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Brand vs. Performance Marketing: Playing the Long Game without Losing Your Shirt

Higher ed advertising is big business. In 2019, colleges and universities collectively spent an estimated $2.2 billion on advertising. And this number has only gone up. Between 2021 and 2022, spending on higher ed advertising increased 104%. This growth is impressive, but closer inspection shows some channels benefited more than others. Top of the list? Paid search. At a time when overall spending roughly doubled, spending on paid search nearly tripled. 

On one hand, there’s nothing particularly surprising about this tripling down on paid search. After all, paid search is often the fastest way for tuition-dependent institutions to fill their pipeline with inquiries. It’s also one of the easiest media channels to track and measure, which is especially welcome for higher ed marketers looking to maximize thin advertising budgets and justify their advertising expenditures to university leadership. 

There is no doubt that the tools of modern digital marketing are a technological wonder. They’re also a major problem. 

The Two Jobs of Advertising

Over the last 15 years, marketing researchers have made incredible strides in showing us how advertising actually works. In some cases, this work has completely upended widely championed concepts like brand loyalty. In other cases, it’s provided empirical evidence for things that marketers always suspected were true but could never quite prove, like the performance-multiplying effect of strong ad creative. One of the most important findings—arguably THE most important finding—is that advertising works in two distinct but complementary ways.

Advertising, it turns out, is quite a bit like farming. At the most basic level, farmers have two jobs: cultivating and harvesting crops. Harvesting, of course, is the ultimate goal and the activity that is most directly associated with putting food on the table. Yet, every farmer knows that you can’t skip straight to the harvest. In order to have anything worth harvesting, you have to first invest heavily in cultivating the crop. 

Marketers, like farmers, are also responsible for cultivation and harvesting, but of a different kind. Instead of crops, the marketer’s focus is on demand. In advertising, we harvest demand through performance marketing (aka, direct response advertising, sales activation). Using this approach, we intercept individuals who are actively in-market and provoke them to take immediate action like completing an RFI form, downloading a program brochure, scheduling a visit, or starting their admissions app. 

But just like a farmer can’t be in harvest mode all the time, neither can an advertiser. Marketers who invest heavily and exclusively in performance advertising eventually run up against diminishing returns. As they and their conversion-hungry competition soak up the finite amount of existing demand, the cost of each acquisition begins to climb and eventually becomes unsustainable. At this point, adding more dollars to the performance marketing furnace no longer makes sense and a new approach is needed to reach the next level. Advertisers’ tool of choice? Brand marketing.

While long-term brand-building is ultimately a collective, institution-wide effort, brand marketing plays an essential role in helping an institution take charge of its own story and connect with audiences that it otherwise might not be able to reach. Unlike its conversion-focused counterpart, brand marketing focuses on reaching the largest relevant audience possible. Within the context of higher education, this means thinking beyond those select few students who are actively engaged in their college search and looking toward those audiences that will help secure the future of the institution. This includes future prospective students, parents, high school counselors, alumni, community leaders, and other influencers who could prove pivotal in a student’s choice to consider, apply, and enroll at an institution. 

The goal of brand marketing isn’t to generate students now, although that can happen as a side effect. The ultimate goal is to build memories and associations with your institution and then refresh them over and over in novel and varied ways. In so doing, advertisers quite literally strengthen neural connections in the minds of their audience, so that when they eventually enter the market, they’re more likely to remember and ultimately choose your institution. 

The Performance Advertising Trap and the Problem with Measurement

When the conversation is conceptual and in the early stages, the notion of taking charge of an institution’s narrative and broadcasting it to a broader audience typically gets nods from leaders outside the marketing department. The rub comes when it’s time to plan budgets and allocate dollars to brand-building. Often, the same leaders who insist on doing more to “tell our institution’s story” also want to know how many applications the new 30-second brand spot or out-of-home work is expected to generate. This puts marketing leaders in a tough position. On one hand, every fiber of their marketing experience (and a good bit of serious research) may indicate it’s the right thing to do. On the other hand, they’re rarely armed with the kind of convincing data their skeptical counterparts demand. Faced with the choice of saying “Just trust me” or going back to the tried-and-true performance marketing playbook they know their non-marketing peers will accept, marketers are heavily incentivized to choose the latter. 

