Sibling Rivalry

Solving the Branding vs. Direct Response debate starts by understanding that it’s all in the family


Many college marketing or admissions directors are faced with the dual tasks of improving ROI by hitting lead and enrollment budgets, while simultaneously being charged with building their institution’s brand. Sounds about right. Right?

In theory, it makes a lot of sense. The branding function (establishing the long-term awareness and reputation you set out to own in the minds of your audiences, and the initiatives to support it) should definitely coincide with the direct response function (urging your audience to take immediate action).

In reality, however, the structure of many career college marketing departments is set up to almost exclusively support direct response (short-term lead generation), with disproportionately little value given to the other facets that are so important to big brother brand. These two functions are undeniably related, but they cannot wholly substitute for one another.


In the same way that you can’t expect brand awareness initiatives to directly generate all the inquiries to your school, you cannot expect lead generation activities to do all the work in establishing a reputation relative to your competition.


Before you know it, these mutually supportive activities are forced to oppose each other. When these otherwise friendly siblings have to compete for the same dollars, it’s only natural that direct response, the analytical little sister who can provide a measurable link to how many seats she can fill, will get the parents’ love and attention. With inadequate time, support and resources left for the other essential components of branding, the function dwindles and becomes woefully misunderstood.

This doesn’t seem to be much of a problem while the classrooms are full, as symptoms of a weak brand are easy to ignore with a healthy looking bottom line. It’s when the numbers fall, or the industry changes, or a crisis happens, that schools find themselves in an almost unrecoverable position of trying to rebuild their reputation. But what if they never really had one? Or the one they have isn’t the one they really want? Oh, brother.


A Conflict of Nurture, Not Nature

And who can blame the marketing manager? If performance is measured not by the development of a brand promise that is true, differentiating and sustainable for growing the institution, but only on the number of students that are going to show up at next week’s start – I’d spend all my money on pay-per-click vendors and late-night television, too.


Here’s the thing. What many proprietary colleges haven’t yet embraced is – if you have a weak or undefined brand position, your lead generation activities and your admissions process has to work exponentially harder to get the job done. A fabulous admissions team, tight telemarketing script and compelling commercial can subsidize an unclear brand – but only to a point.


A school’s reputation, particularly with members of the current millennial generation and their parents, is more important than ever. A weak branding message or tagline that could be used equally by many other schools (or products for that matter) comes across as bland, when what students really want is for you to take a stand. It will also continue to cost you more by requiring greater spend on lead generating activities.

If prospective students don’t have an understanding of your brand promise, you’ll also find that even if you’re making your numbers, the right student may not be the one that’s showing up to class. This lack of clarity puts the admissions team in a really tough position – and it’s easy to see how costs and quality can be hard to manage.


Honoring Ancestors, Evolving the Species

Nothing challenges a weak brand more quickly than the proliferation of competition.

With nearly 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States to choose from, standing for something you can own helps you stand out. Even the strongest direct response engine will eventually become derailed if prospective students don’t know how you’re different from the increasing number of choices they have for their education.

There’s been much written in the higher education trade publications in recent years about how much traditional colleges are learning from their proprietary counterparts. Heavily branded institutions that have not adequately developed their direct response and CRM channels are now starting to catch up and use smarter lead management activities. I’d like to suggest that the reverse should also be true, and for-profit colleges could learn a great deal from what many traditional non-profits colleges have mastered – the art of building a viable brand position, even in a crowded marketplace with many institutions promoting similar academic and experiential offerings.

It’s time to find a hybrid model—uniting the still-essential lead generation with an equal commitment to creating and communicating a unique brand promise to build awareness and attitudes. If we commit to doing that, we might just find ourselves a functional family.

Yes, the shifting landscape can be seen as a threat. But it is also an opportunity to promote a unique selling proposition. One that has the support of the entire institution, as it lives and breathes and permeates every aspect of the student experience.



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