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The Absolute Necessity of Talent

July 8, 2014

 

Lionel Messi, World Cup 2014

Lionel Messi, World Cup 2014

I had a lot of fun watching the World Cup. I love the sport when played at a high level, and the event-wonderfully covered by ESPN–was an enjoyable interlude for me.

While the U.S. Men’s National Team’s performance in getting out of the Group of Death was exciting and inspiring, it was also sobering. Most of the time we were playing on our heels. We were near last in time of possession because we were outclassed technically on the pitch.

In the wake of the team’s elimination, two questions have been asked–what went wrong, and moving forward, what does U.S. Soccer need to do? These are not new questions, but this time I’ve been encouraged that the media is finally getting it.

It’s not about the coach. It’s not about tactics. It’s about the absolute necessity of talent in the game of soccer, and how we don’t have enough of it. The harsh reality is that we don’t have top-level talent at every position, and we don’t have a world-class striker who can draw the attention of and score on the world’s best defenders.

Moving forward, Head Coach Jürgen Klinsmann and U.S. Soccer face a daunting challenge. How do we compete with countries whose talented kids grow up with a soccer ball at their feet and become world-class by playing other talented kids on the playground and later in soccer academies? There are no easy answers, if there are any answers at all.

As I’ve thought about all of this, the position Klinsmann faces is not unlike the challenge I face as a marketing leader. Bigger name universities and smaller ones armed with million dollar digital budgets frequent our various markets. I can’t invent a big brand university, and I can’t outspend the big spenders. There are no easy answers, only one that requires my full attention.

Like soccer, successfully competing in today’s difficult market environment requires top talent. In fact, the way I see it, talent is my most important asset as a marketing leader.

In soccer, well-coached talent scores goals. In marketing, well-managed talent achieves goals.

With the World Cup in mind, here are five thoughts on talent as related to marketing higher education…

1. Talent comes before tactics. In soccer, your talent dictates what tactics you employ. In marketing, market dynamics dictate your tactics. And in a market full of changing dynamics–from Google’s algorithm to changing consumer behavior to better resourced competition–talent rises to the top of the assets I must secure to meet my institution’s marketing goals.

I need talent that is flexible, adaptable, and creative. I need team players who are comfortable with the ball at their feet, who can creatively operate in tight spaces and under stress. Otherwise, we’ll turn the ball over, miss opportunities, and end up playing on our heels in the market, being reactive instead of proactive. I need team members who are talented enough to find tactical ways to get out in front of the challenging market and compete confidently with tough opponents.

2. Commitment to the craft, then mission. Such technical ability comes from a devotion to the craft. While a sense of mission is integral to what we do in marketing higher education, it’s not primary. I don’t need well-intended average professionals. I need mission-oriented team members who see themselves first as marketing professionals who are going to push themselves professionally. Frankly, this means putting in the extra hours to develop your craft.

3. Secure talent at every position on the field. In this content marketing environment of multiple channels and platforms, we have to be good at content creation and curation on our website, and in social media, digital, print, PR, email, so on and so forth. Thus, I need to find and nurture top talent so that we produce outstanding work. At my institution, I’ve done so by assembling a talented team of employees, vendors for specific projects, and on-going relationships with small agencies who are a part of our team on our campus.

4. Nurture talent. Professional development is not all on the team member. It’s vital that I create a culture of talent and professional development in which iron sharpens iron, where we push each other to get better, and which encourages emerging stars to, well, emerge. For our team, this happens when we air out ideas and creative decisions, and generally shoot the breeze about marketing and communications, in weekly meetings, impromptu discussions, in email threads, and on social media; and by encouraging team members to take on challenging and cutting edge projects. Creating this culture takes a willingness by me to help prepare our team members for their next job, whether it’s here or elsewhere.

5. Keep the team focused on our goals and on performing well. Playing the beautiful game is useless if you lose. Just having talent isn’t enough. In marketing, we have to perform. We have to drive interest in our brand and do our part in growing our enrollment. Accountability keeps us focused on quality and the bottom line. Winning in soccer and achieving marketing goals require strong and creative leadership to keep the team excelling.

