If someone picked up your viewbook 50 years from now, what would they notice? Would they recognize the latest design trends? Would they understand what is important to prospective students of the time? To society? To the institution’s community?
I had the opportunity to try to answer some of these questions for my alma mater. With the digitization of Georgetown University’s viewbooks and student prospectuses from the last half century, I flipped through the equivalent of digital time capsules for the University. I chuckled at the bright (somewhat garish) pink, green, yellow, and blue covers of the 1970s as well as the tiny images used in the early 1990s designs. After having a good laugh at the design choices of the past, I more closely examined an early 1950s Georgetown University viewbook titled, “A Visit to the Georgetown Campus,” to see what I might learn that could be applied to admissions marketing today.
The first thing I noticed about this old viewbook was how different the people looked (and I’m not talking about the clothes and hair of the 1950s). The photos exclusively show the all-white, all-male reality of the University in early 1950s, which prompted me to think about the transition to the more culturally diverse, co-ed institution that Georgetown celebrates today. Even though some of the clubs and extracurricular activities are a bit different these days, I saw my campus experience represented in the black and white photos, from the clubs highlighted to the “Hoya hoopsters” prominently featured. Most interestingly, I saw the parallels between the description of the University in this mid-century viewbook and the University’s current website — both descriptions promoted the Jesuit education, a “complete” education of the whole person, and a global experience.
While fun, this examination prompted further reflection on questions (and sometimes tensions) about the significant investment in a viewbook. Looking forward 50 years, who knows what your campus viewbook will look like—or if it will exist at all. But, while viewbooks continue to be a staple of many university marketing/admissions materials, acknowledge that, for the most part, your viewbook will never completely stand the test of time. Viewbooks are a snapshot in time and are an amazing reflection of shifting design trends and an ever-evolving student body that responds to societal needs. However, your viewbook can—and should—always honor the core of your institution, hopefully reflecting an inspiring brand that endures.
As your current viewbook approaches its expiration date and you itch to overhaul everything, I’ll leave you with the following questions:
- What trends or innovations can help you achieve the goal of the viewbook? Should you consider a shorter book with less text? How can the piece work with your website? How can this piece incorporate augmented reality? How can you personalize the viewbook and incorporate knowledge from your CRM? Should this piece even exist?
- What do prospective students (and/or their parents) want to see? How do they want to receive information or interact with you? What do they find important during the stage of their search or of their consideration process? How can you motivate them to engage with you further?
- What makes you relevant and responsive? Are your stories and proof points relevant to the current job market? What are people concerned about given the economy? What are the societal tensions that you help alleviate?
- How can you reflect what is important to the campus community? What are your brand pillars? What are the key stories or proof points to illustrate those points?
Is it possible for a college or university to have too much information about prospective students? Too much data on their parents? Too many insights into what makes alumni want to reconnect and give? Too many reactions to marketing messages, brand concepts, and tactical ideas?
It’s pretty ridiculous to think it’s possible to have too much of any of it.
Throughout my 26 years in higher ed marketing, I’ve come across maybe four or five schools that really did have too much research. Research was being conducted endlessly in order to avoid making decisions. It’s called “analysis paralysis.” These cases are extremely rare.
The reality is that the problem of too little data and testing is pervasive in higher ed marketing. College and university brand campaigns are sometimes launched with only feedback from senior leadership and discovery sessions or workshops with people around campus who have already bought into it. Designs are often significantly influenced by the president’s personal preferences—the president who is a microbiologist by training. New logos are rolled out without any testing, but with the assurance that the Board loves them. That love won’t stretch very far when thousands of your alumni are ripping your design on social media and students are campaigning against it.
Examples abound of higher ed marketing disasters that could have been avoided had someone just done the research or the testing. Sure, it takes time and costs money, but mistakes—especially big ones—take even longer and cost even more in the long run. Plus, they’re painful, and they leave scars on the marketing department and sometimes the entire institution.
The only thing worse than no research is bad research. We see agencies dish up terrible research all the time. My favorite is when they quantify qualitative data. “We conducted in-depth interviews with 100 prospects, counselors, and alumni and 85% of them preferred X.” Marketers beware! Anytime you see a percent sign associated with qualitative research, run (don’t walk) in the other direction. Percent signs are only used when conducting quantitative research with a representative sample—when you can project the results of the sample on to the larger population you are studying. Were those 100 interviewees selected at random to participate in the research? Do you realize you are blending three very different audiences together? Do you know how huge your margin of error is? The problems are obvious.
