Marketing can feel like a taboo when used in a university context. Who can forget the public backlash when the Guardian published university marketing spends in 2019? Questions were raised as the story went viral, with many left asking whether the budget would be better allocated elsewhere. Whilst much of the public discord has died down, years later this very same question remains within the walls of many universities. Some stakeholders continue to harbour doubts on the prominence, status and spend that should be allocated to the marketing function. This presents a challenge for Chief Marketing Officers (CMOs) and their marketing teams; how to demonstrate & communicate the value of marketing to internal stakeholders to ensure the full potential of the function is realised. Having worked with universities across the world to position brand, improve rankings and manage stakeholder perceptions, The Brand Education understand what it takes to embed marketing within university strategy. In this article we explore the wider context outside of higher education, delve into the challenge of aligning marketing with stakeholder needs and share examples of how these needs might be met. If you are ready to help marketing take its seat at the top table then read on!
Research has found that a strong and influential marketing department plays a vital role in an organisation, with a positive correspondence on performance. Despite this, Gartner’s Annual CMO Spend Survey, found 2022 marketing budgets across a range of sectors still lagging behind pre-pandemic levels. Faltering investment was also reported against staff costs, with 58% of CMOs surveyed reporting a lack of in-house capability to deliver on their strategy. Against this backdrop it is easy to see why the scope of the marketing team is being narrowed, with Forbes going as far as to say that marketing has been reduced to customer acquisition and retention. This is corroborated by the Gartner report, which shows customer acquisition, retention and engagement as the number one task their CEO is pushing to their CMO. We will explore two themes within this article that may be influencing this trend in higher education; inadequacy in how marketing potential is embedded within a university and difficulty in demonstrating attributional value from marketing efforts.
Isolating marketing as a resource to support customer acquisition and retention, ignores the breadth of potential within the skillsets of a marketing team. Marketing encapsulates the entire customer experience, and teams are well placed to not only act as a customer advocate but understand and contextualise the commercial impact of decisions made.The value of the marketing team therefore lies in crafting the university ‘product’ to meet the needs of its ‘customers’ as well as communicating it to the audience at large. Forbes argue that embracing marketing as a business discipline throughout the organisation is key to enabling innovation and transformation. This requires senior leaders at university to embrace marketing teams within decision making and support them build networks across the organisation to drive impactful and consistent change. As we explored in our recent article, it also requires the hugely influential academic audience to engage with marketing to ensure a consistent university narrative and brand voice. This can make for a partnership of shared competencies that is empowering both to the individual and the organisation.
With the range of stakeholders within a university extending beyond VCs and academics to include boards of governors, deans, faculty representatives, student ambassadors and more, there are a lot of internal audiences to bring on board with the brand and marketing vision. Hanssens and Pauwels (2016) argue that reconciling multiple perspectives on marketing value requires causality to be shown among marketing actions and performance outcomes. But herein lies the problem for many organisations. Gartner research revealed that the three pillars of data, analytics and technology are the top capability gaps within the marketing function. The use of marketing analytics was cited in just 35% of marketing decisions by respondents from large US companies. The anticipation is that this is even lower for SMEs and less developed marketing functions. For many the calculation of ROI on marketing investment remains an elusive goal and this can lead to diminished investment and recognition of the marketing function.
Overcoming this obstacle is not an easy feat. The solution requires silos across the organisation to be closed to increase the number of data points available and introduce a broader context for impact assessment. The inclusion of more variables allows for greater granularity and the benefit this can bring to analytics-enhanced decision making should not be underestimated, with even a small increase in implementation creating an average 8% higher return. However, greater data granularity also necessitates more advanced econometrics. Econometrics help separate contemporaneous influences and quantify their individual effects. For example, can your improved recruitment be directly attributed to marketing activity, or did a key competitor move their open day? Did your league table positioning have an impact? Did demographic conditions influence this? By correlating marketing activations with macro-economic and long term trends, marketing teams and senior leadership can better investigate the influence of brand and marketing activations on student recruitment and wider objectives. IPA research reveals three core opportunities that lie within econometrics:
- A rigorous means of understanding how the brand arrived at its current position
- A systematic method of exploring how future targets might be achieved
- A means by which to test hypotheses
To ensure a useful outcome from econometric modelling, the process must be robust and the output easy and intuitive for senior decision makers (who may not be ﬂuent in the technical aspects of value measurement) to understand. To satisfy both of these qualifications, marketing analytics expertise is needed either in-house or through specialised suppliers. However caution must be taken to ensure that those implementing marketing communications and those measuring it are fully aligned and engaged in full communication. Closed silos across the wider organisation can also have an impact here, enabling multi-disciplinary brainstorms when constructing the theoretical framework ensures a more robust output. By engaging a breadth of departments early you can also seek buy in to provide the data needed for the modelling later down the line. We offer a word of warning here as data collection can be time consuming and it can often become a low priority for busy colleagues. Ensuring senior back up is important to ensure all of those within the institution are aware of its importance and adequate pressure can be applied where action is not forthcoming.
The benefits of greater integration of marketing within decision making and across the organisation are clear, they not only enable improved performance, but a performance that can be measured. However, if your university needs greater persuasion on why marketing deserves a seat at the top table, then look no further than one of our partner organisations Nottingham Trent University. Emma Leach is the award winning Director of Marketing and Communications at NTU and she sits on the board at the heart of university decision making. Her exemplary approach to marketing, her passionate team and the recognition of the marketing function within the fabric of the university led the NTU marketing team to acquire seven awards at this year’s HEIST awards, including Gold for the Marketing Team of the Year award.
Another impressive case study of note, is the approach of Martyn Edwards, Director of Marketing and Advancement at Loughborough University. This university has seen the demand for undergraduate places at the university increase by 65% across the last 10 years (2012-2021) and it is well recognised as a brand to be reckoned with on the university scene. We spoke with Martyn to discuss his secret to success, and discovered collaboration remains at the heart of the university’s brand strategy achievements. Becoming involved within networks across the university as well as providing clear concise communications for time-poor academics have been two key pillars for recent success.
Get in touch to discuss how we can help you bring a cohesive approach to your strategic decision making, position your brand, grow your reputation and train colleagues in social media to amplify your university’s voice.