Why Higher Ed Marketing Must Be Integrated, Not Isolated.

William T. Moran’s framework is vital in an era of media fragmentation and rising consumer expectations.

6 minutes
By: Chris Huebner

There’s something to be said for revisiting the past to challenge or provide clarity for the future. As a society, when we grapple with the current state, it’s in our nature to look to those who can place what’s current in context. It doesn’t happen often, but the same can be said for marketing and communications. 

In a way we can always give a nod to Bernbach’s “unchanging man” or Samuel Johnson’s ails of gaining attention, strolling through 1750s London: “[advertisements have become] so numerous that they are very negligently perused.” 

Although we may not escape the volume, frequency or attention debate, we cannot help but look at the current privacy conversations, the decoupling and recoupling of television and the renewed interest in investing in billboards to show just how cyclical it all is. Some fundamentals will remain no matter the technology, no matter the channel choices and no matter the volume of think-pieces.

In the 1990s, and probably in many marketing meetings thereafter, heads nodded at the mention of integrated marketing and communications and its importance. As a concept, this may be the most vital principle to strengthening our higher education marketing investments. But what does that look like? Why has it fallen out of favor? What does successful integration look like as an outcome? More importantly, how do we keep from returning to our silos, which inevitably leads back to splintered communications?

To invest effectively in building higher ed brands, there must be a concerted effort to balance marketing activities. The future of higher education marketing should be founded on integration, not isolation. To get there, I’ve created a framework based on understanding brand, category, consumer and media truths. Framed as committed questions, the outcome can only work if teams are committed to not only collectively determining the answers but also creating a competitive advantage through an integrated effort. 

But first, I’d like to talk a little bit about “presence.”

Giving Presence Its Place

Another name to add to the list of Bernbach and Johnson is William T. Moran. Moran, once a vice president at Young and Rubicam, added “brand presence” to our timeless list of fundamentals.  “Brand Presence and the Perceptual Frame” — published in the Journal of Advertising Research — is a marketing geek’s holy grail and, subsequently, a higher education marketer’s roadmap. In it, Moran outlined how marketers should approach building their brands.

Aside from adding a fourth “P” (presence), Moran helped to provide a framework that, no matter how much we perceive things to have changed, is foundational or, dare I say, unchanging. 

These two processes are either improving utility (attributes), which changes perceived value, or changing presence, the ability to be thought of and available for purchase. Moran wrote, “Presence is the lubricator which simply facilitates sales by reducing the mental friction in the consumer’s decision-making process.”

Whether we end up in a cookie-less world or experience the collapse of social media, to increase our institutions’ “mental presence” (i.e., our marketing and communications) must be consistent, cohesive and integrated to achieve the impact we hope to have across the prospective student journey. Yet, this is getting hard to achieve.

  • Consumer Behavior: Prospective students are spending more time with media, and the number of media outlets used for consumption continues to grow. 
  • Media Fragmentation: Prospective students’ attention is divided across more media (and niche media) in ways that make it harder to achieve optimal reach and create a collective understanding of your brand. 
  • Expectancy Gap: Prospective students aren’t just evaluating current experience with an institution, they are bringing with them experiences outside of our industry and increasingly higher expectations.
  • Production Costs: With more channels and advertising units come more production costs.
  • The extension of higher ed’s universe (touchpoints), meaning the management of communications across the prospective journey, is often outside of the brand manager’s control.

The only way balancing marketing activities to build Moran’s “perceptual universe” happens is if institutions adopt an integrated mindset.

William T. Moran’s framework for building brands - integrated marketing article, light purple image with white text.

Building the Perceptual Universe: Start with Success 

Managing media is often described as managing investments. You may have your safe bets and set aside a small percentage to test riskier buys. This analogy has always stuck with me. This is explored and expanded in works such as Profitable Marketing Communications and King’s Planning Guide

Both solidify how important it is not to get stuck on outputs when thinking about the effects of our investments. As any media buyer knows, there are plenty of intermediate metrics that encourage missing the forest for the trees. So before we jump into the framework, let’s look at what integrated success looks like as an outcome.

  • Resources are effectively allocated across marketing activities and timescales.
  • A universal understanding of how the portfolio works together is achieved, and there are tools in place to determine how the organization benefits from each part.
  • Consumer data and media (or communication) plans form the core from which to guide all marketing activities.
  • Distinction (i.e., brand coherence and consistency) has been determined and encompasses all audience touchpoints, diminishing the expectancy gap across the prospective study journey

Not to get too analogous, but these are the contracts before the planning process. These outcomes must be committed across the institution because they form the guideposts for balancing our most critical communications.

