Recently, administrators at my school circulated copies of the newest brochure – part of a revised marketing campaign – for faculty comments. The brochure looked great – we have some good people in charge of these things – but beyond its appearance, I couldn’t find much to get excited about. The takeaway from the brochure seemed to be that we are a liberal arts school with liberal artsy things like small classes and opportunities for students to study abroad and conduct research. What I did not notice was anything that sets us apart from other liberal arts schools in the region.
Over the past several years I have grown increasingly weary of administrators talking about our “educational brand,” our “marketing strategies,” and our “competitors.” Are there new programs, they ask, that we could create to attract students with higher academic abilities (and whose parents have deeper wallets)? Looking at the new brochure it struck me that the administration seems to be going about things backwards. Instead of focusing on who we want to be, more attention should be paid to playing up the strengths that we currently have. If our “brand” were consistent with our strengths, maybe we would be able to attract better students who are drawn to those strengths.
I’m obviously a faculty member and not an expert in marketing or branding, but looking at the current trends in higher education it seems that any small liberal arts college that wants to exist in its current state fifty years from now had better find a niche. Otherwise, schools like mine seem likely to devolve into little more than sources of online adult education, maybe with a token physical location as a loss leader. In carving out such a niche, a school’s marketing had better be closely aligned with its mission and both had better be closely aligned with its actual strengths and the students it serves. Whatever the case may have been in the past, generic statements about small classes and student research opportunities are not enough anymore.