In the World Cup and in marketing higher education, talent is an absolute necessity. And it’s on me as a marketing leader to secure talent and create an environment for it to excel.

Marketing to the Empowered Consumer

May 7, 2014

In part 1 of this series, we began with the impact of new media in 2009 that led us to a seismic shift in the market and a realization that it’s not about new media. It’s about how technology is changing consumers, offering ever-increasing new technologies, platforms, and channels. In this post, we’ll talk about the theory behind it.

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In January, I was at the annual Carnegie Conference on Integrating Traditional and Digital Marketing Strategies, which had an outstanding stable of speakers. Augustine Fou, one of the presenters, made the following point about the current state of the market:

a live tweet from the Carnegie Conference, Augustine Fou session

a live tweet from a presentation by Augustine Fou at the Carnegie Conference

Back in 2009, as I was processing all the changes that were going on, I began using the phrase, Technology Empowered Consumers. While it’s certainly still true, I think Fou is spot-on. We now have technology and information empowered consumers. And their expectation is that their use of technology and information in the purchase cycle will deliver them what they seek NOW.

But what kind of information are we talking about and where do consumers get it? The answers to those questions are critical to marketing strategy, and can be found in the marketing theory that has been developed since 2009 by research firms such as Forrester and the Altimeter Group, and thought leaders like Brian Solis and Jeremiah Owyang.

In 2012, Owyang, then of the Altimeter Group, and Rebecca Lieb published an Altimeter Group report, Converged Media: How Brands Must Combine Paid, Owned, and Earned Media.

Convergence of media Altimeter

Courtesy of Altimeter Group

(For those who wish to go deeper, check out the Brandsphere by Brian Solis.)

In this diagram from the Converged Media report:

1. Paid media is traditional and digital advertising.

2. Owned media is all the content we produce on various platforms and in multiple media.

3. Shared media is organically produced and shared by our audiences and markets, separate from us, and as they interact with our content and other content in social media.

The Converged Media report summarizes:

Consumer behavior is undergoing a rapid change. The person who surfed the web, today moves quickly across an impressive array of screens, sites, channels, and devices, often simultaneously, or very near so. Logos pervade consumers’ lives, from the programs they watch to the billboards they pass, to the clothing they wear. The average person sees some 3,000 brand impressions every day.

The media and information they consume might originate in traditional media, social media, advertising, or with increasing frequency, a hybrid of all three. Consumers rarely pause to take note. Media are a veritable blur. The primary quest is for information, entertainment, or shopping.

For marketers, the goal is to find the “right “ media, be it paid, owned, or earned, along this highly dynamic customer journey.

Brands are challenged to intercept this elusive customer and cut through the media clutter, regardless of whatever channel or medium consumers are engaged with.

Converged media will happen and is happening. If marketers do not take action, the effectiveness of their marketing efforts will suffer.

What I take from this is that, as marketers, we’re basically in the content business. Our job is to create and deliver paid, owned and earned content that will cut through the media clutter and engage the consumer. Thus, developing and implementing a content strategy is vital–especially for marketing higher education.

In a graduate-adult college search market where, according to Google, 61% of website visitors take at least 30 days to convert, and 53% take at least 60 days, and in a traditional undergraduate market that is months and years long,

  • our owned content must attract and sustain interest while our prospects go through the “highly dynamic customer journey” we call the college search process.
  • And if our branding is authentic, our earned content will be supporting what our owned content says about us,
  • while our paid content will be reminding prospects about our brand and driving new prospects to our content.

These new market dynamics have been hard to ignore. #ContentMarketing and #InBoundMarketing are the new buzz words. Vendors abound. The Social Media hype of 2009 has now morphed into the Content Marketing/Inbound Marketing hype of 2014.

But if we’ve learned anything from 2009 it’s that we need to get beyond the hype and understand what’s really happening–that it’s about the empowered consumer.

