Published on 2013/03/19
AUDIO | The Role of Brand in Marketing Continuing Education
While it is critical for continuing and professional education units to stay true to their university’s brand, they must also work to brand themselves as independent units, and to differentiate themselves from other institutions.

The following interview is with Marilou Cruz, manager of marketing and communications at Ryerson University’s G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education. Cruz and her team have been very successful in developing advertising campaigns and promoting the brand of The Chang School. In this interview, Cruz discusses the importance of brand in higher education marketing, the challenges in branding a unit within a larger university and how the importance of brand will evolve over the next 10 years.

1. When marketing higher education programs today, how critical is brand when potential enrollees are making their enrollment decisions?

Well, clearly, the brand is an important factor in determining for education as it is with many purchasing decisions. So, for example, when one looks at MBA programs, there’s a ton of choices out there, but only a few brands that usually come to mind quickly. The same applies in continuing education.

There [is] tons of competition, and not just in a university and college level, but even private colleges. So, the challenge … us marketers have is: how to stand out in the cluttered world of advertising? So, that’s why The Chang School invests a lot in making sure we distinguish ourselves in this cluttered world of advertising here in Toronto. And we’ve also started marketing ourselves nationally, across Canada, and also making sure that we’re associated and aligned with the Ryerson brand.

2. With the changes that have begun to take place in the higher education marketplace —from the growth of MOOC providers and other private colleges, as you mentioned, to the online learning niche being filled by smaller institutions from elsewhere across the country — how will the importance of brand change in 10 years’ time?

The types of education, the delivery of education, the pricing structure of education and the increasing importance of education to career-oriented people mean that the field is going to be more competitive. So the brand is going to continue to be a key factor in choosing where to get the education.

I always think of the brand as a living organism, where it must evolve with, and where possible, ahead of, the change curve so it is seen to be a leader. And if it can achieve and retain that status, then it will … generate high enrollees and interest in continuing education.

I’ll give an example. We invest a lot in search engine optimization … and we find that the number one initiative or tactic that leads to conversion is brand. And that’s when we get … a lot of clicks through our brand advertising through search engine optimization. So my take on this is that, when you’re doing search engine optimization, I think people will start typing in the brand, and then the product or the course and program. …

I think the Ryerson brand also brings credibility and its longevity, so I mean, we’re not the fly-by-night schools. Our students also have — and alumni — we have relationships with our schools. So we also use them as advocates for recruiting new students and I think we should also take advantage of that.

3. Does the rapid proliferation of social media vehicles change the importance of brand in any way? If so, how will these changes impact the way institutions market themselves in 10 years?

Everyone wants to get into Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter and, unfortunately, we sometimes become victims of the shining silver object where one university is doing Facebook so we get a request, “Oh, well, someone else is doing Facebook; we gotta do Facebook too!”

I think, from a marketing standpoint, we need to first have a strategy, understand why we’re doing this and understand the role of social media. …The role of social media is not to sell courses. It’s about starting a conversation, it’s about keeping your students engaged, it’s about building a community of students who can talk about the brand, who can even talk about the courses and programs. It’s not the right vehicle to sell courses.

So, in essence, it’s not about the media, it’s about how the people use the media. As we see today, social media, as I mentioned, is an incredibly powerful influence on brand. If a brand lets a customer down, it’s out there immediately for the world to see. So, again, it goes back to the strategy. Understanding why we’re using social media and the role of social media.

4. When we’re looking at the marketing of individual colleges and universities, how will the role of the university brand, in 10 years’ time, influence the way that those colleges and units market themselves?

First of all, [Ryerson] has a very established brand in Canada and especially in Toronto as well. I think other faculties or other units — such as The Chang School Continuing Education unit — we need to align ourselves with the Ryerson brand and the Ryerson reputation and that’s how we market ourselves.

5. Looking into the future then, do you think that relationship is going to stay the same in 10 years or will colleges and individual units, like The Chang School, gain enough of their own reputation to start marketing themselves as standalones without using the universities’ clout?

I think we should really capitalize on the mother brand or the main brand. However, again, back to my initial point, our challenge is: how do we align ourselves with a main brand but at the same time remain distinct in the marketplace? And by doing so, we need to really be able to identify what makes us unique from the other universities. What is our value proposition? What is something that we can offer our students of value that other universities don’t?

For example, our courses are university degree-credit courses, and that’s one of the distinctions that … makes us distinct from the other universities. Every university they claim — and we do also — … that we have instructors who are in the field and so do other universities. So we need to really understand, what are we offering that other universities are not offering?

6. Is there anything you’d like to add about how the role of brand in higher education marketing is going to change in 10 years and with the specific focus on continuing education units?

I think, overall, it’s important to align ourselves with a main university’s brand, but again continue to understand your own unit’s value proposition. Continue to hone in on, and be consistent with, your messaging on how you can distinguish yourself from the other universities.

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Readers Comments

Rhonda White 2013/03/19 at 10:47 am

While I can understand the importance of having a CE unit’s brand align with the overall institutional brand to create a sense of cohesion, I’m struggling to identify other benefits this linking up could have.

The main institution tends to target ‘traditional’ (undergraduate) students while CE programs are generally aimed at adult, nontraditional students. Would the latter group of students necessarily recognize the positive reputation that an institution has among the former group? I’m not so sure. It may be more useful to focus on building a CE brand that speaks to the target group (adult students)’s needs.

Aaron Stark 2013/03/19 at 7:24 pm

Marilou Cruz raises some interesting issues for continuing education units to consider. She offers good advice for institutions to consider marketing strategy above mechanism, particularly when it comes to social media. Jumping on the bandwagon without a clear strategy (and understanding of why you’re doing it) is risky. Joining social media means suddenly exposing yourself to a much broader audience and greater scrutiny, and having a well-articulated strategy that is supported by all administrators is necessary to ensure you retain control of your brand and can continue to build it in positive ways. Great interview!

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