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The M Word
"Marketing" has changed from a dirty word to a buzzword in higher education

By Jon Marcus
Boston

With every hit that echoed from the hallowed walls of Fenway Park, every roar from the hopeful sell-out crowds of fans who had been praying for this 2004 World Series, seasons of heartbreak inched closer to an end. Success hung in the brisk October air. Respect was finally at hand. With every pitch, a longtime Boston institution grew nearer to reversing years of despair.

And it wasn't just the Red Sox.

There, on Fenway's right-field grandstands, between the ads for soft drinks, beer and life insurance, hung a simple red and white billboard. It had been almost a whim, an outgrowth of some research that suggested baseball fans aspired to enroll their kids in college. At the beginning of the season, when the arrangements had been made, no rational New Englander would have believed this was the year it would be beamed to tens of millions as the nation watched the ultimate sports drama reach its climax.

Northeastern President Richard Freeland welcomes fans to NU Family Day at Fenway Park in Boston. This is part of Northeastern's marketing campaign.
(Photo by MJ Maloney, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
 
"Northeastern University," advertised the billboard.

"It was fortuitous timing," said Northeastern's Brian Kenny, with understatement uncharacteristic of a university vice president of marketing.

In addition to being a great stroke of luck, Northeastern's billboard inside Fenway Park was part of an aggressive and extraordinarily successful marketing campaign by a school whose very survival had been threatened, only years before, by a sharp drop in enrollment. It was also the vanguard of a new wave of marketing by universities and colleges-no longer just the ones that might be vulnerable to enrollment or financial problems, but also healthy institutions that had long looked down their noses at such things.

"I've seen 'marketing' change from a dirty word to a buzzword," said Michael Norris, director of communications and chair of the marketing committee at Centre College in Kentucky, whose fragile size—it had only 700 students when Norris started there—made it, like Northeastern, a marketing pioneer. "Colleges and universities large and small now have marketing teams, marketing plans, and growing budgets for paid advertising."

But while it may be far more widely practiced than before, marketing by universities and colleges also seems widely misunderstood, or at least underestimated. It has come to be about more than billboards or brochures, websites or updated logos. It entails nothing less than changes in the structure of universities themselves, their campuses, and their curricula, based on what best serves a target audience—prospective students and their parents, mainly, but also alumni. Or, as universities are slowly beginning to consider them, the customers.

"Colleges and universities have been marketing themselves since Harvard put up the statue of John Harvard in Harvard Yard," said Rodney Ferguson, senior partner in the Washington office of the higher education marketing consulting firm Lipman Hearne. "What's relatively new is that they've discovered that they are in a very competitive marketplace for attracting students, faculty and donors, and that those things are not going to happen if they're sitting on their hands. What you've seen is the development of a consumer marketplace."

"We're looking at alumni as a way of spreading word about the university," says Brian Kenny, who directs Northeastern's marketing campaign.
(Photo by MJ Maloney, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
 
This is a shift as revolutionary as it has been largely overlooked. Like consumer product manufacturers, schools including Northeastern and DePaul now conduct marketing analyses before adding new academic programs. In the name of marketing, they're beefing up premier departments, trimming weak ones, transforming their facilities, reducing class sizes, lining up high-profile speakers to attract attention, even changing their names. They are turning to a fast-growing industry of consultants to help determine how to price and deliver higher education—though they quickly add that they would rather avoid using the term "higher education," because it doesn't test well in focus groups. ("Colleges and universities" tests better.) Marketing administrators are being elevated into the policymaking echelons.

"The classic definition of marketing is product, price, placement and promotion—the four Ps," explained John Lippincott, president of the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, or CASE. "When people talk about marketing in higher education, they're often talking about that fourth P, promotion, when in fact if you are truly engaged in marketing, you have to look at the product. To apply marketing to higher education is to be willing to ask questions about the very product itself, and whether indeed it is responsive to the people the institution is dedicated to serving." Or, as outgoing Northeastern President Richard Freeland put it: "Before you tell your story, you have to have a good story to tell."