The Converged Report goes on to say:

Welcome to the empowered buyer: a savvy and dynamic customer, armed with information, multiple options, and devices, and backed by an ever-expanding network of peers and references.

Remember, this report came out in 2012.

In 2013, Forrester Research announced that we had entered the Age of the Customer, and introduced the phrase, The Mobile Mind Shift:

In the world of the mobile mind shift, a customer expects any desired information or service to be available, on any appropriate device, in context, at their moment of need.

Or, as Augustine Fou put it, empowered consumers expect NOW.

Thus in 2014, marketing higher education is about being prepared for today’s empowered buyer by having authentic, helpful, and compelling content on multiple platforms and channels. In other words, we need to have content on our website, landing pages, social media, college search engines, paid media, etc. And given that most of us don’t have an unlimited budget, there are critical choices to be made.

All of this has been driving conversations and strategy for our Marketing and Communications team at Concordia University Irvine. One of our decisions was to go with responsive web design so that our website content is mobile-optimized for all platforms.

We’ve also been producing content for our website, social media, and for paid media. I’ve included a number of case studies on this blog regarding some of our projects, and will continue to do so in the coming weeks showing how we’ve moved beyond the hype of 2009 to address the empowered consumer of 2014.

Part 1 of this series: Marketing. It’s No Longer 2009.

 

 

Marketing. It’s No Longer 2009.

April 30, 2014

This is the first of a two-part series.
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This month marks my five-year anniversary on social media. In April 2009, I nervously tweeted for the first time and wrote my first blog post sharing my thoughts on marketing higher education. Finding colleagues on Twitter and interacting with them on my blog connected me to a wonderful community of new media early adopters in higher education and marketing.

It was an exciting time. We had a very real sense that the world and the market were changing, and we were trying to figure it out through conversations on blogs, Twitter and other social media. It was a sense borne out of upheaval. And it was kind of crazy.

Remember 2009?

By the time 2009 rolled around, our economy was going into the tank. The Great Recession had kicked in, the unemployment rate was skyrocketing, large corporations were in danger of collapsing, and new media were exploding on the scene.

social media imageNewspapers were failing because of the availability of free news content in digital form and on social sites.

Twitter was setting records for tweets per second as social media showed its support of citizens protesting their governments in other countries.

There was an excitement that new media were shifting power from large corporate brands to consumers.

And new alternatives for higher education, like the Khan Academy, were finding markets and getting attention. Thought leaders wondered–and still do–when the higher education bubble would burst just as it did with the newspaper industry.

Disruption became the “D” word.

And the buzz was impacting traditional thinking about marketing and branding. Some of this new thinking was just silly, like the claim that branding is dead because your customers on social media will now tell you what your brand is.

courtesy of Design House Agency

courtesy of Design House Agency

With the rise of social media, we had the rise of the social media rock star and consultant. Thousands assumed the identity. Literally, thousands. Pretty much everyone was an expert, which only ticked off the true experts.

As we watched what the major sexy brands did in social media, like Jack in the Box, Coca Cola, Skittles, and Taco Bell, we began agreeing with what their agencies and Facebook told us—that our Facebook presence was more important than our website.

“Join the conversation on Facebook” became the line of the decade.

Social media was almost entirely about community engagement. Social media involvement by colleges and universities was being measured simply by whether or not you had a Facebook page. Integration meant that you had social media icons on your web pages.

Attempting to get involved with these new social media, Boomer managers hired young Millennials “who understand this social media stuff.”

So much hype.  Many of us were already exhausted.

But fortunately in the midst of all the new media hype were thought leader voices, like Brian Solis, who provided—and still do—insightful analysis of the dynamics taking place with social. And we began to understand what was really going on.

It’s not about social media. It’s about us.

For me there was moment when I realized the scope of what was happening, that it was deeper than just having a Facebook page or any other social media tactic. I talked about it in this post in 2009.

1024px-Mobil_Gas_StationIt was July 2009. My wife and I were in our car following our son, Jason, who was driving his car. Both cars were full of presents from our daughter’s wedding and reception that had just ended. Jason needed to stop at a gas station, so I pulled into the station waiting for him to fill up.

