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In higher ed institutions, the role of marketing can be fuzzy.

We typically say that marketing is responsible for elevating the position and prominence of the institution. But what does that really mean? It’s pretty simple to define the responsibilities of some groups: Enrollment Management is responsible for recruiting the incoming class; Development is responsible for raising money from donors. But how do you define the goal of higher ed marketing in a similar, more tangible way?

I believe that the role of marketing is to represent the voice of the customer in strategic decisions affecting all aspects of the brand experience. Experience tells me, though, that’s not typically how higher ed marketing is viewed.

In an earlier post on this blog, Paul Redfern discussed the 4 P’s of marketing popularized by Philip Kotler and drilled into the heads of MBA students everywhere:

  1. Product - What product or products should we offer?
  2. Price - How should our products be priced?
  3. Place - Where should we offer our products for sale?
  4. Promotion - What’s the compelling story we tell about our product and where do we tell the story to get people to buy our product?

In higher ed, marketing’s role is typically limited to the 4th P – determining when, where, and how we tell our institution’s compelling story so that we attract the best students and achieve our fundraising goals.

While this role is critical, the “4 P’s” model recognizes that the role of marketing is just to define and communicate the brand promise, which is really important, of course. But it’s essential to ensure that the actual brand experience matches that brand promise.

This view recognizes that the goal of marketing is to:

  • understand the attitudes and behaviors of our key audiences,
  • determine and communicate a compelling brand promise, and
  • ensure that the actual experience of the brand delivers on that promise.

I’d argue that making sure the brand experience is consistent with the brand promise is really important today. Inconsistency stands out and social media makes it really easy to mock a brand that doesn’t deliver on its promises.

What are the questions that marketing can help our higher ed institutions answer around the other “P’s”? Here’s a starter list:

Product: How can we expand our program offerings to attract new students? What specific target audiences will these new program offerings attract? How many students are they likely to enroll?

Price: What should be our tuition pricing strategy for our undergraduate programs? For our graduate programs? Will we offer all programs at the same price or offer tiered pricing?

Place: Where and when should our programs be offered? Should we offer online courses? If so, which of our programs best translate to online?

These are complicated questions for any higher ed institution, and answering them requires much discussion, including many perspectives. Including marketing in the conversation — assuming that they’ve done research to understand institution’s “customers” — is essential to representing the viewpoints of an essential, but often neglected, constituency.

Deborah Maue is the Vice President of Strategic Marketing and Communications at Columbia College Chicago and is a leading voice in higher education marketing.