Without research, your marketing strategy has no rudder. Your brand strategy will sail in one direction this year, and then the wind will turn, and you will blow in another direction next year. That won’t help you make any long-term progress on brand building or reputation management. One of the biggest mistakes colleges and universities make is developing a brand concept, putting it out into the world for a few years, getting sick of it, and then going back to the drawing board to come up with something new. Reputation management requires consistent and intentional message delivery for years and years. To develop an enduring brand, you have to do the detailed and thorough research with internal and external audiences, use the data to establish your brand positioning strategy, create compelling brand concept ideas, test those ideas, and then begin the implementation.
It is vital to test your hypotheses, hunches, long-held beliefs, and great ideas. Insightful data is like an insurance policy that protects your marketing strategy and tactics from critics. And, it gives you the confidence to act boldly and stick with your strategy for the long term. That’s how you build a brand. So, is there such a thing as too much research? Absolutely not.
CASE recently held an event titled, “Claiming Our Story.” I was excited to watch the live stream, especially as a follow up to the Inside Higher Ed program, “Higher Ed in an Era of Heightened Skepticism,” held in February. The higher ed community desperately needs to get in the driver’s seat and influence the public narrative around the value of a college degree. At no time in my 26-year career in higher ed has the actual value of a college degree been higher. But at no time has the perceived value of a college degree been lower or more distorted.
In “Claiming Our Story,” there was a great deal of productive commentary about diversity, lifelong learning, and student debt. Still, the word “communications” was used too many times to count while “marketing” was mentioned only once and “branding” was never mentioned at all. I understand the event was meant to further the discussion on the public’s mistrust of higher education. But the discussion still led me to believe that colleges and universities continue to avoid fully embracing the vital role that marketing and branding can and should play in fixing the problem.
As I said at the Inside Higher Ed event, our mere existence is not a marketing strategy. Marketing is an essential business function for every type of organization, including colleges and universities. But our industry seems hell-bent on avoiding this fact. Why does the industry still shy away from these important concepts, when the most respected non-profits in the world — Human Rights Watch, the Sierra Club, the ACLU, and Doctors Without Borders to name a few — have completely embraced them? All of these organizations are masterful marketers. In a job description for a marketing professional, UNICEF says, “The post is responsible to increase sales and net income from UNICEF Cards and Gifts…to help UNICEF build a better world for children.” Increased sales and net income equals a better world. I could say the same thing about higher ed.
Some in the higher ed community seem to view marketing with disdain. Some appear to associate marketing with greedy, for-profit corporations interested only in tricking customers to buy their products and services. It’s viewed as something higher ed has to do but doesn’t want to do. Expectations of marketing are all off; a college will throw less than 1% of its operating budget at marketing and expect a significant increase in enrollment and fundraising. For so many, the very definition of marketing is too narrow; it’s defined as only the promotion P of the marketing mix. We need to wake up. Better marketing can help save higher education. We have to embrace the fundamental principles of integrated marketing and branding. We have to invest in getting our story out there. We have to staff our marketing departments in a manner that’s commensurate with our goals. We have to integrate our efforts enterprise-wide and even industry-wide. And we need to do it now. Our world desperately needs us, and they don’t even know it.
With all my heart, I believe that higher ed is the answer — the answer to ending poverty and reducing the income gap, combating racism, finding cures to diseases that plague our world, saving the planet, eliminating the possibility of nuclear war, and so much more. Higher ed gives us art, beauty, and community. It lifts us one and all. Higher ed must not only survive, it must thrive. But in order for this to happen, we can’t refuse to market ourselves. We can “claim our story” all day long, but unless we deliver that story to our stakeholders through effective marketing, we will continue to lose the perception battle. Marketing can no longer be a dirty word. In higher education, marketing is spelled S.U.R.V.I.V.A.L.
New and prospective clients often ask us for advice regarding the process and management of an institutional market research and branding effort. At this point in the initiative, they typically have received budget approval (or are close!) and have determined the project scope, both of which are major feats and worthy of celebration in and of themselves. However, their minds may quickly go from excitement and thrill to the realization that they are going to be responsible not only for championing the project, but also for ensuring key stakeholders across campus are involved and engaged from the beginning to the end and beyond.