Strengthen the Foundation: Tackling the Four Truths

If a brand is the perception in the minds of our audience, then the experiences they have with our communications equate to the primary driver (i.e., the materials that construct the universe). 

Strong brands translate across multiple extensions, touchpoints and applications. From the hierarchy of needs across media consumption to the layering of seamless transitions across owned properties, true integration doesn’t simply stop at the campaign collateral. Things tend to get muddled when there isn’t a unifying message across communications or a plan for how each element comes together to support marketing objectives.

For marketing teams committed to this success, building that strong foundation starts with questioning the entirety of the prospective student journey, from how they enter the category to the influence of competitor communications. 

The framework below provides the instructions to build Moran’s University, the first steps towards integration. To do so, we start with the cornerstone, the customer.

Customer Truths

Beyond mindsets and motivations, across the entirety of the prospective student journey marketers must also focus on moments of receptivity and refine the selection of touchpoints by deciding which will achieve synergy with messaging. In a sense, leveraging the places and spaces that have the most impact on the decision-making process. 

Questions to Ask

  • Which groups of people are more likely to influence the institution’s success?
  • What interpersonal and non-personal influences shape their decisions?
  • What do we want them to believe, think and feel about the institution?
  • How does that differ from their current beliefs?
  • In what way are these responses different from key competitors?
  • Where are the most relevant places to match the media with the message, the consumer with the institution?
  • What places, occasions or times would your audiences be more open to finding out more information about your institution?

Brand Truths

Once we’ve understood our audience and what barriers our integrated efforts must overcome, we can focus on the business problem. Marketers must be prepared to identify not only the true human problem behind the business problem but also how these correlate. To get there, the following critical questions must be answered.

  • What is the true problem behind our business problem? Yes, awareness is low. But, why? Once you’ve determined what you are trying to solve, ask what it will take to make that successful. What would it take to make this fail? 
  • What distinctive brand assets will help our communications get noticed and remembered? How should these be used across marketing activities?
  • How can media enhance our institution’s point of view and/or positioning?

Category Truths

Next, it is important to determine how your audiences are engaging with the category. 

  • What benefits define our category, or what compels someone to the category?
  • How are our competitors engaging with those in the market?
  • Which cultural factors need to be on our radar, or what’s happening in the world that may impact enrollment or retention?

Media Truths

If using media to drive the brand messaging harder than the competition is central to effective planning and building presence, we must understand marketing effectiveness, media contexts that make the message more relevant and how paid and owned media can work collaboratively across the student journey.

Typical questions for this stage include the following.

  • What context or media environment will help my communications be more influential or effective in conveying the brand message?
  • In which well-branded, full-screen, high-impact media environments should I invest?
  • What secondary media choice will reinforce or support our primary media?

Turn Truths into Tasks

As the answer to each question becomes clear, coordinating an approach to integration across marketing and communication activities should start to form. Remember the outcomes above? 

  • Resources are effectively allocated across marketing activities and timescales.
  • A universal understanding of how the portfolio works together is achieved, and there are tools in place to determine how the organization benefits from each part.
  • Consumer data and media (or communication) plans form the core from which to guide all marketing activities.
  • Distinction (i.e., brand coherence and consistency) has been determined and encompasses all audience touchpoints, diminishing the expectancy gap across the prospective study journey.

A deep understanding of each truth should provide a path to how we assign communication tasks. This framework and each commitment should give way to the choices each team must make to approach this problem. Category and consumer truths should direct how we allocate resources. Consumer, brand and media truths should develop how the portfolio works together. Consumer and category truths should direct consumer data and media plans. Finally, brand, category and media truths should direct distinction.

Jeremy Bullmore can probably be added to the list above. In “Rewind: 40 Years of Advertising and Design,” he was tasked with examining the future of marketing and advertising. His perspective remains equally relevant today and illustrates the impact of organizational barriers to integration.

“The value of communications consistency and brand coherence has never been more widely recognized,” wrote Bullmore. “We may not much like the term integrated communication — but we accept its importance. Yet, at precisely the moment the brand owners expect their brands’ communication to be seamlessly complementary, the suppliers of those communications have become irrevocably splintered.”

With more channels, less attention and expectations increasing more than resources, aligning, building and embedding an integrated mindset throughout institutions will bring balance to higher ed marketing and communication activities.

Chris Huebner

Chris Huebner


Christopher Huebner is the director of activation at SimpsonScarborough. He has worked both agency- and client-side, where he has planned and executed marketing and recruitment strategies across multiple program types and institutions. His work has been published in the Journal of Education Advancement & Marketing, the Journal of Digital and Social Media and the Journal of Brand Strategy.

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