You are here

Brand as Experience, Experience as Brand

Keep customer experience management in mind in marketing communication efforts.
University Business, Jul 2007

INTEGRATED MARKETING communication is a three-legged stool. The first leg is brand marketing to create awareness. The second leg is direct marketing, concerned with response. At colleges and universities, the two big direct marketing functions are admissions and advancement. Direct marketing strategies will always be more effective if they are preceded by an effective brand strategy.

The third leg of the stool-which most people significantly underestimate-is customer experience management. We understand the importance of a strong brand. Though the technology may change, we "get" the value of direct marketing. But we don't always understand, appreciate, or commit to delivering on what we promise in our brand. At its most basic, that's exactly what experience marketing involves.

This two-part column establishes a framework for experience marketing and shows how it can be implemented.

Let's define experience marketing as a holistic approach to identifying and managing, to a specific end, the key touch points that define an experience that a customer has with a product or service.

Margaret Drugovich, vice president for Strategic Communications and University Enrollment at Ohio Wesleyan University, says that experience "connotes understanding, familiarity, and the act of connecting. Our success will, at every turn, increasingly be the result of how well we build these relationships."

Colleges sell the sum of all the experiences that a student (or  donor) has while attending.

One blogger, when asked to define experience marketing, said simply, "Walking in her shoes." Experience marketing is often more than this, but it's never less.

Marketing depends on an exchange relationship. Students, donors, parents, and alumni buy what colleges and universities sell. What colleges sell, most often, is the sum of all the experiences that students (or donors) have while attending and the opportunities they have when they leave. In other words, we sell experiences.

Now here's the horrifying part. The global business consulting firm Bain & Company discovered that while 80 percent of organizational leaders believe they deliver a superior customer experience, only 8 percent of customers agree.

Can this be true? In many cases it's probably truer than we would like to admit. Even as more students enroll, an increasing number never earn their degrees. Amidst all the wellness centers and food courts, retention has slowly declined for a number of years and is expected to continue doing so for the foreseeable future.

So what separates those 8 percent from the rest? According to Bain's James Allen, in his writings on "The Three Ds of Customer Experience," these organizations pursue three imperatives simultaneously. The organizations:

- Design the right experiences for the right customer.

- Commit (organizationally and cross functionally) to deliver them.

- Develop capabilities to please customers again and again.

1. Address the political dimension. Committing to deliver an exceptional experience can be surprisingly political. Many experiences currently offered-and the people and departments that deliver them-will be evaluated and likely changed.

It also involves the understanding that experience marketing is cross-functional. It can't be done at an institution unduly preoccupied with silos. Everyone might agree in theory that experience marketing is a worthy commitment, but there's almost always an educational version of NIMBY- not in my backyard. The success of any commitment to experience marketing will depend on signals the president sends and the commitment that he or she makes.

2. Live out your core values. Amidst the daily grind, keeping core values fresh and central requires extraordinary commitment. Arthur Kirk Jr., president of Saint Leo University (Fla.), says he believes one of his most important jobs is to keep reminding people to live out Saint Leo's core values daily. New employee orientation emphasizes the university's mission, vision, and core values, and then those employees are assigned a mentor who is fully committed to those values. The president also joins them for a special breakfast and answers questions about the university's core values and how they're lived out on campus.

3. Identify your customers. This involves defining, and prioritizing, those you will serve. In most cases, you'll begin with prospective students, but it cannot end there. Ultimately, you will discover that everyone expects certain experiences. Your commitment to providing excellent experiences to students will quickly grow to providing exceptional experiences to every member of the campus community and beyond.

4. Gain deep understanding. A solid experience marketing effort has three stages:

- Determining the experiences your audiences value most.

- Identifying primary touch points.

- Determining how well you deliver on these experiences.

As a recent Stamats study of one client institution's students found, the following elements form the academic experience: advising, honors, registration, classroom experience, availability of classes, lab experience, technology, internships, travel abroad, library, and grad school/job placement.

With this in hand, our next step was to determine how well the client "delivered" on those experiences. Of course, students with different backgrounds, abilities, and goals weigh these elements differently.

5. Enrich primary touch points. As succinctly as possible, deconstruct the larger experience into its major touch points and then seek to enrich those touch points. We know, for example, that goal-oriented students place a great value on advising. Determine what they mean by advising. Just as you once unpacked the idea of "academic experience," now you must unpack the idea of one aspect of that experience-advising.

Many key experience deliverers are maxed out with duties and have no unclaimed bandwidth.

Again, from research, we know that advising comprises the following elements: keeping appointments, communicating in a timely manner, showing empathy, exhibiting flexibility, having curricular knowledge, writing reference letters/recommendations, and maintaining a sense of humor.

Often a cross-functional campus team will manage this process. The team "owns" the experience element and is committed to its improvement. This team will review audience data, look at best practices from other institutions, and even examine the policies and procedures that govern that experience.

6. Equip and engage faculty and staff .Most faculty and staff want to deliver the best possible experience. But in many cases, these same people may not fully understand the impact their actions, and inactions, have on the experience you're trying to deliver. As part of this process you must:

- Help them understand the importance of the touch point.

- Make clear the consequences of no action or wrong action.

- Clarify their role.

- Acquaint them with available resources (e.g., training, support, guidebooks).

There is another issue. Many key experience deliverers are already maxed out. They simply have no unclaimed bandwidth. For them to equip and engage, they must be given permission to let go of other duties that are of lesser value and importance.

7. Train well. At a recent conference in Canada, I asked 100 marketing and student recruiting professionals if they were satisfied with the level of training they received for their current position. No one raised a hand. I've asked this question of other groups with similar results. Organizations- not just colleges and universities- simply don't take the time to train. Experience marketing requires training.

8. Execute, evaluate, and learn. When your audiences interact with newly refined touch points, there will be both successes and disconnects. Keep track of both. Careful observation will help in determining what can be improved, where, and when. It's also important to communicate successes to the larger organization. If the annual fund is an issue and its touch points have been defined and improved, inform people of progress. This feedback is essential.

9. Reward right. The democratic nature of colleges and universities makes it difficult to reward stellar performance. When everyone receives the same reward, they learn, over time, that effort does not matter. Delivering the right experience often takes substantial effort, so those who do deliver must be rewarded in ways that matter to them. You must be willing to incur the wrath of people who cry, "That's not fair."

Ask your best performers how they want to be rewarded. Money and promotion? The chance to pursue an interest or take time off for a degree? Someone once asked for a book allowance so she could stay current. Another wanted to attend a professional conference. Someone else simply wanted to be released from a few of the committees sapping her time and energy.

Experience managers understand that for those who deliver, the experience part of that experience is how they are rewarded for their effort. Experience managers reward right.

Robert Sevier is a senior VP at Stamats Communications. This column is adapted from his upcoming book, Brand Momentum: Strategies for Achieving Critical Mass, scheduled for publication in early 2008 by Strategy Publishing (

In the September issue of University Business, part two of this column will focus on how to deliver a brand.

Register now for UBTech 2018

Register now for UBTech 2018, June 4-6 at the Mirage, Las Vegas. At UBTech 2018, you’ll network with a dynamic community of higher ed leaders who are shaping the future of campus technology and explore topics like cyber security, distance learning, campus learning space design, communications, personalized learning and more. Your UBTech registration also includes a free pass to the InfoComm exhibit hall.

Register now>>