As he got out of his car, a supposedly down on his luck stranger approached him and asked for some gas money. Possessing the joy of seeing his sister get married to the love of her life, Jason decided to pump a gallon of gas in the guy’s car instead of giving him cash.

Jason put his ATM/credit card into the gas pump. But nothing happened. He tried it again, but the pump still didn’t respond. Jason then gave him a couple of bucks, but the guy looked suspicious and wasn’t pumping gas or leaving the station.

Concerned that his credit card might be vulnerable, I watched my son, in about 3 minutes time, use his BlackBerry to go online with his bank, transfer all money out of vulnerable accounts, cancel the card and order a new one.

It was amazing to watch him do all of that so quickly, and it was an “Aha” moment for me as I realized new technology was more than just new media. It was reshaping how we we’re wired, and consequently how we experience life as technology empowered consumers, changing us in ways we didn’t foresee and may not yet fully understand.

As Brian Solis said in his 2011 book The End of Business As Usual

How we are wired is quickly becoming outdated. The new models of us are wired for the modern lifestyle. How we interact, learn, and mature is different. The simple truth is that things, and people, are changing right before us. We live in historic times and the change we’re experiencing now is nothing less than historic.

The more I study technology and its impact on behavior, the more I find myself revisiting a widely accepted notion: technology changes, people don’t. But nowadays, I’m not so sure. Technology is indeed changing, but it is also changing us along with it.

You know, reading that makes me think of the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, when people around the world were sensing something was going on, and were creating models of a hill in Wyoming out of mashed potatoes. What I was sensing at that gas station with my son was what Brian Solis was articulating, and what many of you have concluded as well.

We now experience life differently because of new technology and media. And because of that, the market dynamics are different. 

So forget about the hype. We’re not there anymore. You shouldn’t be there anymore.

What was happening in 2009 was the precursor to what’s happening now with search, inbound and content marketing. We’re different and are technologically empowered to search for information, entertainment and education in a variety of ways and on a variety of platforms. All of this has created new market dynamics that have profound implications for marketing strategy and alters our identity as marketing and communications teams.

In part 2, I’ll talk about how marketing theory has caught up with the hype and is shedding light on what it is we should be focused on.

 

Our Journey as a Responsive Web Design Early Adopter

April 13, 2014
CUI homepage on laptop

CUI homepage on desktop

Our web team received a compliment from Google recently. At a meeting of presidents and academic officers from Concordia University System institutions at Google’s headquarters in the Bay Area, in a presentation that included a focus on the importance of having a mobile strategy, I am told that Google said that one of the colleges and universities it had noted that does mobile right is a part of the Concordia University System–Concordia University Irvine. Google’s presentation showed what our website looked like on multiple devices.

It was a nice compliment by Google for our web team, and I believe for the culture we’ve been cultivating in our Marketing and Communications team overall. But for us, it was a bit of old news. We began optimizing for mobile in 2011 when we opted for Responsive Web Design (RWD) instead a mobile application.

It was a decision we made during the planning phase of our new undergraduate admissions microsite. Our team came to me with the recommendation to go with RWD. After thoughtful discussion, it seemed like doing so was the smart choice. We launched the microsite in September 2011.

Making such a decision put us at the front of the curve of RWD adoption. And for a while, it was rather lonely. I remember our team defending our choice of RWD in conversations and on Twitter with colleagues and consultants at the EduWeb conference in San Antonio in August 2011. No one was talking RWD.  Everyone was talking mobile applications. We preferred RWD because we disliked mobile apps. They minimized the effect of branding, and made the college website user experience very transactional.

CUI homepae on iPhone 5

CUI homepage on iPhone 5

Marketing higher education is not the same as marketing books or widgets. We’re not Amazon.com. The purchase cycle is entirely different. It’s non-linear. Traditional students take years to decide. And for grad-adult students, Google said it all in their 2013 4th quarter education report: 61% of website visitors don’t convert for at least 30 days beyond the first visit, and 53% take 60 days or longer. So, for us it made little sense to go the route of the mobile application. We need a website that sustains interest in our brand story over the course of time. RWD was a wonderful solution for us.

