Beware Higher Ed's 'Mad Men'
In 1981, Grey Poupon took the nation by storm. Although the little-known Dijon mustard had been manufactured for more than a century, in the early ’80s it went from a minor six-figure business to a retail powerhouse.
Most people remember the famous TV ad in which one Rolls-Royce pulls up next to another. An aristocratic-looking passenger rolls down the back window to ask, “Pardon me. Would you have any Grey Poupon?”
In the cities where the ad ran, sales of Grey Poupon shot up 40 to 50 percent -- a remarkable leap in the largely static condiment sector. Today, the Grey Poupon success story is frequently invoked as a highly successful “rebranding,” and an example of a singular advertising triumph.
Within the retail world, plenty of products have had their sales driven up, and their images buffed, through focused ad campaigns and catchy slogans: Don’t Leave Home Without It (American Express), Just Do It (Nike), and Got Milk? (California Milk Processor Board).
These successes -- reinforced today by the hit cable TV show “Mad Men” -- have led to an onslaught of branding consultants currently setting their sights on American universities. Many of these firms, battered by the recession and seeing higher education as a wealthy untapped sector, are coming to a campus near you.
The primary problem with their pitch is that it undervalues the very essence of a large educational institution. Universities are, by definition, complex, decentralized, multidimensional places with many disparate audiences. To attempt to rebrand these institutions as if they are one-dimensional retail products is to misunderstand what makes them exceptional.
Some university leaders are eager to buy the promise of a quick fix. The branding consultants tap into a low-level frustration on nearly every campus -- “No one knows how great we are” -- and make flashy presentations that promise fast results.
These campaigns provide all of the trappings of success: highly varnished collateral materials and new websites, all stamped with a focus-group-tested tagline. Internal constituencies are put through a time-consuming discovery process, which helps achieve a sense of internal buy-in, even if the effectiveness of the “deliverables” is suspect. In the end, most of these efforts are like Chinese takeout: initially satisfying, but with no long-term nutritional value.
So, if empty branding campaigns aren’t the answer, what is? For most institutions, a sustained and thematic flow of credible messages to your key constituencies will produce real results. Three principles should drive this approach:
Build on strong facts: Bob Dylan said, “All I got is a red guitar, three chords and the truth.” Without denigrating Dylan’s guitar chops, it’s fair to say that he relied primarily on the truth. University marketing and communications programs should do the same.
Effective marketing (or public relations -- the terms mean different things to different practitioners) should be thought of as an accelerant. It’s the lighter fluid we pour on a fledgling fire to create a full-blown blaze. As a result, even the strongest communications program will fail if it is not built on strong facts -- on the truth.
Within your institution, find three to five strong institutional assets -- the ideas, initiatives, and people that differentiate you from the rest. These could be research programs, student successes, or an innovative approach to admissions. The point is, you should fan the flames where you have the potential to outshine others.
In the late 1990s, I was appointed director of communications at Harvard Law School. At the time, Harvard Law was viewed by many as an elite institution coasting on its laurels. There were those who believed that Harvard Law, arguably the largest law school in the country, was too big and impersonal. The faculty considered shrinking the size of the student body; ultimately that proposal failed, and we decided that the school should embrace its bigness. A “legal metropolis” and “the New York City of law schools” were messages we began promoting. These efforts, combined with a public-service renaissance and tremendous fund raising success, helped Harvard Law reassert its preeminence. (Some might argue that a trained chimpanzee could enhance Harvard’s reputation. The truth is that it can be even more difficult to shift and update the image of an institution that is so deeply marbled in the public’s consciousness.)
Don’t give up on the press: A popular joke in media circles today is: “What do pimps and the newspaper industry have in common? Both are being put out of business by Craigslist.”
While it’s true that the financial model of the commercial media is being severely tested, many traditional news organizations still maintain significant readership. (The problem is that online readers don’t translate into the same kind of revenue that print readers do.)
For example, The New York Times actually has more readers today than it did a decade ago, if you consider print and online readers together. In 1998, the Times had 1.06 million readers of its print edition. Today, in part due to a top-notch web presence, the Times has more than 1.5 million print and online readers.
Even The Boston Globe, viewed in recent years as a news organization in serious trouble, has maintained approximately 460,000 daily readers when combining print and online.
Most important is that these and other news organizations remain credible sources of information. New research by the Nielsen Company shows that people have become increasingly savvy consumers of information. In a recent credibility-of-sources survey, Americans placed many forms of direct communication -- advertising, printed materials, mailings -- well below media coverage in terms of what they believe. The concept of “third-party validation” is still compelling.
Put in simple terms, a good article about your university in a national newspaper is worth more than a dozen paid display ads in the same paper.
Persistence pays off: When it comes to reputation-building, patience is indeed a virtue. So is persistence. An old rule in political campaigns is that voters should see or hear something about a candidate at least seven times between Labor Day and Election Day -- the homestretch of any election. The truth, for better or worse, is that most audiences require a steady drumbeat of consistent information to shape their perceptions.
In addition to sustaining the flow of information, use the “show, don’t tell” rule. Instead of producing print materials and web pages that tell the world how strong your programs are, show why this is true.
At Northeastern University, where I currently oversee marketing and communications, we are a leader in experiential learning, anchored by our renowned co-op program. Showcasing real students in experiential learning programs around the world will move the needle far more than dispensing platitudes about our leadership position. We have used this principle in recent newspaper ads designed to build awareness about our expanding research enterprise.
This steady, brick-by-brick approach has been used by a broad range of American universities (Duke, Emory, and Washington University in St. Louis, to name just a few) that have moved dramatically up the academic food chain. These institutions and their leaders made many tangible, undisputed good moves. But they are also each known for complementing these good moves with strong, sustained communications efforts.
To be fair, there are plenty of thoughtful, idea-based communications firms out there doing good work across different sectors. I differentiate these firms from the bumper-sticker branding agencies that focus solely on the sizzle, not the steak.
Whether or not your institution relies on outside counsel to promote itself, remember that you’re not selling mustard, Big Macs or running shoes. Your university is a churning, diverse and complicated place. Tell this story in a smart and truthful way -- with unrelenting persistence -- and you will succeed.
Michael Armini is senior vice president for external affairs at Northeastern University.
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