Creating a splash or making waves?

Creating a splash serves promotional needs, but that’s only one part of the marketing equation. In order to make exchange—with students, parents, donors, alumni, faculty, neighbors, the government, even the general public—you also have to consider what you’re actually delivering, how and where you’ll deliver it and how much someone will have to pay for it. Marketing requires more than a splash; it requires a careful and sustainable strategy to ensure that it’s just not all noise and mess.

Higher education seems infatuated with marketing right now. I remember a day when you couldn’t even use the “M-word” on campus. Now, it’s de riguer to seek a marketing vice president, especially one from outside the academy.

It’s no wonder. The pressure is on for higher ed. We’re in a period of population decline among high school-aged students in the US and the prospect for the next several years is bleak.

Perhaps out of impatience for higher ed to deliver better data about its value to the economy, the federal government has intervened with more regulation and public reporting to provide “objective” data about performance standards. Parents and donors are requiring greater transparency about outcomes and financial practices. The internet has eliminated all hiding places.

Marketing must be the answer, right?

From the activity we’ve seen of late, creating a splash seems to be considered the solution. We’re observing a proliferation of enormous “marketing campaigns” to capture attention among both private and public institutions. While advertising used to be disdainful for higher ed, now travelers are strangled by posters in airport corridors clamoring for attention toward schools of every ilk.

Investments in single words or short phrases to capture the mission and vision of universities run in the millions of dollars. Yet, if you are like me, you’re tired of taglines and empty expressions of the value of a college education and its significance on society.

Splashes are noisy and messy. They’re disruptive and they get attention. But they don’t last long.

And usually you have to clean up after one occurs.

Waves, on the other hand, are rather constant and dependable. Sure, some days bring bigger waves than others, but there’s always movement. Waves are chiefly created and empowered by the wind. Blow across the top of your coffee cup to see how that works. To create waves, you need a consistent source of wind energy to move waves in the direction of the shore (for the sake of this metaphor, picture your important audiences all lined up at the beach and you’ll get the idea). Once you get that going, the undertow will assist in sustaining a series of waves. There’s more to this metaphor, but we’ll save it for another time.

Rather than merely making huge investments in advertising and snazzy slogans, colleges and universities will be better served by improving customer experiences, offering better programs, equipping better graduates (and citizens), managing resources more effectively, stepping up with greater transparency, and creating more meaningful stories.

Rather than creating a splash, we encourage higher education to make waves.

We think waves are the coherent way for colleges and universities to better position themselves in the market and to create better brand perceptions. The way to make waves is:

  1. Doing what you say you’ll do.
  2. Repeatedly proving that you are who you say you are.
  3. Demonstrating that the place you describe is real.
  4. Giving evidence that your mission matters.
  5. Delivering on your promises.
  6. Being honest in your self-assessments.
  7. Connecting with customers where it has significance for them.

Splashes certainly can be fun. Children love them. But it’s really hard to beat the sound and long-term effect of waves.

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Rick Bailey

Rick is the Principal and founding partner at RHB.