Elliance Shares ABCs of Underdog Branding at Higher Education Marketing Conference

January 05, 2011

While some colleges report record applications and enrollment, many more face a “perfect storm” of declining demographics, shrinking endowments and fierce competition from online and for-profit players. As a higher education marketing company, Elliance has shown that pursuing “right-fit” students with a sound strategic mix of brand, web, social and mobile marketing can help underdog schools and programs defy the odds and succeed.

At the 2011 CASE District I Conference (January 26-28 in Boston, Mass.) Elliance will share insights on higher education marketing in the session, "ABCs of Underdog Branding."

Led by R. Todd Erkel, Higher Education Practice Manager at Elliance, and Jarod Burrer, Director of Public Relations at Appalachian Bible College, the session will cover the use of search engine marketing, social media and PR 2.0 to reverse declining enrollment, launch new programs, expand geographic reach, engage alumni and support long-range advancement goals.

“Underdogs reach a point where they’re willing to question conventional wisdom and longstanding assumptions,” says Erkel, a writer-strategist with more than 20 years of higher education marketing experience. “When complacency ceases being an option, colleges start to think and act like a business intent on thriving in a changing market.”

What is an Underdog Brand?

Demographics are shifting – the typical U.S. college student now has a job, a family, is enrolled part-time, or some combination of all three. These shifting demographics, combined with other factors including geographic isolation, and deep-pocketed for-profits, have a very real consequence. In fact, according to consulting firm The Education Alliance, over the past 20 years, 200 U.S. universities have merged or closed, more than 50 during the previous enrollment downturn of the early 1990s.

But adversity can actually inspire a college or university to challenge assumptions and try new approaches to gain the necessary competitive advantage.

Elliance calls these schools "underdog brands."

What Does It Take?

Ultimately, it takes leadership for an underdog school to win. While there are plenty of examples of departments and programs that rise above, it’s always best when a vision emerges from the top. College presidents alone have the perspective and forum to articulate and share a vision that is far-reaching — touching accreditation, corporate and foundation relations, bond rating, media, alumni, faculty recruitment and more.

While many would consider a website too small a detail for a college president’s time or concern, the most successful underdog brands recognize that a school website opens a doorway to the heart of the brand. Determined underdog brands treat a website re-launch as an opportunity to expand market share and change institutional culture — something worthy of capital budget consideration — rather than a marketing line item.

Beyond the website, underdog brands embrace the full spectrum of interactive higher education marketing. Consider that in 2011, according to a recent eMarketer report, four out of five U.S. businesses with 100 or more employees will use social media marketing. This marks a dramatic change from 2008, when just 42 percent of companies marketed via social media.

Leading the Underdog

Elliance has been fortunate to work with a number of underdog colleges and universities. While each relationship has been different, they all share the desire to throw off old chains and assumptions, and pursue an unfair competitive advantage using interactive marketing.

Appalachian Bible College

At the top of the communications upgrade for this small, West Virginia Bible college was a web redesign to establish it as a serious academic alternative to larger, better-known competitors. 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.

Pepperdine University’s Graziadio School of Business

It’s not just size though that makes for a good underdog story. Elliance has helped Pepperdine University’s Graziadio School of Business — a small giant — compete in a crowded Los Angeles Metro market, amidst aggressive brands positioned above and below them in terms of academic quality. By finding its “strong to impenetrable differentiation,” Pepperdine has refocused its messages and marketing spend, attracting more right-fit students.

Lexington College

The four-year Bachelors in Hospitality Management School in Chicago may be the smallest and least well known of the city’s many culinary schools, both degree and non-degree, for-profit and endowed. Under President Susan Mangels, the college enthusiastically adopted Elliance's interactive marketing strategy, using small web upgrades, search engine marketing and PR 2.0 to boost enrollment.

The Time is Now

After a decade of indifference, higher education leaders are now awakening to the potential sitting dormant in their interactive assets, and to the fact that higher education demographics and marketing methods are changing. Web. Search engines. Social media. Mobile. Interactive is no longer complementary. It is mission critical.

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. For example, with Elliance's help Duquesne University was able to more than double enrollment between years one and two of its new MBA Sustainability program. And student quality soared: average GMATS climbed almost 40 points in less than two years, and top applicants came with GMATS above 600 — a new threshold

Underdog or not, now is not the time for small plans and modest investment or ambitions.

Elliance's Higher Education Marketing Practice Manager Todd Erkel, along with Appalachian Bible College's Director of Public Relation Jarod Burrer present "The ABCs of Underdog Branding" Thurs., Jan. 27, at the 2011 CASE District I Conference in Boston, Mass. To learn more, visit  www.cased1conference.org

Elliance, an interactive marketing company, leverages search engines, social media, websites and email/surveys to ignite customer demand and orchestrate conversions. Past and present higher education clients include Carnegie Mellon University, Drexel University, St. Edward’s University, Pepperdine University, Appalachian Bible College, Duquesne University, Robert Morris University and many others.. Learn more about the company and its products at www.elliance.com and www.ennect.com.