Educational institutes have got their advertising all wrong, writes Fasi Zaka.
Several years ago as part of a talk I was delivering, I carried out an informal survey of 30 higher education institutions and their brand communication and compared them to their rankings in Pakistan (wherever this information was not available, I used layman perception instead). The results (not very methodologically rigorous) were unsurprising. The more generic, inconsistent and unprofessional the communication, the lower the institution’s ranking or anecdotally (at least) its reputation.
Today, the situation is no different. Advertising by universities remains indistinguishable and is defined by generic write-ups devoid of meaning. This is a reflection of the mushroom growth in higher education institutes over the past 20 years; they are still struggling to position themselves, yet are hampered by their inexperience.
The main marketing tool is the admission notices published in the Sunday papers; these are so unprofessional that they make the section of the papers carrying government tender notices look like high art.
Advertising and higher education have always made for uneasy bedfellows. Academics find it distasteful that a calling such as education needs to be sold at all. This was true of
, an American Ivy League institution, until a few years ago. However, as the concept of the automatic right to higher education has evolved into a privilege (due to rising fees), going to market is a harsh change that even institutions with tradition on their side have had to accept. Columbia University
To understand why marketing higher education in
has proved to be so difficult to pull off, we need to go back to the gold standard of what ideal marketing is – no marketing at all. If Pakistan and Harvard were to start advertising heavily it would cheapen their brand. It therefore follows that if the leading academic institutions of the world do not have an advertising ‘tradition’ to speak of, newer institutions will have no lessons to draw upon. Oxford
Pakistan, institutions with an academic track record, such as the universities of Punjab and are assured of students clamouring for admission irrespective of the quality of their advertising. As a result, their use of Word and Excel to create print advertising has created an unsatisfactory standard to follow. Yet, because of their example, the Sunday papers are filled with advertisements by new institutions which leave the impression that a monkey has been given a free hand with Word and Smart Art. Peshawar
In the 80s, the Institute of Business Administration (IBA) could be credited with one noteworthy success – differentiation. Rather than academic tradition or success, emphasis was put on discipline and the need to complete classes and degrees on time. Then times changed and completing degrees on time was no longer an issue, and institutions like the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) put the emphasis on research and PhDs. But these are the exceptions and the same effort to position themselves in the market has not been followed by other institutes in
. Why? Pakistan
More than marketing or advertising, the issue is one of strategy. IBA and LUMS had something to communicate. Most institutions work on a year to year basis, just about managing to keep their heads above water. They blindly cut and paste what the market leaders have done without trying to understand
what it is they stand for or can deliver; as a result they never segment the pool of students they want to attract.
When I was teaching at the
Institute of Management Sciences (IMSciences) in , we decided to differentiate ourselves professionally and visually. Peshawar
In attempting to do so we hit upon the competitive advantage we could offer as a business school in an area of limited business opportunity – management for non-profit. In the first year, our positioning yielded a 100% increase in student applications and this carried on year-on-year for several years.
Perhaps the most important lesson is that universities at gold standard level need to actively promote themselves, but not through paid means. They need to communicate through their research, professors and students. Ivy League institutions are in the news every day. When it comes to marketing higher education in
, the future lies not in the advertising department but in setting up corporate communications departments within the universities with the mandate to consistently communicate what the university does. Pakistan
Fasi Zaka is a communications consultant.
First published in the September-October 2011 issue of