At its core, the problem is one of measurement. Research from Analytic Partners shows that click-based measurement tools like Google Analytics and the dashboards found in advertising platforms like Google and Meta overstate the impact of digital advertising channels by an average of 2-10X while drastically understating the contribution of non-digital channels by an equal or even greater amount. As a result, marketers naturally gravitate toward the tactics that seem to have the clearest connection to enrollment and provoke the fewest furrowed brows from their boss. Unfortunately, in so doing, they undermine the long-term effectiveness of their advertising efforts. 

While the effects of neglected brand-building rarely show up all at once, here are a few tell-tale signs an institution might notice. 

Hidden Gem Syndrome (HGS). Many leaders take for granted that people in their immediate vicinity know their college or university, but this isn’t a safe bet. Time and again we’ve engaged with clients who’ve slowly become part of the wallpaper of their local communities through simple neglect. Inevitably, when we talk to these clients, someone (usually not in the marketing department) will drop the HGS bomb followed by a WHTTOS (we have to tell our story). HGS is the antithesis of brand-building and a sure sign yours has been neglected.

Steady declines in organic and direct traffic websites despite SEO. As a brand fades into the background, so too does the number of people searching for the brand online, even if the institution’s website itself is pristine from a search engine optimization standpoint. This is nothing to ignore. Changes in the volume of branded search have been shown to predict changes in market share in multiple industries. When you see a sustained decline in people searching for you online, pay attention. 

Diminishing returns on performance marketing. The returns you experience from performance marketing channels like paid search tend to move in a linear fashion with your budget until they don’t. At some point, if you invest enough, you’ll begin to experience diminishing returns through creeping costs per acquisition and lower down-funnel conversion rates. 

If your institution or an institution you know is experiencing these symptoms, contact us immediately.

Amping Up Your Brand Marketing

If brand advertising hasn’t been a major part of your institution’s marketing diet, all is not lost. Here are some practical steps you can take to get on track.

Diagnose your brand. Taking some time to study your brand is essential if you want to be an effective champion for brand-building. To that end, a solid brand study that includes some qualitative and quantitive findings is the place to start. Without this information, you’ll struggle to set the right objectives, lack the evidence to justify your investments, and almost certainly find yourself vulnerable to the highest-paid person’s opinion (aka, the HIPPO).

A good starting place is a solid brand study that includes qualitative work along with a survey of prospects, inquiries, applied/admitted students, current students, faculty and staff. Armed with this information, you’ll have an objective view of your brand’s strengths and weaknesses, and hopefully, internal consensus on where you need to go next.

Make it a team effort. As someone who operates on the agency side, I love a big, bold brand campaign. That said, brand-building is best viewed as a multidisciplinary project. Beyond bang-up ad creative and intelligent media planning, long-term brand marketing should include PR, alumni engagement, merchandising, organic social media, high school counselor outreach, summer camps, conferences, sponsorships, and strategic partnerships. While responsibility for some of these efforts may lie outside marcomm, marketing pros can add significant value to each of them.

Move beyond click-based measurement. It’s hard to make the case for brand advertising when your existing measurement tools are inherently biased toward short-term digital advertising. Fortunately, in recent years, more advanced methods of measurement like media mix modeling and incrementality tests have become more accessible to a broader range of advertisers. While none of these tools can answer every question you might have, they allow you to do things click-based measurement simply can’t like measuring the impact of traditional media and showing the causal link between individual media channels and the results you generate.

Start slow and build on your successes. Brand marketing and performance marketing are complementary. The question is simply one of balance. If you suspect your marketing plan is tilted too heavily on the performance side, it’s usually best to make incremental rather than wholesale changes. If you’re at 90% performance/10% brand, try an 80/20 or 75/25 split. Then measure, learn, and build the case based on your results. Both you and your bosses will sleep better at night.

Get up to speed on effectiveness research. Marketing has a mostly deserved reputation for being unscientific, but that’s starting to change. If you’re looking for a quick overview of the latest thinking, WARC’s The Anatomy of Effectiveness is a great starting place. If you really want to dive deeper, consider grabbing a copy of Les Binet’s and Peter Fields’ landmark work, The Long and the Short of It or books from the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science. Spending some time here will make you a more effective champion for brand-building. 

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Jarrett is our VP of Strategy and the torchbearer for all things digital. Since joining us in 2014, he’s made it his mission to help clients seize the power of smarter marketing strategies—and reap the rewards.