“Fact-vertising” can give colleges a competitive edge

Students may be more captivated by facts and figures than popular rankings

Although their leaders might claim otherwise, ratings by U.S. News, Princeton Review and others are of outsized importance to universities today. But what about the many colleges that didn’t rank high with these reviewers? How can they compete with the list-toppers?

One answer may be that what really matters to prospective students is not so much the rankings themselves, but the facts and figures that underlie them.

An also-ran company in the automobile industry found an innovative way to use this idea in its marketing. But before you protest that you can’t sell higher education the way you sell cars, hear me out—there still might be something to be learned.

Just the facts

American Motors Corporation came up with one of the more unique advertising campaigns in its industry. It was presented in the form of plain-looking 30- to 50-page two-color booklets called “X-Rays,” produced in the 1950s and 1960s. Each compared—with words, photographs and tables of data—that year’s AMC products with those of their competitors.

The booklets, resembling consumer guides more than advertising, pointed out many surprising examples of the superiority of AMC cars to better-selling makes.

Why couldn’t Less-Than-Harvard universities do something similar in lieu of the vague and superficial advertising some resort to these days? I suspect many institutions could make a good case for themselves if they dug into their own data as well as that of comparable schools and went public with comparisons.

The key is that AMC asked consumers to forget the prestigious names and just look at little-known facts. AMC had no choice but to make known in the most explicit way that it offered a better product. There are likely colleges in a similar situation or that otherwise need a major boost.

The X-Rays presented more figures and photographs—and the benefits to the customer they represented—than did other companies’ sales literature. The strategy seems even better suited to selling schools than to selling cars.

Verifiable data

Doing this comparative “fact-vertising” in academia does present challenges, however. It requires a lot more painstaking product research—about your own institution as well as your competitors—than might typically be found in a marketing campaign.

AMC’s innovative model included naming its competition, and its comparisons were based on publicly available, verifiable facts.

Higher education is a competitive business today. Academia has always used and valued facts and data as a path to its goals. Why should its marketing be any different?

John L. Gann, Jr., consults, trains, and writes on marketing. He is author of The Third Lifetime Place: A New Economic Opportunity for College Towns.


Most Popular