Rethink Marketing

SMU and the Marketing of
Higher Education


Marketing is big business in higher education. Competition is fierce among private and state universities for the brightest students, major donors, and top-notch faculty members. What’s more, new competitors are changing the marketing of higher education even as their strategies are expanding market segments. How has marketing evolved within higher education? What are private universities doing to remain competitive?

We talked with Patti LaSalle, associate vice president and executive director of Public Affairs at Southern Methodist University (SMU) to find out. Join us as we discuss how marketing, promotions, messaging, and brand strategy are shaping the future of this prestigious institution.

Patti, marketing and higher education have not always gone “hand in hand.” Tell us your perspective of the role of marketing in higher education and the part it plays at SMU.

Educational institutions have always been engaged in marketing – we just haven’t called it that. Universities constantly recruit students and faculty, raise money, and reach out to alumni and other publics, but the term “marketing” was not always welcomed. The acceptance of this term perhaps first started at universities that offered business and advertising programs where it was a little easier to apply the practices that were taught. Today, marketing has become intrinsic to what we do – whether it’s a capital campaign, sending out an alumni magazine, or attracting the interest of a student.

At SMU, there are two reasons why marketing has become so prominent. First, for the past ten years, we have had an externally-oriented president who is an excellent fundraiser, believes in community outreach, and appreciates the results of good marketing and communications.

Second, we have adopted aggressive, targeted marketing for student recruitment. Our goal is not to grow the overall student population, but to improve the quality of students we attract. We want students that benefit from – as well as contribute to – SMU. To do this, we develop more brochures and other materials, both electronic and traditional to communicate that SMU is a place that welcomes and values the brightest
and best students. Examples of our targeted approach include distinctive materials for students with the highest SAT scores, first-generation college students, those living in previously unrepresented geographic areas,
and top scholarship prospects.

Still, the face of education has changed a lot in the last 20 years – distance learning, for-profit universities, online education, and shifts in demographics. How has SMU adapted to these changes?

As a private institution, we are able to respond to changing educational requirements more quickly than state schools, and have extended our opportunities to students of all ages, not just the traditional age group. Distance learning and adult education are not new at SMU – we’ve had such programs for many years, and offer hundreds of non-credit classes to meet a variety of learning goals. In the past few years alone, SMU has introduced an evening undergraduate degree, an executive master’s in engineering program, and reinstated the evening law school. In keeping with our commitment to on-going adult education, we renamed our continuing studies division the Division of Education and Lifelong Learning.

Notwithstanding our efforts in these areas, our primary focus is still on offering a traditional educational experience. So much of what we do is tied to the collegiate experience – the beautiful campus, small class sizes, and high faculty involvement. These attributes are all geared toward providing a learning community that fosters intellectual growth and leadership.

The SMU brand must play a central role in the overall marketing efforts. Tell us about the brand and its value.

The SMU brand is extremely valuable. We centrally manage prominent communications vehicles such as the Web site, student recruitment and fund-raising materials, newsletters, and major magazines to ensure that prospective students, parents, alumni, and donors see the brand consistently and develop a positive brand image. Everything that conveys our highest priorities to the broadest audiences is produced centrally to ensure consistent messaging, quality, tone, and visual identity.

While SMU has several strong sub-brands such as the Cox School of Business and the SMU Mustangs, we strive to ensure the prominence and strength of the SMU brand. Here’s an interesting story: The Cox School of Business conducted a brand study that revealed that people viewed the MBA degree as an SMU MBA first, and within that identity, a Cox MBA. This showed how strong the SMU brand is and how it is associated with quality, influence, and leadership. Cox has enthusiastically embraced associating itself with the SMU brand to market its programs. It’s an example of successful branding with a strong sub-brand, bringing mutual benefits.

That’s interesting – marketing is done by individual schools as well as at the university level. How does this works in practice?

First, Public Affairs is the source for media relations, content development, and production of materials for our priority efforts related to student recruitment, development, and alumni relations. We manage about 500 projects a year. As part of Public Affairs, Integrated Marketing, which originally was a publications shop, has morphed into a strategic marketing group – not just design and production, but marketing strategy. It now manages marketing messages, research, photography, online communications, and more for different clients on campus.

The group also helps maintain the consistency and focus of our centralized programs. These large programs concentrate on key areas and audiences, while the individual schools plan their own marketing within suggested guidelines. For example, advertising is coordinated centrally in partnership with a local advertising agency. Schools such as business and law work with our office and the agency to customize their marketing messages while staying within the standard university format, messaging, and brand.

The professional schools have marketing staff members and a few produce some of their own publications in which we encourage the use of overall SMU themes to unify messages. Integrated Marketing also produces publications for other schools and helps promote and protect the SMU brand. There are well-established graphic standards and guidelines for the use of our logo independently and in concert with the names of the individual schools.

Another thing we do is to share “pride points” – notable achievements we can all brag about. We pass on marketing themes that are intrinsic to the university as a whole. We develop a common language, while allowing the schools to focus on their own distinctive strengths. If done effectively, school marketing efforts can add further vitality to the SMU brand. It’s part of a holistic picture that sets the quality and tone for the entire institution.

So how are these efforts managed and coordinated to avoid duplication of resources and efforts?

For the most part, there is limited duplication. The only area we have to be particularly careful about is fundraising. We have established procedures to target donors for certain schools to avoid overlap and communications overload.

One of the most important things in a decentralized organization is to build strong relationships with marketing staffs across all schools. It’s getting easier because we have a president who champions marketing efforts, and so advocates coordination. There is an overall maturity of staff, too, which helps schools see the benefits of greater cooperation.

We also have a university-wide marketing communications council. We meet several times each semester to share marketing ideas and keep each other updated on university and school initiatives and communications challenges.