It seemed within the realm of possibility that Northeastern's story might come to an end in the early 1990s, after what was once the nation's largest private university suffered several consecutive years of enrollment declines. An urban commuter school that started out by offering evening classes at the YMCA in 1898, it had raised its tuition too high to continue to attract the children of blue-collar families once drawn by its trademark co-op program, which put them into long, paid internships in their chosen careers at local companies while they were still in school.

Northeastern's rivals were more respected, better-known, shinier private institutions such as Boston University, and nearby public universities that charged far less. So it set out to remake its image-not just by hanging billboards, but by recognizing how the school itself would need to change in order to compete.

"We always believed that the central story had to be that this is a first-rate university," Freeland said. "[But] if we're going to claim excellence in this arena, we'd better be excellent in it. Whatever story we told to the outside world had to be one that our community had to be able to repeat with a straight face and a pure heart."

The university settled on spotlighting the one thing that most differentiated Northeastern from its competitors: the co-op program. Nearly two-thirds of its students are offered jobs by the employers that take them on as co-op interns. They have a leg up in a competitive hiring market over counterparts from other schools. This would set Northeastern University apart. "The central theme has been what we call the value proposition for Northeastern, which is to say, Northeastern is a first-class institution that has the added value of co-op education," Freeland said.

This also meant that "co-op," as it has been nicknamed, would have to live up to the hype.

"I wouldn't say that the plan at the center of our marketing drove us to make sure we were doing this as well as we can," said Freeland. "It was more the other way around." The bottom line, he said, is that "you can become a used-car salesman if you want, or you can become an effective communicator about what's terrific about a place. You have to know what your message is going to be, and how you can express that in a few short statements. And those short statements can't just be a product of your PR department."

Northeastern put its money where its mouth was. Conscious that prospective students are also influenced by universities' facilities—a study this year by the Association of Higher Education Facilities Officers confirmed that students make their decisions about which college to attend based largely on the quality of facilities—it has spent $477 million since 1992 upgrading its once-drab inner-city campus, replacing parking lots with grassy quadrangles and building new classrooms, a sparkling fitness center, and seven striking new dorms. Panoramic views showing lots of green surrounded by innovative new buildings began to pop up on the website.

"The physical changes in the campus have played a huge role in the repositioning of Northeastern," Freeland said. "As we became aware of that, we incorporated it more and more into our marketing: You get a first-class campus environment, and on top of that you get co-op education."

What Northeastern got in return was a rebound in undergraduate enrollment to 14,492, up from 10,747 a decade before. Applications more than doubled, squeezing the acceptance rate from 85 percent to 47 percent, which makes Northeastern more selective in admissions than Boston University. The average SAT score rose from 1008 to 1224. And the onetime commuter school saw the proportion of its students who came from outside Massachusetts jump from less than half to more than two-thirds.

This kind of success has gotten the attention of other universities. While they might not have the enrollment problems that spurred Northeastern into action, they do foresee a dropoff in the number of high school graduates beginning in 2009. They also fear the inroads being made by for-profit companies like the University of Phoenix, by universities abroad, and, for that matter, by schools that are ahead of them in marketing. Public universities, meanwhile, face continuing declines in support from legislators and taxpayers; state spending per student on higher education has fallen 13 percent since 1991.

It is also a factor that today's prospective students, who have been marketed to since birth, are trained to respond to the language of marketing. Their parents are more likely to have gone to college, too, and to understand the system-that they have a choice and can shop for the best deal-at a time when tuition has increased by 54 percent over the last ten years at four-year universities. All of which is pushing universities into marketing themselves even at a time when there still is a sufficient supply of students for everybody.

