Market Watch - Education

Turn Challenges Into Sales Opportunities

Luke SweeneyThe education sector, especially at the collegiate level, is changing quickly. Gone are the days when distributors could simply stock the shelves of the campus bookstore. But that doesn’t mean the well is dry – distributors just need to adapt.

Consider where many schools are placing their marketing focus. As overall budgets tighten, colleges and universities are looking for new revenue streams, concentrating on areas like alumni outreach, private donations and for-profit programs. To generate funding, schools need to market as creatively as ever, and that’s where promotional products come in.

"We see a lot of effort to engage alumni, and a good deal of that is in the realm of branded promotional items that can encourage loyalty – giveaways at alumni events with caps, T-shirts and computer accessories," says Bob Brock, president of Educational Marketing Group, Inc., based in Parker, CO.

Recently, Brock has also seen his higher education clients partner with for-profit organizations, leading schools to open up retail operations on campus, for example. This strategy can create the potential for co-branding or sponsorships that incorporate promotional products as well.

"On-campus sponsorship activation continues to grow with vigor as brands look to differentiate themselves by creating their own equity with students and alumni," says Jay Deutsch, CEO of Top 40 distributor BDA Inc. (asi/137616), based in Woodinville, WA. "Sponsors are typically associated with athletic departments and contests, but the day of generic 'your logo here' premiums is losing steam as customized products to fit the campus, student or product character gain momentum."

Top-To-Bottom Branding
As school officials market to prospective students, alumni and to donors in the private sector, they're realizing there's a need for brand consistency. "More institutions are using a branded approach, and trying to create a consistent identity across all their marketing," says Brock. "Promotional product sellers may see that in some increased interest from institutions controlling how their brand is portrayed – one look, one logo, one personality."

This strategy has been especially important for William Peace University in Raleigh, NC – a college that not only changed its name from "William Peace College" in 2011, but also shifted from an all-female to a co-educational campus the same year. This meant a rethinking of the university's entire marketing program.

Justin Roy, vice president of communications and marketing for William Peace, reviewed each of the school's promotional items with his team to determine if they still served the university's needs and new image. "We could have taken the blanket approach of just putting a new logo onto everything, but we took the approach of, 'Do people really want this? What about this?' " Roy says.

Roy determined that branded pens were not really a high-demand item for new students, but T-shirts were. Roy's team also added a few new promotional items to its mix that proved to be big hits with students, including a no-sweat hot/cold tumbler, perfect for carrying across campus.

The most popular addition was a "stress horse" – a squeezable stress ball in the shape of the school's pacer horse mascot. One of William Peace's counselors even got into the habit of bringing several to the recruitment fairs he attended, leaving the horse in odd places to create curiosity.

The efforts contributed to a 22% increase in applications over 2011, while student deposits were up 82% for the same period. For the fall of 2013, applications were up 63% and deposits increased more than 250%. The number of actual new students was up 82% in 2013 compared to the year before.

Making In-Person Important
The rise of for-profit and online schools has changed the education landscape, and MOOCs (massive open online courses) for even Ivy League classes now allow students to complete many programs without all of the paperwork. This has made it critical for institutions to define the value that a full "on-campus experience" offers – and promotional products can play a key role in this.

"The only way you can begin to defend the expense of a college education is the absolute physical experience of being part of the community, while you're on campus," says Chris Cullen, managing director at Infinia Group, a brand strategy and design agency with offices in New York, Washington, D.C., and Denver. "Draping yourself in this paraphernalia is a statement about you and your life experiences."

Cullen believes the most powerful medium for marketing to prospective students is the hoodie. "When you look at how 16- or 17-year-olds begin deciding which schools to apply to, they aren't thinking about majors or even geography," says Cullen. "They ask, 'Have I seen it on a hoodie? Does it look good? Are the colors right for me? Was the person wearing it cool?' "

But it's not just teenagers who think this way. Cullen, who just joined Infinia after serving as chief marketing officer for Johns Hopkins University for five years, says that even the graduates who go on to become leading economists and surgeons like to have branded merchandise that reminds them of their school.

Case Study

Design Trends
As times are changing, distributors are finding that high school clients have begun imitating colleges more than they have in the past when it comes to apparel design. "I used to do all these cute little designs and things, but now we're finding that the younger kids really want to look like the older kids," says Elizabeth Tate, CEO of Signet Inc. (asi/326636).

That means simpler designs with basic block lettering of the school's name on T-shirts and sweatshirts, often not even including the class year. Bright colors and mascot images are eschewed in place of basic school colors and letters. The material and design of the apparel also follows college trends, with soft, fitted selections in high demand.

"The fashion world has infiltrated campuses as the industry looks to young men and women to validate trends in the industry," says Deutsch. "We recently produced a line of couture-inspired sunglasses incorporating university colors to cater to both the traditional and contemporary fans who want to modernize their look on game day."

Tate takes a multi-tiered approach other distributors may want to consider following: helping schools to develop their own "spirit shops," suggesting new products and designs, and following through with promotion. These shops can be run on campus as physical stores, or online; a computer-savvy distributor can offer to operate an online store.