What is SMU’s position and comparative advantage vis-à-vis large, well-known universities, state schools, and faith-based institutions?

SMU fills a particular private school niche that is attractive to a specific audience. That private status also allows us to be fairly nimble in creating new programs to attract students and faculty, as previously discussed. But a real advantage is that SMU combines attributes of both large and small universities. We are like a large university in our comprehensive curricula, field of study choices, and access to world-renowned speakers. We are small in the sense of our compact campus, small class size, and faculty involvement.

Another difference is our location – the Dallas metroplex has many advantages in terms of business, lifestyle, and cultural enrichment. SMU really is a gem – a traditional university in an innovative environment.

A small college is highly focused and is easier to label, but it appeals to a very limited population. SMU’s value lies in its balance – strong teaching and research, academic excellence, leadership and extracurricular activities church affiliation but with non-sectarian teaching coupled with free and open enquiry.

While SMU has a definitive difference, the competition is increasing with the advent of new for-profit universities. How are marketing trends changing in higher education?

Aggressive upstarts are definitely having an influence – for one thing, schools such as the University of Phoenix can be very visible. They don’t have an impact on our programs but are causing a stir with their aggressive growth and marketing tactics. Some universities have added programs like distance education to compete with them. SMU serves a different student population, but we must always be mindful of what we need to do to stay competitive as demographics change. There’s room for both, but we have our own direction.

In terms of marketing collateral, everyone is getting sophisticated. Universities are spending more marketing dollars than ever on print, even as the Web and electronic media become more and more popular. Many university alumni magazines are now in full color, printed on glossy paper, and increasing in frequency. While the Web has made an impact, it has not outmaneuvered print for universities – one has to have a Web presence in addition to everything else. We have to engage in multi-media marketing.

How do universities measure marketing effectiveness and ROI?

Marketing is deemed effective as long as it gets results. Higher SAT scores, more student applications, greater fundraising dollars – these are the common ROI metrics in education. We can also measure specific marketing areas. In media relations, we can assess our progress through types and frequency of clips, magazine mentions, and broadcast hits. Those can be measured by circulation/viewership numbers and equivalencies in advertising and PR numbers. We also use focus groups and alumni surveys to measure other areas of our operations.

One of the hardest areas to measure, however, is the impact of marketing on our reputation. We need to engage in more qualitative and quantitative research to make the connection between the way we communicate and how it affects behavior and/or changes opinions. It’s a challenge to get resources for that.

SMU has been very successful in its fundraising campaigns. What is its approach to connecting with key donors and sponsors? What have been the most effective marketing strategies?

For fundraising to be successful, communications have to be very targeted to articulate our need to be a better university. The last campaign brought resources for physical buildings and endowment. We absolutely needed those facilities – they have a direct impact on faculty recruitment and the students’ desire to join SMU. The next campaign will have a more academic focus – we must create a strong case for funding faculty positions and scholarships to improve the quality of the university.

In fundraising, the message must connect what we are trying to achieve for students and society to the interests that donors have and will embrace. The key is to develop networks of fundraisers, volunteers, and donors and keep in constant touch with them. SMU must be visible, desirable, accessible, and marketable to the constituents we want to reach and involve. A good example are the research and publication achievements of our faculty. The publication of these achievements contributes to the pride factor a high-quality university has and showcases the good things it is doing. It’s one factor that influences donors and alumni in wanting to be associated with us.

Universities often do a balancing act to provide quality education, manage costs, and raise revenue. How does SMU deal with corporate sponsorships while maintaining ethical marketing practices?

I think this must be a major issue for most universities. At SMU, sponsorships are mainly for athletic programs, lecture series, and scholarships. We review each sponsorship for its relevancy and suitability to that program. We weigh that against what the sponsor is
seeking – visibility is fine, but program influence is not. We choose and choose carefully.

Community relations and outreach programs are an important marketing component. How has SMU structured its community programs?

Our key relationship-builder with the community is President Turner. The structure for community relations and outreach programs at SMU, however, is actually somewhat fragmented. While we do it well, there is no single umbrella. Leadership and community outreach is well developed on the individual school level, but there is no central office to manage it. Each school engages in its own outreach programs through courses, lectures, seminars, and more. The Meadows School of the Arts, for example, sponsors about 400 arts events each year. Student volunteerism is also high.

Going forward, what marketing initiatives and practices will SMU focus on?

I think we’re going to have to do more with less and really stretch our resources. But we’re also incorporating more marketing tools into our mix. We’re doing more research more frequently, and will continue to promote greater synchronization of our messages.

I see our communications becoming more sophisticated, targeted, effectively segmented, and forward thinking. We will use all the tools at our disposal, increasing electronic communication, but not cutting back on print. In short, it will be a very integrated and complementary marketing program.

We have to respect the decentralized university structure and focus on what we have in common rather than what is different. And by using the SMU brand consistently, we’ll not only support the efforts of each school, but all activities of the University.

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Patricia Ann LaSalle is associate vice president and executive director of Public Affairs at SMU. In that capacity, she supervises the Offices of News and Communications, Integrated Marketing and Advertising, and Periodicals, as well as web communications.

Before joining SMU, she worked for the Council for Advancement and Support of Education in Washington, D.C., (CASE), for Georgetown University, and The American University, where she earned her Master's degree. The programs and publications she directs have won more than 100 regional and national awards, including a CASE Top Ten award for university magazine publishing. She also won CASE's top international award for publications about the profession, specifically a book on magazine publishing and numerous chapters in public relations books.

Ms. LaSalle has taught journalism at SMU and serves as adviser to top scholarship students. She has won SMU's highest award for outstanding service to the University.

January 2005