But it wasn’t just EduWeb. It seemed none of my colleagues (marketing leaders) or consultants at conferences even acknowledged the RWD option. I attended an Aslanian conference on marketing to adult and graduate students in San Francisco in February 2012. During a Q&A with the audience, the moderator made a comment something like, “none of us like mobile apps, but what are we to do? Mobile traffic is increasing and we have to be optimized for it.” I raised my hand and talked briefly about our decision to go with RWD. No one seemed to know about it, including the next presenter (a respected university CMO) who was speaking on marketing and…wait for it…developing mobile applications.

All of this was a bit disconcerting to me. The only positive feedback we received was in early 2012 when The Lawlor Group, which was on our campus for a presentation to marketing leaders from Concordia University System institutions, gave us a thumbs up on our decision to go with RWD. Their feedback bolstered my confidence.

CUI homepage on IPad mini

CUI homepage on iPad mini

Over the course of next few months, we continued to implement RWD, designing each new section of our website responsively. In summer 2012, our team went through the entire site to convert it to RWD.

Then it all changed.  In August 2012 at the EduWeb conference in Boston, the whole thing had turned around with RWD being a hot topic. I was one of the few in attendance who already had gone with RWD. A few of my colleagues congratulated me on our early adoption.

A few months later, Mashable called 2013 the year of responsive web design.

Being an early adopter means you’re not able to leverage the experience of others who have gone before you. But if you get it right, it also means you don’t have to spend more time and resources later on backtracking to the strategy you should have followed in the first place.

But there’s something else of value if you get it right. Early adoption helps develop a team culture that isn’t afraid of being on the leading edge and encourages team members to think and dream boldly. It’s the kind of culture you’re going to need to attract and retain talent.

But deciding to be an early adopter requires a confidence in your data and your instincts. Our decision was based on core beliefs about our prospects and the college search process. And our web team had done its homework about the responsive web design option. You see, you can’t be on the leading edge of adoption if you’re not paying attention.

Traditional Advertising Analytics

March 19, 2014

outdoor ad at night

Concordia University Irvine ad across from local community college

Google analytics and CRMs provide us with a wealth of data about the digital journey of our prospects, inquirers, and applicants. But how are universities assessing the effectiveness of traditional media advertising?

For those of us who live in the marketing higher education world, we understand there’s no way to know with certainty how many students we enroll because of a particular outdoor or radio ad. Oh, you’ll hear and read about using shortened URLs in traditional advertising to drive traffic to a specific landing page in order to convert the prospect and track his/her journey to enrollment. But we know it’s not that easy. For one thing, most people don’t type in URLs to get to a website. They search for it.

We also know that the purchase cycle is not a linear event that clearly connects the dots. The purchase cycle for the vast majority of prospects is NOT like this…

The prospect:

  1. sees your billboard ad
  2. at home, goes to his/her desktop and types in the shortened URL
  3. reads the content on the landing page
  4. fills out the inquiry form

In this scenario, with proper coding, you’ll know the prospect inquired because of the billboard advertisement. If this is the path your prospects take, you’re in luck–and alone. It’s almost never this easy.

The college search process is non-linear, involves two or more platforms, and looks something like this…

The prospect:

  1. sees your billboard ad multiple times
  2. hears your radio ad multiple times
  3. reads a story in the media about your university
  4. remembers that a friend graduated from your university, maybe even talks with him/her
  5. during the day, remembers your university’s name, searches for it on Google and checks out your website on his/her company desktop
  6. later that night at home, still remembering your name, shifts between mobile devices and desktop computer using Google search to check out your website again
  7. sees both the organic search result and your pay-per-click ad (PPC, i.e., AdWords)
  8. clicks on the PPC ad
  9. finds and reads the website content, not yet ready to either inquire or apply for admission
  10. on a subsequent visit days, weeks, or months later, fills out the inquiry form (conversion) or applies for admission on one of his/her devices (platforms)

Analyzing this journey, Google Analytics will tell you what the last action was that led to conversion, and may give credit for the conversion to the PPC ad. Google values last action. But we both know that the first, second, and third actions are what got the prospect to the website in the first place.  How do we show that?

