Education Marketing: The Case for Change

Education Marketing is less about education and more about marketing. It stands almost external to the process of education, a discipline that seeks to import 'best practices' from famed marketers such as P&G, the guerrilla tricks of the trade, the manufactured love of relationship marketing, from consumer goods to education. The underlying belief is that educators don't market well and they need to take lessons from the more 'sophisticated' product and service companies, which have been marketing for scores of years.

On the educators' side, some people are revolted by the practise of marketing. Particularly the people who studied or worked at the top institutions, which sit with centuries of well-earned reputation, can't really see the point: For them, education marketing is something for gate-crashers, the For-Profit pretenders. It is indeed true that For-Profits spend an unusual amount of money on sales and marketing: However, this is not just because the competition is fierce in the For-Profit space, which it is, but also because they believe it is to be done that way. In a sense, they believe in exactly the same principles marketing consultants believe in - that educators need to learn marketing from consumer goods companies. Such faith is mutually beneficial: For-Profits spend the money, marketers get them.

There is nothing to worry about this convenient arrangement, top institutions thriving on their reputation, for-profits spending money on marketing and media owners and marketing consultants promoting a new discipline of education marketing, except that it is - as I stated at the very beginning - more about marketing than about education. Because of our blind faith in it, particularly on the For-Profit side of the divide, we let marketing define what education does: The problem is, this is not sustainable.

If anything, education marketing is overdone already. But this is even before someone could pause the conversation and explored what education marketing would mean. The marketing consultants often look pathetic when trying to sell education: Their toolkit is limited to big, shouting adverts about one or the other ranking tables or placement records, or cliched testimonials in which the students seem to say the same words about all the schools, or all the things about the same school. And, in the process, everything else, how the school looks, which degree does it give out, who may have visited the school last summer, what is the race identity of its teachers, how is the social life of the school and its placement record,  get discussed, except the fact that the school teaches anything at all. The conversation, if you call it a conversation and not cacophony, is about everything but the process and substance of education.

Which makes it problematic, even for the marketers. While they may have learnt from P&G that it is not the ingredients of the soap but its customer experience that should build the marketing message, they seem to mix up which is which when it comes to education. The degree, the placement, the social life, the food, the guest lectures may look very important, and seem to make up the customer experience, but they are not: They are, or should be, merely side shows, ingredients, of a successful school experience. It is what happens inside the classrooms, whether the students come out empowered, enlightened, emboldened, ready to see the world in a new light, is the customer experience of education: It is what this is all about.

This point is largely forgotten in education marketing. How many times a classroom photo features in an advert, or a website? Admittedly, good looking students, almost improbably holding a pen rather than a wine glass, make it: But how seldom this is about discovery, knowledge and empowerment, and how common it is to talk about placement, ranking and affiliations? It is easy to spot that education marketing has run out of ideas, borrowed ideas, and intent on changing the product itself. When it is only prestige that is being hawked, rival standards of prestige crop up. When it is only outcomes being compared, another clever bunch of marketers are employed to confuse the standards and turn the whole exercise meaningless. In the end, education marketing becomes a leap of faith: A couple of places on Google Ranking making or breaking an institution.

But, then, this is the lazy way, of marketing, of education. This is the business of making fools, not of creating sentient human beings. This path is not of knowledge, but of consumption, if we employ traditional rhetoric to describe the situation. And, instead of creating demand for education, it makes it phony and insubstantial, and eventually destroy demand. It re-affirms the snobbish British expression - Mickey-mouse Degrees - and makes it lovable again. But, more damagingly, it leaves educators brain-dead, engaged in games of climbing ranking ladders and pimping endorsements, and completely oblivious that they have a job to do inside the classroom.

Now, a marketer may turn around and claim that there is no way to market education other than by the outcome, but I shall disagree. The process of education is the experience itself, and immersing a seeker of education in the process, in the conversation or in the transcendence that good education brings about, is the best way to market education. This is why I am so enthusiastic about MOOCs, the brilliant EdX where I am now being able to attend Michael Sandel's Justice course for free, for example: I believe platforms such as this, rather than Google (metaphorically speaking) will become the primary marketing tools for education. Just as people are sceptical, with an overdose of marketing claims, whether education can deliver on any of the promises it seems to make, exposure such as these open up a different possibility. It brings knowledge back into the education, and transcendence, freedom and enlightenment, rather than placement, back into the mix. 

If my approach to education marketing looks terribly outdated, let me sum it up in a slogan to describe what I mean - We let you interview companies at our school! Once the institution appears desperate for placement, at this day and age where every major economy is facing a severe skills shortage, the message is clear: The education hasn't happened. Marketers may be trying their best to wrap this secret with the 9th P, pretension, but it is not working. It is time, therefore, to change the conversation, and make education marketing more about education.


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