A New Brand

Several colleges have hired former corporate marketing executives to help their institutions stand out in a competitive market.
October 4, 2011

As a former marketing officer with high-profile brands such as Microsoft and Quaker Oats who also had a stint as the vice president for marketing and communications at the Seattle Children’s Hospital, David R. Perry could probably land a marketing executive job at a Fortune 500 company.

But this fall Perry began his new job as chief marketing officer at Bentley University, a private, business-oriented university in Massachusetts with about 5,500 students.

Perry is one of several former corporate marketing executives who have left the private sector in recent years to take up what are often newly created senior marketing positions at colleges and universities. He and others in higher education attribute their presence -- and the growing emphasis on marketing it reflects -- to increased competition for students and financial resources among colleges and universities and an increasing need for institutions to distinguish themselves from one another.

Marketing -- the development of an identity for a product or service, the identification of the market for that product or service, and the strategy to connect the two -- is an activity that has been lacking in higher education as compared to the corporate world, these new marketers say. A focus on branding hasn't always gone over well on campuses, particularly among students and faculty members who see it as a waste of money that could be spent on academics or student services. In recent years, several colleges and universities, such as American University and Purdue University, have spent significant amounts of money on branding campaigns that drew mixed reviews on their campuses.

But individuals who come from the corporate world, including university trustees and many of these new marketers, think that not enough marketing is taking place. The colleges that have brought in outsiders with experience developing brands and strategy hope that these new hires will help set them apart.

"You have to be crisp and clear about what you are and what you're not," Perry said. "With all the choices students and families have today, with the education market as competitive as it is, as an institution you have to define strengths and weaknesses and focus on where you put your resources."

Marketing as a strategic initiative is a relatively new division for most universities, said Elizabeth Scarborough, a CEO and partner with SimpsonScarborough, a market research consultant that works with higher education institutions. At most institutions, marketing officers have been a support branch of university administration who help design publications or a component of the university communications staff, who tend to consist of individuals who came up through the ranks of journalism.

"There has not been a clear guide to how you get to be a director of communications or marketing at a university, " says Raymond Betzner, assistant vice president of university communications at Temple University and president of the board for the Association for Communicators in Education. "In the past, there has been no clear route to this job."

So when some institutions started to focus more on developing themselves as brands and identifying potential markets, their own in-house talent often did not have the background to measure up to the challenge. "They have to come from outside because there’s nobody from inside higher ed who ever did it,” Scarborough said.

The marketers also attribute their presence to a desire among university administrators to maximize the bang for their buck. "A lot of it probably has to do with budget issues," said Barbara Scott, the new vice president for marketing and communications at the Alumni Association of the University of Michigan, a former marketing officer with several retail and fashion companies. "Your communications have to pay off more now."

The main charge for most of these marketing officers is to figure out exactly what their institutions offer and should be offering, to whom they should be offering it, and how to get the institution's message to those potential students, families, and faculty members, as well as the surrounding community. “My objective was to come in and make sure that we have a viable, sustainable long-term strategy that will differentiate us in the market,” said Lawrence Flanagan, former chief marketing officer at MasterCard who began at the University of New Haven as executive dean at the business school this summer.

Flanagan said he spent the first few months on the job getting a sense for the major trends in higher education, what's working and not working at New Haven, and potential new opportunities. "The goal is to get to what is unique about New Haven and exploring the value proposition," he said.

For the business school at New Haven, Flanagan said, that value proposition revolves around the experiential education that the university offers. The business school tends to appeal to a lot of first-generation students interested in landing a job after graduation, he said. Getting out the message that the business school offers hands-on training for the real world is only going to strengthen its appeal.

The rest of his job entails executing that vision through traditional and new media, new outreach programs, and discussions with faculty and other administrators. Long-term, his efforts could help define where the university invests, what types of students it caters to, and the general message the university puts out.

In addition to a history of thinking about big-picture marketing strategy, these marketers said their background in the corporate world gives them a fresh perspective from which to see an institution. Flanagan said he's very quantitative in his approach to measuring performance, which he said was not always common among marketers who come up through the university ranks. "I’ve always believed that the truth is in the numbers," he said.

Scott said she also brings a sense of accountability that might not have been present before. "In the corporate world there’s more of a sense of urgency," she said, noting that she works at a fast pace and expects results from those around her.

From their end, the new marketers said university work provides an opportunity to “give back” to the community after years in the corporate world. "A few years ago I decided that I wanted to do something more meaningful to me personally," Scott said. "I have a real passion for higher education. I was a first-generation college student and it kind of changed my life."

They also said they're attracted to the field because it presents a new challenge. Colleges and universities serve diverse constituencies, and marketers have to keep all of these in mind when determining a strategy, Perry said. "When I came to higher education I knew it would be dynamic," he said "There are issues like rising costs and increased competition. We have a lot of competition for the best students, and, as a marketer, it's really the dream conditions for a dynamic market."

But just because they were successful in the corporate world doesn't necessarily guarantee that marketers will be successful in higher education. All said it has taken them months to begin to understand the intricacies of campus life, dealing with faculty members and university administrators, and working in an environment with more regulations, both internal and external. "They don’t know how higher ed works," Scarborough said. "They're going to put their foot in the mud every once in a while."

They might also run up against opposition from faculty, who argue that money spent on marketing should be invested in initiatives to actually differentiate the institution, rather than just differentiating through advertising or other campaigns. The language the marketers use -- describing an education as a service and students as customers and market share -- also has the potential to rub some in higher education the wrong way.

But over all, Scarborough said, having marketers begin to work on campus, and having individuals who come out of industry take those roles, will be good for higher education. "They bring new ways of thinking about higher education that can shake higher ed out of its traditions," she said. "They’ve got completely new ideas and strategies. The tactics they’re using are refreshing."

Flanagan said marketing officers are performing essential functions that universities have been doing for years, just under a unified office and in a more deliberate fashion. "What it boils down to is whether you’re attracting the right type of students and whether you’re retaining them," he said. "And once they leave, are you sure that you’ve taught them, and will they remain engaged with you after they graduate? Are you providing social value and economic value?"


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