Outdoor and radio are two advertising tactics designed to increase name awareness for prospects currently in the college search process, and for those who will be in it at some point in the future. It’s branding.

These tactics should be driving the needle. We should see increased website traffic, which is the purest indicator of success with traditional media. Once prospects get to the website, we introduce brand and website variables that influence conversion. Even so, I’m still interested in inquiries and applications during ad campaigns. It’s still about enrollment revenue. Thus we’re keeping tabs on all three numbers during advertising campaigns.

For our executive and program leadership here, we’re using spreadsheets to communicate the correlations. It communicates the data effectively, and that’s the format they desire. However, I’m in the process of trying to find graphical representations of the correlations that may point out additional takeaways from the data.

At Loyola University Maryland, they’ve found the same thing–that a mix of outdoor, digital, and some radio works well for them, according to a presentation last November by Sharon Higgins, assistant vice president at Loyola University Maryland, and Eric Jones, VP of digital marketing at R2Integrated at the AMA conference in Boston. And they’re finding success in communicating their results with sophisticated graphics that tell the story. It’s the sort of approach I’m exploring on what I suppose will be a never-ending process of assessing return on investment.

Branding Diversity in Higher Education

January 20, 2014

Today, as I reflect on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in the USA, I offer some thoughts about diversity in higher education, adapting an earlier post on the subject that was written in the wake of the Arizona immigration law.

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It was a Sunday evening early in August years ago. Athletes and student leaders moved in the day before, and one had just arrived unexpectedly. I received a phone call from campus safety and headed to the college.

I met Sam for the first time. He had just arrived after a long flight from Cameroon. He was hungry. So off we went to his first American restaurant. Never having met before, each from a different culture and with different perspectives, we spent about two hours getting to know one another over dinner.

About a week later, after he got settled on campus and with the soccer team, my family and I had the fun experience of going to Disneyland with him. What a joy it was watching him take it all in.

I’ll never forget Sam being mesmerized by The Lion King parade. Now that was something. Homesick for Africa, Sam was finding joy in the sights and sounds of that parade. He had never seen anything like it. Neither had I.

College life has always been a multicultural experience for me. As a professor, I had an ethnically diverse group of students, and a few from other countries like India, Yugoslavia (it was the 1980s), and Japan. As an undergraduate student, I had classmates from Germany, Iran, Japan, Canada, Samoa, etc., along with friends of ethnicity not my own, and from different geographic regions in the United States. My closest friends in college were quite different from me in background, ethnicity and lifestyle.

Then it happened. After suggesting to a friend of mine who is Hispanic that he should ask out a beautiful Hispanic student on campus, I fell for her instead. She became the love of my life, and my world expanded further. Not everyone understood. But we worked it out and attitudes came around. Our wedding was filled with joy as our diverse wedding party and our families from different cultures celebrated our marriage.

Our family grew to four with a son and a daughter, and now includes a son-in-law and granddaughter.

Our world is indeed diverse. My wife and I have been involved in multicultural education, she in highly diverse public elementary and middle schools (administrator), and I in higher education (Hispanic Serving Institution initiative).

Looking back, I am grateful for the positive multicultural experiences I’ve had as an undergraduate student and as a higher education professional that have widened my perspectives, helped shape my worldview, and opened up a new life for me.

Colleges and universities work hard at fostering a supportive diverse community by integrating multicultural perspectives campus wide. Diversity isn’t relegated to a few courses and student affairs policies. Institutions focus on access (students and faculty), curriculum and scholarship, institutional leadership, campus climate, and retention.

But these are only the parts of diversity in higher education. What holds diversity together and makes it a gestalt experience for students, faculty, staff and administration is that it happens in a community.

