The Sum or Its Parts?

A new marketing drive at Ithaca College emphasizes the overall student experience rather than individual programs. Marketing experts say this is a smart move, but some faculty members fear it's too generic.

October 16, 2015

Is it better for an institution to market its individual programs or the overall student experience? The question has long been debated by colleges and universities, and Ithaca College is adopting a strategy that shifts the focus from programs to the college as a whole.

The upstate New York college, with some 6,100 undergraduates, is perhaps best known for some of its individual programs, such as its music and communication schools. Ithaca’s students have historically identified more with the professional school they’re enrolled in than the overall Ithaca College brand, several longtime faculty members say.

Yet the college is trying to create a more unified identity, and a new marketing strategy is aimed at promoting the “comprehensive” student experience -- highlighting elements like residential life and slow-growing tuition -- says Chris Biehn, vice president for institutional advancement and communications. Some faculty are concerned the approach is a generic one that fails to address the unique substance of the college’s academic programs, however.

Biehn is hoping a cohesive strategy can boost enrollment in an increasingly competitive market for private colleges. In recent years enrollment has been flat or has declined, despite an increasing number of applications. Ithaca enrolled 6,100 undergraduates in 2013, down from 6,280 two years earlier. Biehn says the college's discount rate has also increased during that time but would not disclose the specific rate.

Biehn and others at Ithaca want to raise the college’s national profile. They’re hoping a marketing strategy that considers the whole, rather than its parts, will “strengthen the reach” and perception of Ithaca’s brand and differentiate the college from its peers.

“Simply focusing only on raising awareness of each individual program … will never raise the comprehensive understanding of what the Ithaca College experience is,” he said. “We’re not marketing each area. We’re talking about an Ithaca College educational experience, and if you’re interested in playing the oboe, you’re going to learn more about that.”

The new strategy is also an attempt to organize Ithaca’s marketing efforts. The marketing office has traditionally been a client-focused one, fulfilling requests by individual programs instead of creating a cohesive universitywide campaign. The decentralized approach meant that Ithaca was being represented in different ways by different programs in an uncoordinated fashion -- there was no single brand strategy.

“We’re no longer going to create things on more of an ad hoc basis as people across the campus feel we need to do a brochure or a poster. We’re going to focus … on building our brand,” Biehn said.

So what is the Ithaca education experience the college wants to promote? Biehn says it's one that goes beyond Ithaca's successful programs and looks at elements like immersive learning, residential life, classroom learning, civic engagement, study abroad programs and Ithaca's wide range of liberal arts and professional programs.

Ithaca's current marketing campaign, called the Ready campaign, is one that uses stories to emphasize how the college prepares students for careers. As the college begins emphasizing the overall educational experience of students, Biehn and his staff are looking to define Ithaca's “next level of brand focus that really helps differentiate and create a sense of distinctiveness” for the college. That's a message that's still in development, he says: “We don't have that yet.”

“What they’re trying to do is build the visibility of the whole as opposed to its individual pieces, because there’s something that makes Ithaca Ithaca,” said Elizabeth Johnson, a partner at the higher education marketing firm SimpsonScarborough, which is working with Ithaca. More and more colleges are centralizing their marketing efforts, she said, because a decentralized approach “weakens the institutional brand and marketing strategy in so many ways that are so bad.”

She likened marketing an entire college, as opposed to its programs, to having customers come through the front door of a major retailer, like Target. If they were able to come in through a side door and shop at a single department, they would miss a lot of what Target is selling.

“You want people to come through the front door. You want them to experience the whole organization,” she said.

Robert Sevier, senior vice president for strategy at Stamats, a higher education marketing firm that isn't working with Ithaca, said that “colleges shift all the time back and forth between ‘Do we need to push this program?’ [and] ‘Do we need to push the university?’” He says when a college is trying to raise its national profile, it’s almost always beneficial to initially focus on a the “superbrand” before individual programs.

“The superbrand has to be strong enough and durable enough and in place enough to allow for what you call programmatic brand,” he said. Yet a regional college with limited resources might chose to focus its marketing efforts on an individual program -- mostly because of financial scarcity.

Some faculty members are concerned Ithaca’s new strategy doesn’t play to its strengths, which they see as the college’s highly rated programs. Its music and communication schools, including radio, theater and film programs, are regularly ranked among the nation’s most prestigious, more than is the case for the college as a whole.

“The faculty is very clearly divided about whether we should be marketing the programs or the college as a whole,” said Peter Rothbart, a music professor and chair of the Faculty Council. “The individual schools are feeling slighted …. We are questioning whether we are marketing to our inherent strengths.”

David Turkon, chair of anthropology, recalls being told, before a reception for prospective students, to focus on “selling the overall college experience,” as opposed to individual programs.

“I found that a little bit disheartening because I think there’s real strength in the programs we offer,” he said. “We’re not just academics, but professionals in our field … I find that a strength of our program and something I want to sell. It shouldn’t fall into the background.”

Biehn says individual programs and their faculties will be given templates in order to create their own marketing materials. Some faculty members have expressed concerns that they’re not trained as marketers and say they don’t want the extra workload. Biehn also said Ithaca will continue to market its well-regarded programs, but that such efforts will be secondary to the marketing of the overall university.

“The differentiation over all needs to come at the college level. It’s the anecdotes, though, at the programmatic level, which will give people a concrete understanding of what the overall brand means,” he said.

Jason Hamilton, chair of environmental studies and science, said he supports the change. He noted how high schoolers, when they’re choosing a college, are often undecided about their major, so a broader approach will likely appeal to those students more.

“It’s pretty clear that many of our students associate more strongly with either their school or their department then they do with the institution as a whole,” he said. “How do we build a sense of community based around the whole college, rather than these little clusters of communities that are focused on individual schools?”


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