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August 24

Surprising Students With Mission-fit Brand Storytelling


by | Aug 24, 2023 | Branding, Featured, Podcast

Mission-fit brand storytelling is an essential piece of higher ed content marketing. 

That sounds straightforward on paper, but many schools struggle to attract students by meeting them where they are.

Too often, our messaging gets bogged down in a confusing mix of institution centered content leaving our target audiences perplexed rather than motivated.

In our excitement, many times we tell them all the cool things about ourselves forgetting to listen to what’s important to them first. 

Neal Foard teaches us in this conversation how to attract mission-fit students through authentic brand storytelling. Neal Foard, Chief Marketing Officer at Within, Inc., thinks too many marketing teams are adrift in a sea of algorithms and analytics and have lost sight of their true purpose.

Neal believes marketers must stop chasing heroic individualism and come together to celebrate their students as a team, and that starts with addressing their students’ self-interests first.    

In this blog post, I want to show you the highlights of our conversation with Neal on The Higher Ed Marketer podcast. 

The Problem with Metrics 

At the beginning of our conversation, Neal shared what he feels to be a big issue in the world of marketing, both in higher education and beyond.

Neal shared how metrics and analytic goals—both really good things in their own right—can too often become motivators for unethical messaging tactics.

The problem is the metrics. It’s what we get measured for. It’s what we get judged on. It’s what we get paid to produce. 

Frequently, in service of a metric, we lose sight of what we’re really doing it for.

And when we lose sight of why we are doing the marketing in the first place, we can be tempted to bend the truth slightly in our headers and content to drive more traffic and ultimately, conversions.

We think we’re doing the right thing, because we’re getting a lot of clicks for our boss. But in fact, what you’re doing is perhaps potentially polluting the marketplace. 

I’ll give you a good example from the world of advertising. You’ve got this drink you want to make popular. Your boss comes to you and says, “I need a way to market this drink so that people will want it.”

It tastes a little bit like orange juice, but it’s not orange juice. So you can’t call it “orange juice.” Instead, you call it an “orange juice beverage,” knowing that people are going to mishear you.

It is your willingness to make that mistake deliberately where we get off the rails when people decide “I’m off the hook because I didn’t lie. I didn’t call it orange juice!” 

It is our willingness as participants in this system to just try to hit the metric that our boss wanted us to hit, to fudge it a little, and bend the rules slightly, and be a little less human that gets us into trouble.

You have to be very careful as a marketer to establish metrics that don’t let you cheat.

Now, if you’re thinking that we as higher ed marketers would never do an unethical thing like that, let me offer some respectful pushback.

The Importance of Telling the Truth

Are you really focused on cultivating mission-fit students that are going to succeed at your school or are you simply taking in anybody who wants to apply?  

Many would likely say that they just want to get everybody who can apply to come to their school. 

However, the consequences of not qualifying prospects through honest brand storytelling in our marketing can be devastating.

What happens when your retention and graduation rates go down to 50% because half the students who started never finished? 

There’s the problem we tend to have as higher ed marketers when it comes to being completely honest in our brand storytelling. 

The highest obligation of any marketing is to pursue the fit between the mission of the school and the people you attract.

[Your brand storytelling should get] to the point where people show up because they were attracted to what you said about yourself. 

That’s what they discover—the truth. They found that you were being honest, that [your messaging] was the truth. 

[As a result,] they thrive there, because that’s what they wanted. 

Now, it may be that you don’t ultimately have a 100% graduation rate for a variety of reasons. It may be that somebody realizes that [your school is] not really what they were after. 

But a marketer’s job is to make sure that they tell the truth sufficiently so that it draws the right kind of person, the kind of person who is deeply satisfied by the experience they had. Because, that’s what they really wanted [the whole time]. 

If we don’t understand who we are, and if we don’t understand which students are the best fit for our schools, then we are going to continue to set up a lot of students for failure.

On the other hand, if we know who we are and who the people are who are most likely to succeed at our institutions, we can cause our schools to grow sustainably and with minimal student attrition. 

It’s our job as marketers to go out and find mission-fit students, to find the watering holes where they are hanging out, and attract them to our education brands. 

Telling the Truth through Brand Storytelling

So how can we identify and motivate truly mission-fit prospective students to enroll and ultimately make it to graduation?

Tell the truth, but tell it with a story.

Procter and Gamble [does] battle with everybody else on the grocery store shelf. [They] really are measured on the most brutal metrics: how much shelf space do we occupy? 

A.G. Lafley, the CEO of Procter and Gamble, had a kind of mission to be about something more than clean clothes, 20% whiter clothes, or 15% whiter teeth.

During the Sochi Olympics, they were going to buy a very, very expensive piece of television advertising. A.G. Lafley didn’t want to just tell the story [of what their products could do]. His explicit instruction, as I heard it, was that he wanted the creative people to “write a love letter to the people that buy our products.”

Ultimately, the story they told [in their TV advertisements] was a beautifully shot montage from several different households around the world. They had a series of infants growing up, one in Russia, one in Canada, one in the United States. 

The little infants are falling, and the mothers are picking them up and in the different languages saying “Get back up! Come on. Let’s go again!” 

Then the little infants became toddlers and the toddlers are in ice skates, skis, or snowboards. As they’re getting bigger, they’re falling down on the ice and falling down in the snow. Perpetually, the mother is there to help them get back up. 

Later, they’re teenagers, and it’s the same thing. They’re crashing, colliding, falling, hurting their knees, and spraining their wrists. And there is the mother to put the ice pack on and encourage them. 

Then now [the once infants are now adults] in competition. They’re failing again and again in competition. They’re not quite making the jump, not scoring the goal, and they’re getting smashed against the boards. But again, the mother is there to [support] them in rehab. 

Ultimately, the commercial shows them in the Olympics. In the moment of triumph—in the moment when they finally land the jump and they score the winning goal—what do you think all the athletes do first? 

They look for their mothers. 

The triumph is not their own. The triumph is shared. You can see how universal it is and how it transcends national borders. 

In that moment, what does Procter and Gamble say? They say, “For always helping us keep getting up. Thanks, Mom.”

At the end, it says “P&G, proud sponsor of moms.” 

“Write me a love letter to our customers.” As it happens, sales of Procter and Gamble products spiked. 

This is just one of numerous examples of truthful brand storytelling that Neal shared with us in this podcast episode

Telling the truth, but doing so with a creative brand storytelling flair, is a powerful way to find and attract mission-fit students.

Discover more when you listen to the podcast!

Like all of our blog post reviews of The Higher Ed Marketer podcasts, there’s so much more to learn in the podcasts themselves.

Listen to our interview with Neal Foard to get even more insights into:

  • The unintended consequences of marketing metrics (6:29)
  • Collaboration and the creative spirit in people’s differences (16:08)
  • Humanizing stories by putting the audience first (25:52) 

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