"One of the ironies is that we are actually in an era of high demand, even as we're seeing institutions spending more money on marketing," Lippincott said. "But those institutions that really are taking marketing seriously are, in fact, doing the research. They're seeing the numbers and realizing that if they're going to continue to build the quality of their incoming classes, they have to start now."

"We are in a climate of government cutbacks that is causing institutions, public institutions in particular, to think more about their marketplace, their overall positioning in the world," said Larry Lauer, vice chancellor for marketing and communications at Texas Christian University, in Fort Worth, Texas.

That doesn't mean it's always easy to market the idea of marketing—what some higher education marketing officials jokingly call "the M word"—on university campuses themselves. "There's always going to be nervousness in a college or a university or any other nonprofit organization about adopting practices that appear to be more associated with the for-profit sector," Lippincott said. Freeland said there is "a huge resistance to the whole idea of marketing, to the language of marketing. There's a notion that it's somehow undignified for an institution of higher education, that something like marketing, which the Ivy League institutions historically have never thought about, is inappropriate or even degrading, that it involves some kind of a loss of institutional dignity."

Many schools avoid the terms marketing and advertising, preferring to call what they do to promote themselves "institutional advancement" or "image enhancement." When Norris arrived at Centre College 27 years ago, he said, "You didn't really use the word marketing. You might talk about enhancing the school's reputation, or ways to get the word out or increase name recognition. But not marketing."

In a meeting of faculty one day, Norris spoke of some impressions, apparently erroneous, that students had of his school. "I said, 'Well, we need to address those because, as we say in marketing, perception is reality.'"

"I always thought reality was reality," huffed a physics professor sitting next to him.

"I responded," Norris recalled, "that the customer's perception is the reality on which he or she will act."

There remains resistance, said Ferguson, the consultant. "But that resistance has fallen off precipitously in the last three or four years, because the places that have not paid attention to how they are perceived in the mind of the market have seen falling enrollments, falling donations, and falling attention among their various audiences. When those things happen, the resistance falls away pretty quickly."

 
Declines in federal and state support for higher education have led to more aggressive marketing campaigns, says Larry Lauer of Texas Christian University.
(Photo by Kris Hundt, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
 
Tom Hayes compares the discovery of marketing by colleges and universities to what happened in the healthcare industry. "Every single thing in healthcare marketing is happening in higher education," said Hayes, a professor of marketing at Xavier University in Ohio, editor of the Journal of Marketing for Higher Education, and founder of the American Marketing Association's Symposium on the Marketing of Higher Education. "For universities, this involves the concept of segmentation, of not trying to be all things to all people, just as hospitals had to do when they found they had too many beds for the demographics to support. They had to decide if their business was really to provide healthcare to everyone in need. Doctors thought this was a philistine concept, and it's the same with faculty."

But it is well under way. Many schools now require market assessments before approving new programs. "In a world of limited resources you shouldn't be adding a major or a program until you've done a market analysis. What's your break-even, what's your competition?" Hayes said.

DePaul, for example, has an elaborate process worked out between its marketing group and academic affairs office to include a marketing analysis, a marketing plan and an enrollment plan jointly with the curricular plan for any new program. The process is drawn without apology from consumer products marketing. "We could find ample evidence of great ideas and great new products brought to market that failed, much of which was tied to inadequate assessment of the market opportunity," said David Kalsbeek, vice president for enrollment management.

New programs at DePaul are generally turned down if they are not expected to make a return on the investment, if the market doesn't exist, or if the university cannot compete on price with rival schools. "At an institution that is over 90 percent tuition-dependent for its financial resources, it makes sense for the marketing strategy to be mostly focused on student enrollment issues," Kalsbeek said.

There are occasions when DePaul approves a program that isn't necessarily going to attract a new market. One example is Islamic Studies, which the university decided served an important purpose. More telling was the addition of a master's degree in social work after market analysis showed it was the field most in demand in Illinois that DePaul didn't offer. "Everything gravitated toward the support of a master's in social work, and our market analysis gave that dean confidence to invest in new faculty and to differentiate our program from similar programs in the market," Kalsbeek said. He calls this "a bipartisan partnership" between marketing and academics.

