you, Web 2.0 is all about user-generated content, discussion, comments, and user control of information — and no-one in Seattle seems to talk much about that.

Hice’s experience at the University of Florida seems to be the cautionary tale that has everyone worried. Hice presented on the debacle that was “Don’t Tase Me, Bro!“: students with cell phone cameras posted video to YouTube almost immediately, local and national news media picked it up, along with about 7,000 blogs, and the result was a major black eye for the institution and a year-long headache for public affairs — all within the space of 24 hours, while Hice was enjoying a motorcycling vacation.  (How would YOU handle 10,000 inbound emails in the space of 24 hours?) Hice monitors Technorati every morning, and observes that 177 blogs mention UF today — but UF itself has no authorized blogs at all.

Sevilla shares our definition of Web 2.0. He emphasized the fact that an institution’s website is “Brand Central Station” and that the world has moved from web publishers to web aggregators. (Traditional media news company websites have just a fraction of the traffic of the customized services of Google, MSN and Yahoo.) It seems clear to the presenters here in Seattle that colleges must monitor the blogosphere and social networks to know what is being said about them, but the emphasis was on controlling the student experience to enhance the brand, rather than proactively engaging in web 2.0 strategies.

In Canada, we’ve seen some innovative uses of Facebook (like UNB’s “Only One U” contest), Flickr (such as Concordia’s photo contest), and YouTube (like Memorial’s “Rant Like Rick”uMontreal’s “Future Needs You”Vancouver Film School, and most recently Queen’s grad studies). Could it be that Canadian higher education marketers are actually AHEAD of their American counterparts in the Web 2.0 revolution? Perhaps it’s because Facebook was so obviously a force to be reckoned with in Canada, even 18 months ago, while in the US, market share is more divided between social networking platforms. Perhaps Canada’s large, government-owned institutions are more confident and more tolerant of dialogue than the smaller, more aggressive and commercial institutions in the US, who are still focused on getting their messages across and making the sale. Maybe it’s not a coincidence that Wikinomics, the leading business book on the subject, was written by Dan Tapscott, adjunct professor at UofT’s Rotman School of Management. (Maybe the Canadian context has contributed to the innovative web strategies of Academica Group itself, whose SkoolPool has helped hundreds of institutions get engaged on Facebook.)

Talk about Tough Critics!

It’s a cliché to say that the Millennial generation is skeptical of advertising. But when you see just how cutting their skepticism can be, you’ll never want to use a “three and a tree” photo again. Hayes showed us a parody college TV spot, “Honest College Commercial,” produced by those sophomoric comedians at College Humour TV.  (If you’re squeamish about mild foul language, please forgive me for reposting the video here.)  The parody spot ends with the fatal criticism, “If we were a good university, we wouldn’t havea commercial.”

That’s a high-level summary of the bigger themes (and amusing or intriguing examples) I thought emerged from the 2008 conference. Please feel free to add your comments below!

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