In an industry that is comically plagued by committees, we still strongly recommend assembling a steering committee to tackle this initiative. But rather than thinking about this group as a loosely strung together set of individual representatives across your campus, we encourage you to approach committee member selection as a strategic exercise. You will not regret being very purposeful and thoughtful in forming this group, as it is a decision that will impact both the short- and long-term success of the project.
In the recent podcast episode, “Creative Confidence Series: Tackling big change in your organization,” IDEO’s Owen Rogers walks through his approach to working with companies on big existential challenges and changes. Similar to what we experience with many of our clients, Rogers says that identifying the right committee members and positioning them as a “coalition of co-conspirators” is one of the key components of enabling change and ensuring project success. And it isn’t only the effort of forming the group, but more importantly, it’s the type of people included that can have a dramatic effect. IDEO identifies three distinct types of people that must be included as members of the collaborative team. Regardless of the size of your institution or scope of your project, these useful guidelines can be referenced to ensure your committee will be effective in shepherding the initiative on your campus.
- Sponsors. These individuals most often come from campus leadership. However, that isn’t a blanket approach, and it really comes down to identifying who is championing the project. For a brand effort to be most successful on your campus, we recommend that it include the president and the chief marketing officer (or the relevant individual at your campus), at a minimum. Depending on the goals and scope of the project, it may also include other key members such as Board or Cabinet members. Deans and leaders from departments such as student affairs, admissions, development, and athletics are other important players to consider. It is important to think through the right balance of those who need to be official committee members vs. those who just need periodic updates throughout the initiative.
- Enthusiasts. To identity these individuals, approach it more from a bottom-up and less of a top-down mindset. Enthusiasts are your biggest supporters — those who are likely already on your side and understand the importance of the project. They understand the vision, are supporters of change, and are ready to jump in to help. These may include a development officer or campus communicator, but don’t overlook faculty, your campus historian or archivist, or student leaders. These individuals have unique viewpoints, and involving them will help inform the development of an authentic and enduring brand.
- Naysayers. We all can probably quickly picture the one or two loudest, squeakiest wheels on our campus. And the thought of proactively involving them on a committee may give you pause, but including these nonbelievers can be just as, if not more, important than the believers. Selecting your naysayers requires careful thought and consideration. Rogers defines two common types of naysayers and makes an important distinction as to which one you want to include. The first type are those individuals who simply don’t want the project to succeed or who aren’t listening. In contrast, the second type are those who don’t believe in what you are doing, yet are actively engaged in the conversation. He finds that the latter are often a representation of the exact type of change that needs to occur, and it’s these people who are the right type to get on your side and include on the committee. Do your homework up front to identity 1-2 individuals who fit this description and get them involved early on. It’s important to be open to their perspectives as they are likely to offer great insights into common campus concerns and can help you avoid them throughout the process. And as Rogers notes, you may be surprised to see that the conversion of these naysayers can often have the most dramatic effect on a project.
Once you have identified — in your head or down on paper — this team of 8-12 co-conspirators , you should begin to work through the next steps of introducing them to the project, outlining their roles and responsibilities, and sharing details such as how much time they can expect to dedicate to the initiative and key project dates.
Finally, once the project is off and running, we encourage you to begin to think about how you will continue the co-conspirator relationships and collaboration after the official end of the initiative. Are you considering a formal brand launch? Are you trying to wrangle rogue social media pages? Want to develop an integrated digital content strategy? Is your institution planning a capital campaign? Your co-conspirators can be the first people you turn to, to start these important efforts. And perhaps most importantly, these individuals can and should be your biggest supporters when it comes to living and breathing the brand on campus.
There’s no doubt that higher education is in the midst of challenging times. Moody’s recently rated the sector’s outlook to “negative,” a downgrade from 2015’s “stable” rating. Costs are rising. Competition is increasing. Endowments are down. And demographic changes that many knew were coming are here, with the number of high school graduates not expected to increase until 2024.
But that urgency hasn’t translated to most higher ed branding and marketing strategies. Look no further than any large, public research institution, and you’re sure to find a brand built around the same elements as its competitors—best in something, global, diverse, multidisciplinary, hands-on research, public mission, and service. Over time, telling the higher ed story through the traditional full-time, four-year lens or the research-dominant impact story has contributed to a narrative that—as cost rise, willingness to pay falls, and government funding sours—is an echo chamber falling on deaf ears that is resulting in further lack of trust and support.
