The University's 'Mad Men'

“A brand that captures your mind gains behavior. A brand that captures your heart gains commitment.' -- Scott Talgo, Brand Strategist



October 17, 2008

“A brand that captures your mind gains behavior. A brand that captures your heart gains commitment.' -- Scott Talgo, Brand Strategist


For most academics, the idea of selling the university is suspect. Those who are involved in university marketing are thought of like the characters on the cable television series “Mad Men” -- slightly shady characters who promise the world to their clients, then deliver slogans and images for mass consumption. Money spent on college marketing is derided by many professors as waste -- lost resources for faculty salaries, travel budgets, or at least some new chalk for classrooms.

However, university marketing offices are the key to many important university functions, and getting to know that office and its leadership can give you a new perspective on how universities operate. It can also give you, as a faculty member or administrator, some new ideas on how to effectively get your own message out.

While faculty and university administrators are not going to become professional marketers, the need for greater marketing of colleges, departments and even individual faculty is growing in importance. For faculty and administrators, the skills of marketing are becoming vital. While university programs and initiatives should not be driven by marketing, faculty and administrators would do well to work at tightening up their message, using more emotion in their appeals, and trying to be more relentless about getting the word out. Colleges and universities do not lack for good programs, but often lack the next step -- getting the word out about their areas of excellence.

My own adventures in marketing began because I was trying to reach parents and students in our area. Working on a federally funded project that involves outreach to local schools, I knew first-hand that it is difficult to get a message out and be heard in the crowded, noisy media market place. So when I was asked to help our marketing office with a new program to connect with parents through radio, I jumped at the opportunity. That partnership between Eastern Michigan University and WWJ radio created Education Minute, a daily one-minute program of tips for parents on how to help their child succeed in school.

Working with our associate vice president for marketing on this project and possible expansions of it has taught me some lessons about how to get a message across in the media.

First, unlike academic prose, the message needs to be succinct and clear. Every sentence and paragraph I initially wrote for Education Minute was deemed too long, too complex, too many ideas. As an academic, there is almost nothing that comes out of my mouth that does not contain commas, colons and semi-colons. Messages to market a university or program are much more straightforward -- subject, verb, object, punctuation, and I have had to learn to tighten and punch up my prose.

Second, marketing work draws on emotion far more than academic work. People who work in marketing and branding traffic in feelings, not abstract ideas. When taping a segment for a video on parenting, I needed to state why Eastern Michigan was involved in parenting programs. I wanted to give some statistics about graduation rates, but the producer wanted more emotion -- what does it feel like to be a parent today? What are the fears? What are the hopes? The message needed less intellect, more gut to play on television.

I also learned that you need to be persistent in marketing your work. The media market place is a chaotic, loud place, and most professors are not used to attracting attention to themselves. But that is exactly what is expected in marketing -- you and your product need to be out front, making noise. Marketing rewards those who make the phone call, send the e-mail, pitch the deal, shake a lot of hands and press their case to decision makers.

Marketing also provides faculty with a different view of the university. Marketing is a business, and is not ashamed to say so. It is driven by numbers -- enrollment, market share, and competition. Unlike faculty members, the people who sell the university to students live and die by the numbers. If a professor loses 10 percent of his or her class, it means less grading; if a marketer faces a loss of 10 percent of customers, it is a job-threatening crisis.

So while it is true that university marketing departments routinely do pitch meetings, write slogans, and craft emotionally manipulative messages, there is a method to their madness. Most of what marketers do at universities is try to come up with clear, understandable selling points for the university and then take those to the public.

As universities are routinely under fire for not serving their students and the public adequately, faculty and administrators will need to pick up some lessons in how to get the word out about the good they are doing, if only out of self-defense.


Russell Olwell is an associate professor of history and director of the Gear Up program at Eastern Michigan University.


Back to Top