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Mission vs. Marketing

April 15, 2010

Mission and Marketing. The two should go together. But it’s not uncommon for enthusiastic members of mission driven organizations–particularly colleges and universities–to view marketing as a threat to mission. While acknowledging that marketing is needed, some stakeholders full of passion for the mission of their institution see it as a choice: be largely mission driven or largely market driven.

For marketing leaders, these colleagues present challenges to moving the institution toward being a more market oriented organization–one in which the brand is authentically represented and strategically promoted to markets that are most likely to participate and buy into the organization’s mission, thereby providing the resources necessary for the organization to continue to advance its mission.

But these committed colleagues–if open to dialogue–also have an invaluable role for marketing leaders. They keep us balanced and focused on mission.

I had such a colleague in higher education. During my days as a teaching faculty member, dean, and vice president, I enjoyed a productive working relationship with a faculty colleague/leader. He was a respected professor and former dean, one who had significant influence on the institution as it matured. He demanded much of his students. He also demanded much of faculty leadership and administrators.

We talked often, sometimes about marketing. The discussions were thoughtful and beneficial for both of us. He was concerned that as we became more about market, we would be less about mission.

I would listen and offer that marketing exists as a dynamic process whether we like it or not, and that it’s in our best interest to manage that process intelligently using data-based strategies to communicate to our various constituencies and publics, and to compete in the higher education marketplace.

Many faculty are uncomfortable to one degree or another with the idea of marketing higher education because it brings with it for-profit values that tend to conflict with academic values.

Take, for instance, the idea of students as consumers. Many faculty would argue that the values of this concept are not consistent with long-held academic values. Students are not always right. It’s not our job in the classroom to treat them that way. In fact, it is our job to push, prod and challenge them to get out of their comfort zone and think critically.

But we do have consumers: student-consumers, alumni-consumers, donor-consumers, etc. And because we have consumers, we have lots of data about them and their consumer behavior. We are able to get really good at recruiting students, cultivating donors, communicating with alumni, developing relationships with community leaders, etc.

Why in the world would we not want to be intentional about those relationships? Why wouldn’t we want to develop academic programs that meet market needs? Why wouldn’t we want the classroom and campus experience to be so good that our students want to stay and graduate from our programs?

That’s both mission and marketing.

After years of talking about the issue of mission vs. marketing with my colleague, I invited him to fill one of the faculty slots on the enrollment management committee on campus, which I chaired. It was a calculated risk for me, but I wanted him to experience how marketing and mission worked together in the development, review, and revision of various strategies, policies and procedures. I wanted his challenges to be aired with other committee members. Indeed, we had some lively discussions with the professor on the committee. But it was good for us.

My colleague told me after his two-year stint on the committee that he was impressed and had learned a lot. He said it was one of the most satisfying committee experiences in his career. That was one of the best compliments I’ve ever received.

We remain friends to this day, getting together to talk old times. I look forward to the next time when I want to discuss how the university we left is allowing mission to negatively impact marketing. But that is a different story.

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