Marketing by universities "is more a way of thinking than it is merely an adding of promotional tools to gain attention," said Texas Christian's Lauer. "It's the thinking and the research that goes into positioning an institution in the marketplace. Whatever you imagine to be your product, how you distribute it, how you price it, and how you deliver it should be thought about simultaneously."

 
"There's always going to be nervousness" about applying marketing techniques to higher education, says John Lippincott, president of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.
(Photo by Dennis Brack, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
 
Next comes the part of marketing the public sees: the billboards, the viewbooks, the websites, the occasional commercial. Four-year private colleges and universities now spend $2,073 to recruit a single student, according to the consulting firm Noel-Levitz. "Marketing on American campuses has gone from being an auxiliary function—nearly a suspect activity—to one that receives the full endorsement of campus leadership," said the firm's managing partner, Robert Moore. "The M word is no longer a linguistic third rail."

The University of Maryland is entering its 150th anniversary year with a campaign called "Fear the Turtle," featuring, among other things, 30 fierce-looking temporary Terrapin statues on the campus and 20 more around the state. It's only one way Maryland is trying to get attention. According to the minutes of a meeting of the university's marketing team, the head of marketing "would like to make sure that the campus gets some high-profile people on campus in the coming year."

Case Western Reserve University, whose research showed the name was a mouthful and its shorthand acronym easy to forget, became, simply, "Case."

Tiny Centre College in Kentucky launched "the Centre Guarantee," promising every student the chance to study abroad, complete an internship, and graduate in four years, or else get an additional year tuition-free. ("We've heard from parents particularly that it's an attention-getter when you use the word guarantee," said Norris.)

Babson College hired Digital Influence, a marketing agency, to design a website on which prospective students can post profiles of themselves and correspond with others who have similar interests or who live nearby; the goal is to create a sense of community that makes students feel connected to the school. "A lot of colleges and universities have realized that they need to communicate with their prospective students with an authentic voice and not the voice of adults trying to sound like teenagers," said Ferguson, of the consulting firm Lipman Hearne. "So a lot more colleges are using their students to communicate with younger students—not just to visit with them on campus day, but to run blogs and to be more involved in sending out real-time communication on the web."

Northeastern buys radio time in the mid-Atlantic states, in the southwest and on the west coast—places from which it doesn't get a lot of students. To generate buzz among alumni, it has moved from reunions to networking events, having learned that the career-oriented alumni of its co-op culture prefer this to reunions. "We're looking at alumni as a way of spreading the word about the university," said Northearstern's Brian Kenny. This is known as "buzz," or, more formally, "viral marketing." Northeastern now even monitors blogs and other websites to see what people are saying about it.

Northeastern has done something else, too, about which there is less consensus: It has unashamedly announced its intention to move higher in the annual U.S. News & World Report college issue, the importance of whose rankings most universities prefer not to acknowledge—unless they do well, in which case they order thousands of reprints and send them to every address on their mailing lists.

Under President Freeland, Northeastern rose in the U.S. News rankings from 162nd to 115th, and placed first in the nation among universities that connect classroom study with workplace experience. The university still hopes to crack the top 100 by doing such things as adding faculty to lower its class size, a measure the magazine uses in its calculations.

 
Higher education consultant Rodney Ferguson believes "colleges and universities have been marketing themselves since Harvard put up the statue of John Harvard in Harvard Yard."
(Photo by Dennis Brack, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
 
"Although the rankings get a lot of bad press in higher ed, by and large I think they push institutions in the direction of quality and thereby in the direction Northeastern would want to move," Freeland said. "The front-end goal was that Northeastern needed to reposition itself from being a local commuter institution to being a national institution, and these are things that would have to improve even if U.S. News were not there. It shines a light on things that really needed to improve. For an upwardly mobile institution needing to overcome some reputational drag built up over the years, it's a huge asset."

