Insights — CMOLab 2024: Elevating Higher Ed Marketing through Strategy and Experience

CMOLab 2024: Elevating Higher Ed Marketing through Strategy and Experience

CMOLab , 2023-2024 CMO Study / June 24, 2024
Jason Simon
Jason Simon

Summer: a time to unwind and enjoy a nice breeze or the heat of a beach. In higher ed, summer means a quiet campus and a time to reflect, recharge, and plan for the year ahead. And for higher ed marketing communications professionals, there's opportunity for planning, professional development, and team-building. Right?


I'm not sure what ideal you're living in, but those who think higher education enjoys a slow, leisurely pace aren't marketing communications professionals. That's why welcoming nearly 70 higher ed marketing professionals to Pittsburgh two weeks ago for our third annual CMOLab event was so special.


And, I'm reflecting on five key takeaways from this year's conversations and sessions: 

  1. Everything is politics. 
  2. Know the business strategy of your institution. 
  3. Brand management = managing brand risk. 
  4. Brand experience may be the differentiator you seek. 
  5. Determining your brand's value is worth every cent. 

Everything is politics (especially in a divisive election year).

Our country is in the crosshairs of cultural, social, and racial conflict. It's not about policy; it's about ideology. And higher education has become an early target. The issues surrounding campus protests, DEI, and "wokeness" have been used by
Republicans to drive a wedge for the last 5-10 years. Interestingly, politics and how marketing communications professionals handle the issues (and their impact) are beginning to hit marketers even more directly. Recent news of the firing of nearly two dozen marcom staff at UT or tying faculty and staff layoffs to short-term enrollment challenges from protests at Emerson is a harbinger of the political impact these roles will increasingly face in their jobs and day-to-day.

If you're interested in hearing more about how recent political events have affected prospective students and parents' perceptions of higher ed, be sure to sign up and save your seat for our upcoming webinar on June 27.

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Know the business strategy of your institution.

As detailed in our CMO studies, the CMO role has undoubtedly grown in the last ten years. Congratulations, you've earned a seat at the table. Now, marketers need to understand the customer, business strategy, and long-term visions for their institution or suffer the consequences (like working on things that don't matter or being left out of the next big thing). You'll notice that I used business lingo when making that statement. It's intentional. Let's stop the dancing around business problems that universities face. Marketing communications pros need to own that terminology to continue professionalizing the role in the same ways CFOs or CIOs own the P&L or tech stack.

The biggest question one of our CMOLab attendees faced throughout our week together was
whether her school would bail out an institution that abruptly closed. M&A is a hot topic as institutions face closures or opportunities to expand markets. These decisions impact university brands that are strategic (how are we adding value) and tactical (how to blend identity). It has been fascinating to watch Northeastern University's steady brand growth over the last ten years, built on a strategy of acquisition, growing market share, and building reputation. The Boston-based institution that bought Mills College in Oakland, CA, is seeing record growth across multiple campus locations and recently bought Marymount Manhattan College in New York City. A smart marketing communications professional understands a business plan and grows the university's reputation alongside the strategy.  


Brand management = brand risk.

In late 2022, I wrote that brand management would be the focus for CMOs in 2023. It still is. But, while my emphasis previously centered around both alignment to stakeholder needs and busting traditional silos at an institution, CMOs would be wise to consider all the various ways their brands are at risk of giving up oversight, control, or decision-making of things that are branding decisions in the truest sense of the definition.

As UCLA quarterback Chase Griffin points out in our latest Insights blog, the changing landscape of college athletics poses huge potential and risks. Athletics departments and college administrators are risking their brands through NIL deals that are left unchecked. Collectives align sponsors and student-athletes without brand or institutional approval, keeping the dollars flowing to student-athletes but placing the institution and athletes in risky situations. Sure, it's easy to think about how the logo gets used, but how about the ethical nature of potential sponsors or the undue influence of outside entities? The NBA and MLB have just had significant gambling issues that resulted in player suspensions and federal indictments. How long until this hits college campuses?  And most likely, the way in is through the NIL collectives.

Let's not kid ourselves that this is anything new, either. Third-party revenue share agreements – whether OPMs, enrollment, or college licensing – are major sources of revenue for schools. And, at a time when schools are challenged for revenue (either declining or opportunities to grow it), the scramble will be on. All of these examples mean major brand risk for chief brand managers.  

Brand experience may be the differentiator you seek.

At this point, many marcom shops have evolved from the press office or the on-campus print shop to sophisticated, intelligent, digitally-focused storytelling and content units. Our teams are adept at managing PR and crisis communications, but much of that work involves talking to stakeholders or telling their stories. These days, brands are primarily shaped by experiences. And, SimpsonScarborough is fortunate to have Corynn Myers, AVP of Strategy Planning and chief brand experience enthusiast.


Corynn delivered a terrific session to attendees entitled "The Next Big Thing (Is Already Here): The Student Experience," which delved into the science behind experience marketing: that perceptions and behaviors are most influenced when a customer's experiences meet their expectations of a brand. CMOLab attendees loved learning about the
Magic Castle Hotel, where guests can pick up a red hotline and order a free popsicle for themselves (or, more importantly, their kids) by the pool. Brand moments like these create experiences that are remarkable, relevant, reasonable, and repeatable. While we put our limited teams through the paces around content or social creation, let's consider how those hours could be invested in an experience that matters. Say, for example, what's it like for a newly deposited student to sign up for classes for the first time? Brand experience matters; for many schools, it might mean a lot more than another post on your website. 

Determining your brand's value is worth every cent.

CMOLab attendees spent a lot of time talking about how the influence of their roles has grown and how they feel appreciated as individuals. Yet, they still operate in environments where marketing communications' value and strategic nature must be constantly reinforced. Complicating matters, most attendees who joined us reported only collecting brand health metrics intermittently and reporting on it to their leadership infrequently. Additionally, like many who attended our CMO Study measurement chapter webinar, we heard that university presidents care most about brand reputation and awareness. The challenge in getting leadership to care about marketing measurement is quantifying it in ways that garner attention and contribute to the bottom line.


Carol Keese, VP of Communications at The University of Oregon, led a terrific session on quantifying a higher ed brand's monetary value, noting that the operating budget of the nation's top 100 universities would put them among the bottom 30% of the Fortune 500. Licensing revenue can be a tremendous leverage point in proving brand value, but many marketing leaders have little to no control or influence on licensing. Finding a meaningful way to show how marketing drives brand value will continue to elevate the significance and opportunity for senior leaders. 


As you can tell, the conversations and attendees at our CMOLab events propel the higher ed industry forward. Those who attend are not only among the busiest and most challenged individuals, but also some of the most visionary leaders in our field. It was a joy to engage in celebrations, discussions, and reflections on the future directions of the chief marketing communications role, both in the short term and for the years to come.


Jason Simon became SimpsonScarborough’s CEO in 2020 and has led the agency’s growth while championing the value of higher education and ensuring our work has a lasting impact. He lives in Oakland, CA, and if he's not working, he's likely on a tennis court. His favorite movie is Ferris Bueller's Day Off, and his favorite song is Clem Snide's "Love the Unknown." If you're familiar with either, you can figure him out pretty easily.

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