Faith Based Marketing Strategies Part 5: Higher Education Marketing Messaging Explored and Evolved

Universities and Colleges have long been the gatekeepers in establishing individuals on their careers and livelihood. As the marketplace heats up in its competitiveness, academics have begun to market and establish their brand. Yet there are two main and overall positive themes that have often been touted by these organizations. Learn about the limitations to marketing an institution as a guarantor of future success or a place of a welcoming community. Take one initiative and analyze the longings and desires it's positioned to serve and work with Profitworks to engage and attract new students. Marketers are challenged to address these needs and longings in a deeper way that speaks to these aspirations and goals.

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Executive Summary

  • Higher education makes two foundational promises in a majority of their advertisements: belonging to a welcoming community and guarantee of future success
  • The welcoming community message has gaps around: exclusivity, focus on the in-people and the outsider-people, difficulty in managing social circles, and the problem of loneliness despite being "in"
  • The gospel perspective offers alternatives like focusing on being a community without walls as well as being known and belonging
  • There are inherent challenges to guaranteeing people their success or future including alumni being disenchanted if not experiencing a certain kind of success, blurring definition of success, and over-emphasis on outcomes rather than process
  • Looking through the lens of the gospel, higher education marketing can provide a more balanced message around the significance of achieving outcomes the right way as well as defining success for all


Higher education promises a brighter future

higher education brighter future

Higher education, particularly those that bestow post secondary degrees, are often gate keepers to a brighter and more promising future. In fact, most families would consider pursuing a higher education program as the next logical step in the development of their children after high school and often see it as the prospect of a better career and quality of life. Colleges and Universities often provide a means to bridge the uncertainty of the present with a structured program that offers a promise of a better future. Higher education marketing has been an industry for centuries at least with Brand Strategy Insider noting that branding began to start on campuses when fraternities would brand their pledges in the 1800's. Since then there have been numerous innovations but there are timeless themes that continue to appeal and attract students. 

Higher educational marketing is a sphere of advertising and promotion that is often not critiqued because it fits snuggly into the conventional cultural norms of western and politically correct society. Yet with all spheres of industries, there are usually misconceptions to be addressed and also underlying issues that are seldom recognized until students are in-progress or have completed their academic program. One of the top priorities of marketing by Colleges and Universities is the prospect of bringing in a prospective student which drives tuition and addresses salaries of faculty and operational expenses including marketing.


Common themes in higher education marketing messaging and alternatives

There are a number of common themes in higher education marketing and there is a unique tension with people wanting to trust and buy into these types of messaging. We examine each on their merits while also providing marketers and institutions with a more balanced view that is aligned to biblical convictions.

Theme: Come to belong to a community

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One of the regular themes in higher education marketing is the sense that enrollment equates to a sense of community. This is particularly important for students who are traveling away from home for education and who may be living in residence. This is particularly a need for students who come from international homes where friends, supportive school resources, and mentors are crucial factors to sustainable academic success. The focus on community is an important concept to emphasize as there is a growing concern that people are under-engaged in their communities. Having a strong sense of community is important but there are some inherent limitations to this messaging.


The dilemma with the "come to our community" marketing

Here are some common dilemmas with this message:

  • Grounds of inclusion and exclusion: having eligibility criteria is in one sense a meaningful way to ensure accountability of educational pursuits but as a community gating factor falls short in fostering a community that is welcoming and accepting of all - because inevitably there criteria or standards that have to be met before admission.
  • It focuses on winners and losers: especially with more prestigious institutions, there is a tendency to create a false identity around the school or alumni that you belong to. This is especially apparent in the USA where people are defined by their alumni association, which may create dissonance rather than dialogue with people from other institutions.
  • Challenges with maintaining family and community ties: with our hyper connected lives due to social media there needs to be intelligence and discernment as to which social circles to prioritize and focus on. The notion of adding another community to the mix without offering and discussing how to balance these spheres leaves a significant gap unaddressed.
  • People are still lonely and seek to be understood: there is a unique perspective suggesting that to be known one has to know oneself. To belong to a community as anyone else but yourself can be just as isolating and lonely as being rejected from a circle. Without addressing the individual and how to best discover and develop themselves technically and interpersonally there are challenges that keep students from truly being accepted.


Alternative Marketing Messaging

These are the key alternatives and how they can market to people in a more balanced and sustainable way.