So, as marketing higher education professionals, how should we brand such a community? How do we show the value of diversity on our campuses, connecting it to alumni, prospective students and their parents, some of whom who may not totally get it?

First, tell stories, just like I did about myself in this post. Don’t just show the obligatory diverse photos. Photos tend to look staged, like you’re not being authentic.

Stories, on the other hand, connect with the heart and touch our shared human experiences. They get beyond race, ethnicity, and creed, and connect the prospect with the story you’re telling.

Also, work on finding ways to capture how your brand is shaped by diversity. Be creative. In a previous post, I wrote about the UCLA campaign, UCLA. Here. Now., in which UCLA used a tagline that communicated their brand culture:

Nobody at UCLA keeps score on who you are, they just want to see what you do.

It’s a wonderful tagline that reminds us of what’s possible creatively as we work to brand our universities.

But what I also love about the tagline is that it essentially says what Martin Luther King, Jr. said so powerfully…

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

May it be so.

Branding: Connecting Identity to Markets

December 4, 2013

ivory towerAt the end of day two at the American Marketing Association Symposium on the Marketing of Higher Education held last month in Boston, I joined about 15 marketing leaders at a roundtable group thoughtfully discussing marketing at faith-based colleges and universities. What I heard sounded familiar.

There were a number of marketing leaders struggling with their institution’s desire to have the religious identity of their institution used prominently in branding even though they know it isn’t important to their target markets.

Branding at an identity-driven institution is a challenge because sometimes it’s seemingly not possible to reconcile the goals of making data-based decisions with emphasizing religious identity.

It’s a tough spot to be in for a marketing leader. Deciding not to base brand messaging decisions on market data is not wise, but neither is choosing not to emphasize religious identity at an identity-driven institution.

Some thoughts as I’ve reflected on the discussion…

Question the data. Never take data at face value. In this case, just because prospective students and students say they don’t care about the religious identity of your institution, it doesn’t mean that they don’t desire the academic life, campus life, culture, and values that flow out of your religious identity. Remember that we’re talking about Millennials, who, generally speaking, value spirituality over organized religion.

Think student experience, not identity. Thus find a way to connect the dots between the student experience you offer and your faith tradition. Identity shouts from the ivory tower, “this is who we are!” Branding connects that identity to markets.

In other words, don’t just talk about who you are. Tell prospective students how it will make a difference to their college experience.

I’ve worked for two identity-driven Protestant universities. Both institutions have a Christian identity, but the student experience at each institution is vastly different from the other. Concordia University Irvine, my present employer, has a heritage of Lutheran theological thought that strongly influences its approach to both academics and campus life.

It’s my job as Concordia’s chief marketing officer to brand our identity in such a way that prospective students understand what we bring to the student experience, thus making it clear how Concordia is different from other universities.

For traditional undergraduates, we’ve branded our identity and positioned our university with our undergraduate viewbook and our admissions microsite, both of which talk about helping our students develop their gifts through our core curriculum, and their major, in a campus culture that invites their participation in the faith rather than requiring it.

All three of these brand message points–vocational calling/core curriculum/Grace Alone, Faith Alone theology–rise out of our identity as a Lutheran university. Talking about our identity means something to prospective students because we’ve branded it and connected it to the student experience we offer.

Words don’t hold meaning. People do. As you work to brand your identity, keep in mind and educate leadership that words hold no meaning. People hold the meanings of words.

Therefore, know your audience. Your identity may carry with it very positive meaning to your target markets, or not. Or your target markets may not understand your identity language whatsoever. Use care in how you wordsmith your brand messaging.

Educate leadership. It’s vital that the CMO at an identity-driven institution has a voice in the identity conversations on campus, and educates leadership on the need to brand identity. If you do so, they’ll understand your branding decisions, and trust will grow if they see how you’re authentically branding your institution’s identity.

I’ve written other posts on the subject if you’re interested in exploring this topic further, and as always, I’m available to talk.

The Roles of Brand, Branding, and Identity

Lead with Brand, Not Identity

Branding Identity

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