Let’s put the marketing back in marketing.

Higher ed has gone crazy for “branding.” Maybe too crazy. We’ve seen huge investments in “getting the word out” and “making a big impression” by colleges and universities across the country. We’ve noticed multi-million-dollar advertising campaigns to promote a school that may or may not move the needle on desired objectives. But what we’re not hearing much about from colleges and universities is how they are choosing to position themselves among competitors.

Positioning is the primary job for marketers. Knowing your institution and your competition (not just your aspirant institutions, but especially those to whom you lose students and donors) well enough to carve a distinctive market “place” and “share” is the primary work of higher education marketing. The beautiful news is that your market position is the only thing over which you have much control. (You do not control your brand; your customers establish that by their encounters with you. You choose your position and coherently give sufficient evidence that the position you have selected is true.)

I understand that it’s difficult (if not impossible) to affect change to the product, price or place components of the marketing mix. And because that’s hard work, no one wants to discuss it. Or, apparently, imagine it. That’s too bad. Because changing those things might revolutionize higher ed in a way that would pave the road to a brighter future.

And I know that changing promotion is faster and easier. I heard of lot of “We need a new tagline.” “Our website needs to be refreshed.” “We need to do more with social media.” “We need an advertising budget.” “We need to use outdoor.” at the AMA Higher Ed Symposium last fall. Maybe so. But at a premier meeting of exceptional and professional marketers, you’d think you’d also hear things like “We need to offer programs students will buy.” “We need to know if families believe we offer a value.” “We need to think of how we can use our facilities between 7 and 10 am and during the summer months.” I didn’t hear any of that. And frankly, I find it disturbing. As marketers, AMA participants should not be confusing marketing with promotion. If we are having a marketing conference, let’s talk about marketing—not just promotion.

I was having breakfast with my friend John Lawlor during the conference and I went on a little rant about this. He handed me his excellent take on the topic. His insight posted last October about marketing misalignment in higher education was spot on. John is talking about Coherence in this great post. I love this: “Advertising and increased awareness can only pay off if students find what they were told about a college matches the actual experience they have there.”

Five questions to ask:

As you examine investments for the new year and start thinking about your 2017 budget, it might be good to think like Michael Schill for a bit. I do not know what questions he asked before redirecting marketing dollars at Oregon, but these may have been on his mind:

  1. How accurately are we positioned in the market? Do we own a specific place? What can or do we deliver that no other school does better than us?
  2. What’s the most important way we can ensure that what we deliver is consistent with our mission and values and vision?
  3. Does shouting our message do any good?
  4. How can we make better impressions by authentically delivering on our claims?
  5. Do we know if our customers consider us a great value? And do they trust us to deliver the best education possible?

These are great questions to ask. And, as the competitive pressure mounts for higher education, focusing on all the elements of marketing—not only promotion—will become paramount in your efforts.

This previously appeared on rhbinformed.com.

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Rick Bailey

Rick is the Principal and founding partner at RHB.