  • A truly inclusive community: with any social circles there are very few that are truly non-exclusive because there are always eligibilities, whether documented or not, that mediate admission or sustained membership. The challenge then is to identify the right set of eligibilities to focus on. Schools can consider using a message that addresses this point and celebrates their code of conduct to be equally inclusive of all whether they be academically inclined or otherwise - which is the main set of eligibilities for most campuses. This could mean opening events to the public or providing resources to people who may not belong to a school. This would be a revolutionary model for truly inclusive communities versus the unspoken gatedness of most campuses. This is because, despite stark differences with their neighbours, Christian communities are called to open and accept all, seeking to support and better everyone that they come into contact with. 
  • Focus on development versus simply excellence: another factor limiting the communal theme is the need to screen and accept students based on their academic performance and community service. By focusing on a trajectory of development or progress made, schools can market themselves as forward thinking and align with popular sports celebrities like Michael Jordan, who in one Nike campaign, mentioned all his failures behind the success. This offers a more balanced and sustainable view for students and would deter them from focusing their identity on marks rather than the lifelong pursuit of learning and development. Though the motivations for learning and development between academia and the church are different, the valuing of growth for the prospering of the community is a shared value.
  • Be known and accepted: by moving the focus from being accepted into a community to being known and accepted offers a subtle but radical implication and one that is far more humanizing than simply being fitted into a community. Here is an opportunity for higher education communities to really celebrate the people who make up the community. Though it may not always succeed in doing so, the church has a mandate to build up each and every person to their fullest potential while incorporating them and outsiders into the community.

Here is an example of the University of Florida utilizing the finding yourself and finding your home theme:


Theme: your future is guaranteed or what you make of it

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Post secondary education adverts often focus the viewer towards the future and how they are the catalyst and guarantor of a better and brighter future. Though this is seldom mentioned, the long train of statistics on placement, employment, and success stories point people towards success in varied definitions as to what that means. Education is a worthwhile investment but as attracting students becomes increasingly competitive - institutions are attempting to present themselves as gatekeepers to a better future. People will typically fall into two camps in terms of how they would relate to their future and the prospect of achieving success. This concept was illustrated by Tim Keller in a sermon (transcription).  The two predominant views are 1)only your choices determine the outcome of your livelihood or 2)all the outcomes have already been predetermined. Either of these options leaves significant challenges that cannot be addressed, yet remarkably the biblical perspective bridges both of these gaps by concluding that both our choices count and the outcomes are guaranteed by God, providing the right balance to engage without being overwhelmed.


Drawbacks of an institution or community guaranteeing one's future or success

Progress and advancement are widely accepted values in many cultural circles, especially in the USA and Canada. Here are some of the gaps for educational institutions looking to market based on their positioning as guaranteeing success.

  • Disenchanted alumni who may feel duped by institutions: new graduates are struggling to find work and are part of a growing demographic in Canda as cited by CBC in a recent article.
  • Focusing on outcomes creates dissonance from the input required: the challenge with traditional messaging is that it focuses on the outcome of future success with little regard to the grind and hustle it takes to get there. Approaching the conversation in this manner can lead to greater amounts of frustration and an improper perception of progress on the viewer's part.
  • Poorly defined notions of success: as institutions seek to position themselves as usherers of success, the perspective of success is often skewed towards highlighting the exceptional versus people who are working sustainably and contributing to their communities and industries. This means that more people will be driven to unattainable measures of success rather than outcomes that will truly benefit the communities that host these institutions.


Alternative messaging to your future is guaranteed

  • A school that empowers through challenges and success: no one knows what the future will hold and the best service that an academic institution can offer is its commitment to alumni and students wherever they may find themselves now and in the future. This direction is aligned with the characteristics of Christian communities outlined before and is being practiced by schools who offer continuing education free for students who are unable to secure employment in their field. This program has been offered by the University of Regina and is called their UR Guarantee Program.
  • Education that focuses on process and outcomes: unsurprisingly, to counter the traditional focus solely on results, an institutional brand can focus on not only doing the right things in achieving the outcomes required but in doing things the right way to ensure sustainable endeavours and pursuits.
  • A movement in education to redefine success for all - in the discipline of career planning one typically focuses on skills and salary expectations. What if a university could be the leader in defining success for each student on their own terms - perhaps relating to community contribution, family flourishing, and career or academic excellence. That would provide a unique differentiator to the academic marketing landscape and would ultimately be more impactful to students and to campus communities.


Gospel implications provide abundant possibilities for marketing higher education

Education is a great tool to use to help develop and propel individuals forward and the marketing functions of these schools are helping to get that message across. The gospel has far-reaching and beneficial implications for this field. The gospel provides an ability to recognize an individual for their potential and that inherently holds great potential for good. Yet it also recognizes the limitations of one body of people to enact lasting and impactful change. In the Christian perspective, organizations were meant for good but like we've seen in past administrations around the world there are bumps along the way. The Bible provides a basis for continuing to endeavour and enrich the progress that has been made and wholeheartedly sees the flourishing of people and communities as part of God's mandate to express his divinity. 

Faith-based marketing is an approach to help professional organizations reach audiences on a deeper level, helping to establish and position brands into a new stratosphere of recognition and appreciation for consumers and their humanity, including their strengths, limitations, and unseen potential. Here are steps to helping uncover alternative and disruptive marketing messaging that hits home:

  • Identify the values of current marketing efforts
  • Analyze these values and the aspirations that they are addressing
  • Go deeper and understand alternatives to meeting these expectations and desires
  • Provide alternative messaging to address these issues
  • Review messaging to see if it dehumanizes or celebrates a person and community's richness
  • Elaborate on messaging and further demonstrate how it addresses desires and aspirations for the demographic


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