I just saw Dumb Money last weekend, and ever the critic, I have a lot of takes. But, what surprised and delighted me was the sense of time it created, even though the movie’s events took place a mere 18-24 months ago.
While I am not taking you back quite as far, let’s take a mental trip back to 2022. Julia Fox kicked off the year with the weirdest pronunciation of Uncut Gems that you’ve ever heard. Russia invaded Ukraine, and we all learned how imperial Vladimir Putin has been all this time. I tried to expedite my Spanish acquisition by listening to Bad Bunny (note: my Spanish is not ready for Bad Bunny). The Don’t Worry Darling release drama drew us deep into the lives of Olivia Wilde and Ted Lasso’s Jason Sudeikis. Lizzo was still our hero of the moment.
Okay. Now that I’ve set the stage… Marketing in general (not marketing in higher education specifically) was in a total free-for-all, bad-year panic. Economists were projecting a recession to hit at any moment. We saw signs of the great resignation slowing. And the buying patterns during the pandemic were changing, but they weren’t returning to the pre-pandemic predictable norms.
As a result, we saw major brands focus on purpose. This is when we saw Patagonia founder. Yvon Chouinard, relinquish ownership and invest all future profits into a trust to fight climate change.
We also saw major brands invest in more experiential and thoughtful brand-building activities. For example, Chipotle held job fairs on Discord after raising their minimum pay to $15 an hour and created a corn maze game in Roblox, offering the first 30,000 game completers free burritos.
We also saw brands struggle with their values as they jumped on social trends or sponsored events with competing interests. Domino’s Pizza and McDonald’s posted absurd condolence messages after Queen Elizabeth II passed. Brands like Coca-Cola and Visa struggled after sponsoring the FIFA World Cup event in Qatar when customers brought to light Qatar’s track record on human rights.
The lesson that came from this unpredictable and kind of wild year for marketing was that the businesses willing to invest in their brand and commit to their purpose are the businesses that consumers continually trust.
However, post-pandemic consumers are more critical, more savvy, and just plain fatigued. They are attracted to brands they can trust and are instantly skeptical of, if not cynical about, brands that jump on trends for flash-in-the-pan reach or create showy promotions for short-term gains.
Let’s come back to 2023.
The weirdness in marketing continues. Again, it’s not just the higher education sector. Firms are scrambling to determine the value and processes for leveraging AI to increase productivity. Effects as far-ranging as brand erosion and experimentation in the marketplace can be attributed to inflation. Consumer loyalty is unstable and unreliable now.
On the one hand, it might feel like cold comfort to hear that marketing and digital strategy professionals everywhere are struggling. After all, if some of us need to change sectors in a few months’ time, it would be nice to hear that things aren’t so bad out there. On the other hand, there is so much to learn from other industries right now.
Brand loyalty is fragile right now.
So, take care of the people you have. Customer retention is key for these industries. We should be thinking about what impact marketing and digital strategy can have on the student experience and retention efforts of our colleges. Sometimes, it’s as simple as ensuring that students know what services are available to them and how they can take advantage of those services when needed.
Discernment and brand skepticism are high.
Be intentional and committed to your brand purpose at all times. If you’ve promised prospective students an affordable and flexible program in your marketing, what are you doing organizationally to ensure those promises are kept? Are you checking back with your students to know what they think your strongest attributes are?
Also, be wary of gimmicky strategies to bring in short-term gains. You risk eroding trust further. It may be fun to jump on the latest TikTok trend or join larger brands in adding to the social commentary. But if it doesn’t feel relevant and authentic to your community, your community will feel that desperation for content engagement. And they will turn on you. Additionally, you risk supporting or detracting from the wrong thing. At a time with so much uncertainty, your community needs to know you are fulfilling your promises and standing up for your purpose, not getting distracted by opportunities to ride the wave of internet popularity.
Inflation and costs have scared our prospects.
Offer students a feeling of safety and be a partner in derisking their educational investment. The more students and parents trust that you want for them what they want for themselves - the more likely they are to stick with you.
Higher education feels riskier than ever.
So be clear to students that they have multiple options for seeking help and recovering from mistakes.
And be especially direct to parents that you will do everything you can to provide expert advice, strong financial support, and clear communications.
- Kristin Van Dorn