The same phenomenon, of course, can also work in the opposite direction. Cornell fell from sixth to 14th in U.S. News, angering students and alumni and forcing the university to launch a marketing campaign that began with a campus-wide debate about revamping the logo. "A lot of people were asking a lot of questions, and there was a very strong consensus that the time had come to give priority to communications," said Thomas Bruce, a former Washington public policy consultant who was hired to direct the effort.

The campaign to restore Cornell's standing even included the deliberation of a fictional character in the Doonesbury comic strip, who was deciding between Cornell, Harvard and other schools. In the end, she chose MIT, whose students rigged the voting, but Cornell won Doonesbury's congeniality award. "People have to have a sense of humor," Bruce said. Besides, he added, applications are up 20 percent, along with SAT scores, and Cornell is rising again in the rankings.

Then again, those rankings might be overrated: A survey by the Lipman Hearne consulting firm found that prospective students do not pay as much attention to them as universities seem to think. Of the 14 most important variables in their decision, the survey found, students put the rankings 12th. "Institutions should take a more sophisticated view of their position in the marketplace than simply rankings," said Ferguson. "The most important thing for high-achieving kids—the prime marketing target—is knowing that the college or university has a high-quality program in their area of interest. Colleges and universities would do well to be looking at those things that they do best and making sure that the potential students are made aware of that."

It was with precisely this in mind that the University of Texas' flagship campus at Austin unleashed an advertising blitz simply called "We're Texas," narrated by alumnus Walter Cronkite and created by GSD&M, an Austin-based ad firm founded by five UT alumni whose other clients include Wal-Mart, Southwest Airlines and CBS Sports. "We don't claim to be able to change the world," Cronkite's iconic voice intones. "We just change people. And then they change the world. We're Texas." The stylish ads—which point out that, while the university is proud to have a longhorn as a mascot, for example, it also has a Gutenberg Bible—coincided with a capital campaign that raised $1.63 billion. "It broke through like you would not believe," said Roy Spence, the ad agency's CEO.

"Twenty years ago, the thought that an institution like the University of Texas might need or even want to do some of the things that it's been doing would have been greeted by great skepticism," said Terry Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at ACE, the American Council on Education. "We see it as a reflection that we are not reaching the public about critical issues in the way that we want to."

So now ACE is getting into the act, with national advertising campaigns on behalf of its 1,800 member colleges, universities and higher education organizations. One $4.5 million campaign, called "Solutions for Our Future," was launched during the NCAA basketball championships. It featured humorous commercials meant to show what the world might be like without university graduates, concluding with the slogan, "America's colleges and universities: We teach the people who solve the problems and change the world."

"We in higher education have to come down off our collective hilltops and work with the public, work with business and community leaders, and proactively demonstrate our value to the larger society, using methods and language that are easily understood," said Syracuse University Chancellor Nancy Cantor, chair of the ACE board of directors.

Among taxpayers, support for universities is "a mile wide and an inch deep, because so many people think it's for the betterment of the individual and not for the betterment of society," said Spence. "Once you flip the paradigm that colleges and universities are there to benefit society—that they're a solution machine for America—the dam breaks." Universities and the public "need to believe in each other again," he added.

Back at Northeastern, President Freeland still shakes his head about that World Series-year billboard inside Fenway Park. (The university has renewed the lease annually.) "It seemed counterintuitive to me that the watchers of Red Sox games were similar to kinds of families who apply to Northeastern," he said. "But I can't tell you how many comments I got from alumni or parents or faculty or staff telling me it really felt good to see Northeastern out there. It conveyed a sense of an institution on the move, that if Northeastern is doing this, there must be some interesting things going on there."


Jon Marcus is a Boston-based freelance writer.

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