Monday, September 27, 2010

How NOT to target your marketing messages

A lot has been said about the Drake University's "D+ advantage" marketing campaign. Stamats offers a good explanation of its recommended strategy (the classic three-option conservative/edgy/"courageous" approach) on its blog, and I applaud the creativity and research that went into investigating on how the message would resonate with its target audience: college-bound teens.

Drake administrators learned a hard lesson when its other audiences (faculty, alumni and the news media) picked up on this unusual theme. According to the Associated Press, Drake has scaled back the prominence of the "D+" symbol and in doing so its president noted that "we learn from our experiences."

Drake is far from being the only university to struggle with the balance between appealing to younger audiences while not alienating other important groups. I've witnessed many battles of this kind over my career. Most IHEs are critically dependent on undergraduate tuition, and it's easy to forget the interests of others when targeting this all-important teen audience.

As fun as it is to develop a campaign that's outside the box, good communicators need to always think of how their messages will be received by peripheral audiences. What works for college-bound teens could have a much worse effect on the potential applicant pool for graduate and professional schools. The negative waves among academics might even be reflected in the U.S. News peer reputation surveys (and the graduate school ones are expected to be out shortly).

So how can university marketing departments successfully navigate these murky waters?
  • Never forget your overall brand. No advertising trend or campaign should ever contradict your institution's bigger brand strategy. Some universities have a culture that value being on the creative edge of society, while others are steeped in tradition. Most have a complex blend of diverse perspectives.
  • Consider the worst case scenario, then decide if it matters. Changing the tone of your copy or the style of your layout on communication vehicles that are specific to your audience are unlikely to affect other audiences greatly. Building an entire marketing campaign around a joke is a bit more risky. Determine how much risk you can assume with negative reactions from others, and mitigate those risks if necessary.
  • When in doubt, ask around. If you're not sure about how others might perceive your concept, just ask. Take advantage of the good relationships you've built with your counterparts around campus to get their candid feedback before you launch your new campaign. One of my favorite ad concepts for an NFL program (pictured) was rejected because my university has been investigating bringing back non-scholarship football after a nearly 60-year hiatus. One could argue that the ad would still work and draw attention, but it didn't pass the "is it worth it?" test.

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