Last winter, in a classroom of King's University College, it was the students who schooled the instructors.
The college, which is affiliated with the University of Western Ontario, had recently asked one of its professors to do some marketing work for the upcoming recruitment season, and the students were more than eager to act as an ad hoc focus group.
"They would roll their eyes and shake their heads," recalls the college's registrar, Marilyn Mason. "They'd just look at something and say, 'You're kidding, right? That's so '90s.'" The college's website felt institutional, they said; their tagline was wrong; and why wasn't King's trying to reach prospective students where they lived, on their cellphones?
So this fall, when King's rolled out its recruitment campaign, many of the students' recommendations were incorporated into the mix. The tagline, "You Belong at King's," was gone, its warmth and friendliness dumped in favour of the more directly businesslike, "Get Connected, Make a Difference." The recruiting website was redesigned, and a new campaign, titled " Bling Your Crib," encouraged prospective students to enter a contest via text message.
"My colleagues said, 'It's kind of risky to have your students run your campaign.' But who better?" said Ms. Mason this week. Still, she says, "It's sometimes humbling to have a group of people point out things you should have realized. We're all learning here."
The students didn't exactly run the campaign. Their ideas - and other themes found while conducting focus groups in local high schools - were handed over to their professor, Kim Medynsky, who had retained the college as a client. "The King's brand is really about being forward thinking and creating a community of idealists," Ms. Medynsky said. "Doing things differently, creating change, making change, is really what they're about."
People like Ms. Medynsky, who help institutions of higher learning isolate their essence, are gaining prominence. Certainly, colleges and universities can depend on a steady stream of applicants from year to year. But there's a fierce fight for market share - and the collateral benefits that come from alumni seeing the marketing for their alma mater - which will be won by institutions that recognize they have a lot more in common with for-profit businesses than they had previously thought.
"Some people wish the ivory tower was taller and the walls were thicker," notes Anson Lee, the Vancouver-based director of customer experience strategy at the communication and branding design firm Karo. "But with the scene we have in B.C., with colleges becoming universities, and students feeling they can go anywhere, it's no longer automatic that you'll go to the university your parents went to."
Which is why more universities than ever are focusing on refining their brand identity. In the fall of 2006, Lakehead University attracted attention around the world with a campaign which, its tongue simultaneously stuck in its cheek and stuck out at George W. Bush, declared: "Yale Schmale!" This year, though, it is using its limited ad dollars to focus on the sort of experience it offers students, with a campaign that features three distinguished alumni - Michael Rapino, the CEO of Live Nation; the singer-songwriter Shy-Anne Hovorka; and the Governor General's Award-winning illustrator Duncan Weller - with the tagline, "I think for myself."
"We realized our students are individualists. They come here because they do not conform to the norm," said the university's director of communications, Eleanor Abaya.
Lakehead isn't the only place touting itself as a place of free thinking. A print campaign for Centennial College depicts students as scruffy individualists who evidently have no interest in behaving like adults-in-training. One execution features a young woman with multiple piercings, her tongue sticking out and her black hair hanging over her eyes, with the text: "The freak shall inherit the Earth." Another shows someone passed out near a slice of cold pizza, with the text: "You'd sleep 'til noon too if your plans included changing the world."
As with consumer advertising, sometimes educational marketers can stretch the boundaries of what their target audience considers good taste. This fall, Algoma University rolled out its so-called 681 km campaign, which emphasized the distance that students could put between themselves and their strict parents. (Sault Ste. Marie is approximately 681 kilometres from Toronto.) One poster featured a picture of a close-up midriff and the statement: "Put 681 km between you and 'You're not going out in that!'" Another read: "Put 681 km between you and 'You better be in by ten mister!'" A line at the bottom urged students: "Plan your escape at experience.algomau.ca."
But if prospective partiers - sorry, students - were intrigued, others were not amused. Some alumni wrote to the university and local press to complain their alma mater was sullying its reputation. The Algoma Students Union held an emergency meeting to discuss the issue.
While Algoma's and Centennial's campaigns are eye-catching, they don't necessarily do much to enhance the universities' brands.
Karo's Mr. Lee believes that universities and colleges need to focus on the emotional essence of their offerings. "When businesses think of what their brand represents, they look at the real, tangible things they can represent - size of classes, dollars in the endowment, research - and it becomes a feature war, like tech companies talking about how fast their microprocessors are."
There is one problem with that, of course: "When they market themselves that way, they're setting up for direct comparisons, and not tapping into what is important for their audience at an engaging, emotional level," Mr. Lee says. Which is why much of the work Karo has done for Simon Fraser University appeals to prospective students in unconventional ways.
Over the past few months, SFU recruiters visited high school classrooms across B.C. and the country to try to give a sense of what it means to attend the university. In the past, the university realized prospective students had had difficulty grasping what, exactly, SFU meant when it said it offered an interdisciplinary education; the words themselves were falling flat. So, instructed by the Vancouver-based corporate entertainment and training company Rock Paper Scissors, the recruiters put aside the usual dull PowerPoint presentations that talked up class sizes and the award-winning professors, in favour of a game that had the students brainstorm to solve problems using the different disciplines taught at SFU: How, for example, would geography, computer science and dance help provide medical assistance in a remote area of the B.C. Interior? At the end, Mr. Lee said, the recruiters would tell the students: "What you've just experienced in the last five minutes is what it's like to think at SFU."
Now, he explained, "The kids walk out of that with a feeling of the SFU brand, without being told what the brand is."