Market Like the Pros

Yes, it’s come to this: When Portland State University decided to spiff up its image, it issued a request for proposal that sparked a bidding war among creative agencies in the private sector to land the job. The chair of the Visual Identity Selection Committee that reviewed the proposals led her team in poring over the details to find an agency that offered a balance in strategic planning and graphic design, despite the fact they could have found those talents — somewhere — within the largest college in the state of Oregon.

Meanwhile, Drexel University’s 30-second national television ad designed by Chicago-based marketing and advertising firm Lipman Hearne, Inc. is winning Admissions Marketing Report’s “best of show” and gold awards in 2008. Likewise, the accompanying full-page print ad published in The Philadelphia Inquirer snagged a silver award. It’s part of a grand plan Drexel president Constantine Papadakis has introduced to turn the Philadelphia institution into more of a business than his predecessors ever dreamed of pursuing.

“Universities are by their nature an incredibly intertwined political entity,” said Andy Fraser, president of Sockeye Creative, the firm that eventually partnered with Portland State. “And sometimes they’re not even their own best fan. Sockeye holds up a mirror and says, ‘Look at all the great things you guys are doing.’ They aren’t necessarily aware of it, college to college. That’s one of the true benefits of bringing in an outside firm.”

The other, more obvious, benefit is enrollment. Drexel expects to generate more than 60,000 applications in 2008, of which it will enroll 9,095 students. That’s an excellent response for a private, and more expensive, school in a tough economy — and on par with what upscale brands like Nieman Marcus would love to see on their bottom lines this year. But while corporate America intuitively gets it, other universities blink in confusion.

“A lot of colleges and universities feel very good internally about their school’s efforts, and think everyone should automatically know about it,” said Joan McDonald, vice president of enrollment management at Drexel. “But in reality there are just so many media messages out there, it’s hard to get above the surface.

“Colleges and universities have gotten better about promotion and marketing over the last decade. But you find that many are still in the very elementary stages of it,” she added.

The Building Blocks
The change starts with an identity — or “branding strategy,” as the business world dubs it. That’s because advertising is what you say about yourself, but branding is what someone else says about you, points out Peter Metz, Sockeye’s creative director. It’s vital to know who you are in order to move forward efficiently.

When Drexel began this journey, it faced serious enrollment issues — and the fact it was surrounded by 83 institutions of higher education in the region only ratcheted up the competition and the stakes. According to Phillip Terranova, Drexel’s vice president for university relations, the school had failed to plan for demographic changes, and had no coherent marketing plan to follow until Papadakis led the drive to put Drexel’s cooperative education focus front and center with the public in the mid-1990s. As a result, its creative firm came up with the punchy theme “Live It” to describe the atmosphere at this urban school. University officials even filed a trademark on the phrase to protect their brainchild.

Fraser and Metz, too, wanted to capture the more emotional experience Portland State students can expect during their academic careers as opposed to educational achievements. “Basically, it’s tons of research where you sit with the students, faculty, admissions people, administration, and really start to flush out what’s lying underneath the surface,” said Fraser. “What’s cool about it, what they like and don’t like.” Accuracy in interpretation is key here because “if an outside firm comes in and says ‘This is who you are,’ that’s a dangerous thing to do unless you have a certain amount of involvement from the opinion leaders on that campus,” Metz added.

The Sockeye team honed in on the energy that stems from an outspoken, politically active student body resting in the heart of the city’s business district. It captured that in a green interlocking cross logo made from the letters P, S, and U to represent the University’s leadership in sustainability and environmental studies. The interlocking letters show the school's connectedness to the city as well as the unity within.

On the other hand, the same exercise at Concordia University, also in Portland, revealed a group of students incredibly happy to be there for no apparently obvious reason. Turns out, they feel connected to the facility, the founding faith, and the business community that supports it. Since Sockeye began playing up this angle eight years ago, Concordia’s enrollment has increased 50 percent.

Spreading the Word
Once a university has polished the marketing theme, it’s time to spread the word using corporate tactics. McDonald and Terranova rely on direct marketing strategies to reach potential students with the required PSAT scores. These days, much of that push marketing is moving from print to Web-based channels, including optimization positioning to ensure Drexel University comes up within the first three or four hits on a Google search for top law schools.

In that same vein, Drexel makes sure to get noticed by its target audience — corporate suits call this “product placement” — via events like hosting a national mock trial competition for high school students. That alone will bring thousands of the right kind of students to its campus in 2010.

The next step is to read the data and form a segmented approach to any future challenges on the horizon. For instance, Drexel promotes itself differently outside the Philadelphia region, where the university name isn’t as well recognized. But no matter the geography, advertisements include a call to action that brings feet to the campus. According to McDonald, 15,000 people visit the grounds in any given year — and her department monitors feedback from each of their experiences.

In the end, modeling the marketing department like a Fortune 500 business means universities reach out to the right consumers rather than wasting dollars spraying a message to deaf ears. “And the greater the retention of that student over time,” said Fraser.

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