Enter the idea of the challenger brand. Developed by U.K.-based strategy firm Eat Big Fish, a challenger brand is defined as having “ambitions bigger than its conventional resources” and willing to “do something bold, usually against the existing conventions or codes of the category, to break through.” These brands are not typically the leaders in their category. Rather, they’ve decided to challenge convention, their industries, or the customer experience. Think brands like Vice, Warby Parker, or AirBnB.
Recently, Eat Big Fish shared three challenger brand strategies. Using these archetypes, let’s look at some of higher ed’s most successful challenger brands:
1) The Missionary: Defined as a challenger that is a force for good, motivated by a bigger purpose, the missionary brand doesn’t run from its ideals. An example from the corporate world is REI.
It’s easy to consider faith-based institutions as “missionary” brands. Our research with more than half of the nation’s Jesuit institutions shows that ties to faith are generally neutral in terms of impact on an institution’s brand—that is, they neither add or detract significantly to impressions of or desire to attend a college or university. But the Jesuit messages of “women and men for and with others” and “teaching behaviors that reflect critical thought and responsible action on moral and ethical issues” are clear differentiators for a generation of “plurals” that may be the one to solve today’s societal issues. So it’s easy for us to think of our client, Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, as a missionary challenger. LMU is thriving despite shadows cast by its much larger neighbors, UCLA and USC, in part because of the university’s keen ability to show how students, faculty, and alumni experience its values and social justice mission in the world’s creative epicenter.
But missionary brands don’t have to have a religious connection. Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) has reinvented itself as a challenger brand whose purpose is about “challenging the status quo and providing the best support in higher education.” This has led to the university being focused on providing access through innovative programs and degree completion for America’s working adults with some level of college completion. SNHU’s online education program serves more than 80,000 students, and they have furthered commitment to their purpose through their new College for America program, which awards accelerated degrees based on proven competencies and a project-based approach.
2) The Real & Human Challenger: a brand that puts its people front and center. Eat Big Fish points to this great video from Harry’s Shave Club.
This would seem to be a place that higher ed might have an advantage. There are tons of terrific stories and people on every college campus. And many of them look and feel just like most of the rest of us normal humans. But the problem for most schools is that marketing efforts fall back on platitudes, making the institution come across as unapproachable and not rooted in the real world.
Not so at NC State University, whose brand strategy, Think and Do, is clearly challenging the ivory towers and traditional ethos that exists at nearby competitors UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke. Think and Do is plain speak—and it’s not just talk. NC State supports the brand with real people who demonstrate that the university is a place rooted in practical, real-world solutions. Videos we created with our partners at TheD4D show how NC State supports veterans and the agriculture industry and makes firefighters battling wild fires safer, among other human-centered stories. And here’s a recent example of not being afraid to lean in on pop culture moments that people are talking about as a NC State professor talks about the science of the Black Panther.
3) The Next Generation: New times call for different approaches, and these brands question the relevance of competitors that approach their industries in same old way. Think PayPal or Audi.
It’s hard to consider “new and next” higher ed brands without immediately thinking of Arizona State University (ASU), where they went so far as to call themselves “The New American University.” Under President Michael Crow, ASU has re-positioned itself as a clear challenger to the status quo.ASU actually rewrote its charter to say it had become an institution that would be measured “not by whom it excludes, but by whom it includes and how they succeed,” bucking the arms-race for eliteness through a model focused on access and growth. This focus has led to innovative partnerships with Starbucks, EdX, and an online program that is challenging other schools in markets around the country.
Not to be outdone in the desert (and in bitter dispute with ASU), Grand Canyon University has challenged conventions, shifting from a private Christian institution and shedding its non-profit status to get out from $20 million of debt and risk of closing. Now it is the only for-profit with a Division I basketball program as it seeks to regain non-profit status. GCU has enjoyed a complete turnaround through its challenger status. It has frozen tuition throughout the past decade and now has more than 19,000 students on its physical campus and nearly 70,000 pursuing degrees online.
Whether your college or university is ready or willing to be a challenger brand is another question, but it’s one worth asking as higher ed institutions struggle to distinguish themselves in a rough sea of rising competition, sinking investment, and public distrust. Even if your institution is not situated to take a big risk, it should be thinking about how it can take a stance.