What Every College Can Learn from Underdog Brands

Appeared in Enrollment Manager on 10/18/2010.

What’s the difference between a college with an abundance of applications and one with an unacceptably high acceptance rate? Sometimes, it’s curiosity and nerve. Adversity — brought on by geographic isolation, shifting demographics, deep-pocketed for-profits and other Goliath competitors — can inspire a college and university to challenge assumptions and try new approaches to gain an unfair competitive advantage.

We call these schools underdog brands — and salute the leaders willing to rethink the potential of a school website and related interactive marketing.

Underdog brands evolve from thinking of a website as a fixed cost — an unwelcome guest knocking at the capital budget’s door — to seeing its potential to enlarge the vision and change institutional culture.

Ultimately, it takes a school president to articulate and share a vision that is far-reaching, with its ramifications for accreditation, corporate and foundation relations, bond rating, media, alumni, faculty recruitment and more. And it takes more rational, less gladiatorial budget planning — commensurate with this level of stakeholder engagement.

What Does It Take?

When you have a communications kit as powerful as today’s interactive media, one temptation is to think that the tools — and not the strategy — determine success or failure. Similar to thinking that great faculty hires can overcome a weak core curriculum.

Underdog brands, faced with entrenched enrollment decline and other warning signs, can’t afford such complacency. Their presidents, chief academic officers and vice presidents for marketing have accepted certain realities: they’re running a business, championing a brand, and ready or not, must adopt interactive marketing as mission critical. Colleges, in this way, can learn plenty from their counterparts in retail, consumer goods and even B2B.

“This Changes Everything?”

When a college or university executive initially discovers the power of mission-critical interactive marketing (web, search engine marketing, social media and PR 2.0) it typically arrives as an epiphany.

For Lexington College President Susan Mangels, her sudden insight came during a review of a search engine marketing strategy document. As we discussed keyword variations and the implication each held for routine president-level communication, Mangels paused. “Oh,” she said. “I think I’m beginning to understand. This changes everything.”

Lexington College, a four-year Bachelors in Hospitality Management School in Chicago, may be the smallest and least well known of the city’s numerous culinary schools, both degree and non-degree, for profit and endowed.

Mangels turned any lingering doubt regarding the return-on-investment to enthusiastic curiosity. She immediately wanted to know how to align the rest of the college behind the interactive marketing strategy.So, what’s the take away from Mangels sudden recognition? Her leadership — and interest — meant that rather than market from a position of inevitable wanting, tiny Lexington College could assert itself and thrive as a “try harder” underdog.

The “Underdog” Archetype

We all know the arc and character traits of the underdog story. Challenger faces formidable odds and obstacles. Challenger breaks from convention. Challenger triumphs.Marketing underdog colleges and universities requires a nuanced touch. While a consumer brand such as Avis can gain notoriety by embracing its “we try harder” identity, most colleges prefer a stealth-like approach.

A second reason to keep your underdog status unspoken has to do with a secondary market — alumni. Wearing the badge of underdog on your sleeve can turn off alumni who may perceive their alma mater with a mix of insecurity and affection. While alumni typically applaud any move toward admissions selectivity, they also seek to preserve the idea that they made the best college choice possible.

Leading the Underdog

Elliance has been fortunate to work with a number of underdog colleges and universities. While each circumstance and marketing objective has been different, they share a desire —championed by a President or school-level Dean — that it’s time to throw off old chains and assumptions, and pursue an unfair competitive advantage.

Consider the range of schools and situations:

Appalachian Bible College, one of the nation’s smallest and more remote (southern West Virginia) Bible colleges, understood the demographic writing on the wall. The number of in-state high school graduates is declining rapidly. Appalachian Bible College needed to extend enrollment beyond West Virginia and adjacent states.

Elliance developed a far-reaching marketing and communications plan designed to align ABC more closely with like-minded independent Baptist Bible churches, especially in growth states such as South Carolina, Florida, California and Texas.

At the top of the communications upgrade was a web redesign — intent on establishing ABC as a serious academic alternative to larger, better known Bible colleges. The inquiry pool reflects a changing diversity — including international students for the first time — thanks to page one, number one positions on Google and other search engines.

In addition to ensuring enrollment for the near-term, the new site provides a launching pad for future online course and degree offerings. Like Lexington College, ABC shifted its mindset and approach.

It’s not just size though that makes for a good underdog story.

Pepperdine University’s Graziadio School of Business — a small giant — competes in a crowded Los Angeles Metro market, amidst aggressive brands positioned above and below them in terms of academic quality.

Likewise, we helped Duquesne University find a much higher caliber of student and a global list of corporate partners for a new MBA Sustainability program, competing head-to-head with some of the largest endowments in the nation: Yale, Stanford, Columbia and Notre Dame.

Enrollment more than doubled between year one and year three. Student quality soared: average GMATS climbed almost 40 points in less than two years. Top students came with GMATS above 600 — a new threshold. Inquires came from every continent. Acceptance rates dropped. The percentage of applicants with relevant and significant work experience rose from 25 percent to 88 percent.

A program built to inspire lasting change now attracts and admits a caliber of student fit for a global challenge — a happy ending to this underdog story.

After a decade of indifference, higher education leaders are now awakening to the potential sitting dormant in their interactive assets — and human resources. More and more, presidents are recruiting corporate tested marketing talent and committing real money to realize the full impact of their brand. The good news is that performance on these interactive investments can be measured more reliably today than a decade ago. Underdog or not, now is not the time for small plans and modest investment or ambitions.

R. Todd Erkel, is the Higher Education Marketing Practice Leader at Elliance, recognized as one of the world’s Top 10 interactive agencies by IMA. Todd and his team challenge college presidents and cabinets to embrace a highly integrative approach to achieve enrollment, advancement, and reputation goals in the interactive age.