Applying Microeconomic Theory to Marketing Practice

If you think the cost of developing a shared brand across your campus is pricey, consider the opportunity cost of not doing so.

September 1, 2015

Have you ever employed the concept of “opportunity cost” to make a compelling marketing argument? As a refresher from your undergrad microeconomics days, opportunity cost is the loss of potential gain from other alternatives when one alternative is chosen.

An example of an opportunity cost is the aggregated extra expense a prospective student will incur when she enrolls at a competitor institution instead of at yours. Those expenses could be measured in dollars — like higher tuition, steeper travel expenses, hidden fees, or even lost wages because it may take longer to graduate from your competitor.

But opportunity cost can be measured in non-dollars as well. Consider the psychological costs of being too far away from home (or too close to home), or perhaps the social costs of being geographically isolated versus surrounded by metropolitan amenities. To butcher a familiar refrain, “Non-dollar costs are in the eye of the beholder.” The concept of opportunity cost can also be invoked in conversation with your college or university colleagues as you attempt to persuade your campus community to get more serious about clarifying and centralizing institutional marketing around a single, powerfully compelling brand idea.

Your job is to attach hard dollars to the opportunity cost of allowing your advancement/development, admissions/recruitment, alumni, academic, and even auxiliary service units like printing, the bookstore, dining/food service, housing, facilities, etc., to sustain their own brands apart from, or just loosely connected to, the larger institutional brand.

If using the word “brand” confuses the issue, replace it with “identity.” Spend a few minutes right now compiling a list of the entities across your campus that use their own logos or wordmarks, taglines or campaign themes, color palettes or business stationery systems, signage or print standards, or even websites and advertising campaigns. Consider how frequently those rogue brands are expressed during the course of a year. Then spend a few more minutes considering all of the fees and expenses each of those executions incurred in the form up original design, re-design, design refresh, start-up, set-up or any other creative or production effort.

By way of example, it’s not at all uncommon for a creative agency to charge anywhere from $10,000 to $200,000 to develop or freshen up a brand or identity for a new campaign, a new season, a new building, a new program or a new advertising initiative. If you think keeping that work in-house is less expensive, add up the staff hours it will take to do the work. But don’t forget meetings, phone calls, and the opportunity cost (there it is again!) of other internal work that was delayed in the name of getting the creative done on time.

If you take the time to inventory your school’s rascal sub-brands, then add and multiply their respective annual start-up marketing investments, it won’t take long for you to establish a rough idea of the yearly opportunity cost of enabling a decentralized institutional identity.

The answer to this near-perpetual dilemma isn’t black-and-white. It is, however, a strategically calculated shade of operational gray that begins with the embrace of a single shared institutional brand — the emotionally charged core of your school’s very being — and a senior leadership team’s decision to demand brand alignment across the campus community that maximizes the efficient investment of precious marketing resources.

There’s never been a better time or excuse to start; prevailing economic winds might be a campus marketer’s best friend right now.

Eric Sickler, vice president at The Thorburn Group, has been helping the nation’s college and universities clarify and more fully engage their brands for more than three decades.


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