Working Through Marketing Constraints in Higher Education

February 7, 2023

Working Through Marketing Constraints in Higher Education

tag brand strategy | higher education | higher education branding
Working Through Marketing Constraints in Higher Education

A few months ago, I made the shift to higher education. Insiders warned me with phrases, like:

“There’s so much red tape.”

“It’s all politics.”

“There’s constant death by committee.”

“It’s where creativity goes to die.”

And while I took all of those words into consideration, mindful of the truthful experiences tied to them as well as the pessimism, I decided to take the plunge anyway. Call me stubborn, but those comments were more motivating to me than anything else. Truthfully, as an optimist, I find a healthy challenge in reframing existing perspectives, for myself and others. 

I’d venture to say that anyone in higher education has experienced the situations listed above at some level. That’s no secret. But, just like any other company in any other industry, institutions in higher education have to operate within constraints. Higher ed just has different types of constraints.

Despite the roadblocks colleges and universities may face when it comes to marketing, there are so many opportunities in front of us that we’ve yet to take advantage of and so much uncharted territory to explore. Today’s prospective students, faculty, and staff aren’t looking for more, they’re looking for different — something that’s worth it.

What does it mean to do things differently?

Different doesn’t mean adding or highlighting new programs, downplaying a key part of who you are for the sake of culture, or adding more diverse student photos. Because while people keep thinking those things are “different,” they’re actually all the same. 

Being different is just taking inventory of what you already have and approaching it with fresh eyes. You don’t necessarily have to add something or change what exists; rather, look at what’s available in a new light.

Due to constraints and so many folks involved in the decision-making process, we are less apt to take risks when it comes to attracting the right-fit student (i.e.“Let’s just copy what that other university is doing.”). But what if the constraints aren’t actually the politics, the red tape, death by committee, time, money, or lack of creativity in higher education?

What if the actual constraints are us and our way of thinking? 

[Cue TikTok sound: “Is it me? Am I the drama?”]

What if that “small town” you’re located in is something your right-fit students desire? What if your religious affiliation doesn’t deter others, but offers more inclusiveness? What if that PR nightmare was an opportunity to own your mistake and ignite more activism among your campus and community?

How do you move forward?

It’s all in the way we frame things. For too long, the excuses have been endless: the people, politics, lack of budget, etc. And when you’re in the day-to-day grind, you become numb to those things, making them the excuse for not taking your brand a step further. That’s normal. But what if we came to the table every morning with fresh eyes, filled with the wonder of all the possibilities, like a young child?

We get so bogged down in the weight of higher education that we forget why it’s there in the first place and why we got started. But if we’re really igniting passion in students or helping them explore multiple pathways or encouraging them to think with a strategic mindset, we must also be ignited with passion and explore multiple pathways and think with a strategic mindset. 

Stop trying to refine a process that isn’t working or copying what you’ve seen done before. Look at what’s in front of you and find ways to break the rules and rebel against the “normal.” After all, that’s how we’re challenging students. And the students who take this approach to the heart are world changers. 

Let’s address some assumed opinions

Two major things need to be addressed:

1. What if you don’t seem professional?

Reframing is exciting. Excitement is fun. Fun is not professional. Academia and professionalism are serious things. That’s what we’ve been taught, but it’s not the truth. It’s a perspective. You can hold two seemingly opposing ideas and make them work together. Isn’t that the whole point of marketing? To know how to mesh different elements together and make them work? 

2. She’s new, she hasn’t seen it.

I know I’m new to the industry. I’ve got fresh eyes, I’m not yet jaded. But I’ve brought my stubbornness into every industry I’ve been a part of and have allowed it to be a gift, not a detriment (see that reframing I did there?). Though the constraints are somewhat exclusive to higher education, this core issue is the same for every industry. It just looks different.

Key Takeaways

Reframing will help you find those unique qualities that truly separate your institution from the rest. Putting this into practice is the difference that prospective students, faculty, and staff are looking for: Not words, designs, or efforts, but experiences that reflect the passion, exploration, and strategic thinking everyone claims. These are the things they want to be a part of and these are the things that are going to make it worth it for them. And to be successful, you have to be willing to do that in your marketing.