Is your brand getting in the way of your marketing?

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, By any other name would smell as sweet.”   – William Shakespeare (Romeo and Juliet)

One of the central tenets of any marketing plan is to increase brand awareness. You want potential buyers, or in the case of education, potential students, to be familiar with your brand and the value it possesses. Traditional wisdom states that the more closely your brand is identified with what you have to offer, the more of an advantage you will have in reaching your targeted market.

Proprietary schools spend substantial amounts of money building brand equity. As a for-profit alternative to traditional education, it’s seen as critically important to have a branded presence in the mind of education consumers. As more people have become familiar with for-profit schools, many of these brands have established equity within the general population. However, during the initial stages of reaching out to a potential student, how important is your brand?

I’ve spent the last seven years advertising on behalf of proprietary schools through interactive, pay-for-performance marketing. Recently, I joined Datamark to head up their new lead generation practice. The idea was simple – we would leverage our ability to generate direct mail campaigns, but do so in an entirely brand agnostic fashion in which we target students by program offering, such as online business degrees or Allied Health. We wouldn’t mention brands at all until a prospect contacted us, requesting information. That’s really nothing groundbreaking and no different from the campaigns I’ve run in the past, except in this instance we would use direct mail instead of online banners or search.

The Non-Branded Response Advantage

Here’s where it gets interesting: non-branded direct mail campaigns outperform traditional branded direct mail campaigns in terms of response, often times 4-to-1. In every instance, non-branded outreach has generated greater interest. Why would leading with a brand reduce response?

Our internal strategists do a tremendous job of targeting prospects who might be interested in improving their lives. We have a good idea of who might be interested in furthering their education, but we were surprised to see the disparity between branded and non-branded response. One of the factors in the non-branded advantage is curiosity. The prospect received an offer in the mail to learn more about educational opportunities in a given field. What are these educational opportunities? Branded campaigns are obviously trying to sell something, but non-branded campaigns are offering a chance to explore options. Some potential students will respond because they are curious and would like more information. This opens the door to more detailed conversations.

Another possible explanation for reduced response is brand aversion. Regardless of how you feel about your brand, there will be some prospects who aren’t interested in hearing from you, even if you offer exactly what they’re looking for. Sometimes this is due to brand saturation and at other times it is attributable to how the prospects see themselves. By leading with aspirations, the non-branded campaign can be more effective in generating leads and offer respite in geographies where your brand may have saturated the market, as well as generate conversations with prospects who might not normally consider your school.

All that being said, those two points cannot account for a 4X difference in response rate. So, what else might account for the increased response?

Who Responds to Non-Branded Advertising?

A non-branded campaign generates many of the same education-seekers as does a branded one, but there is an additional subset of prospect who respond. A branded campaign gives a definite means to an end. Your typical campaign talks about your school and there is a very clear path for a potential student to become an actual student. However, a non-branded campaign is more open-ended, with the path to becoming a student less defined in the prospect’s initial experience. This approach inherently entails less commitment from the potential student. A prospect that is hesitant to make a firm decision today might be amenable to a lesser commitment of learning more about their options. In essence, non-branded campaigns generate a subset of prospects that are in the browsing phase.

Many admissions professionals will say they are most interested in people who are proactively exploring their educational options, as these prospects are typically poised to matriculate through the admissions process. I wouldn’t argue with that logic. I would, however, highlight the increasing level of competition among schools for potential students, as well as the declining enrollments many schools are seeing, as the very reasons they should be interested in prospects from non-branded campaigns. The competitive advantage a non-branded approach offers is the ability to reach a potential student earlier in that student’s decision-making process. These prospects are just beginning to do their homework on what school is right for them. In fact, our campaign may very well have been the catalyst for their interest. When you reach a prospect that early in their decision making process, there will be little to no competition from other schools.

How do Non-Branded Campaigns Convert?

While generating conversations with four times as many interested prospects is likely appealing to you, the next logical question is: how do non-branded campaigns convert? The first month a campaign is live is slow in terms of starts and enrollments, as would be expected from a direct mail campaign. The contact rate is high due to the fact that our prospects go to the effort to mail a business reply card back to us, but they fall into a slightly longer conversion curve typical of direct mail. In months two and three of a campaign being live, we see an exponential jump in activity, with application rates climbing up to twelve percent. Again, the admissions curve is slightly protracted with prospects taking their time before making a decision. Campaigns are mature by months four and five and it is here that we see our non-branded campaigns outperforming the competition – especially in cost-per-start. Furthermore, data suggests a longer tail on these leads, with starts and enrollments continuing to flow in up to nine months after a mail drop. You will see many of the same kind of education seekers as you do in branded campaigns but the addition of the “exploratory prospects” will add to the top of your admissions funnel, continue to bolster enrollments, and drive down costs for nearly one full calendar year.

All of this suggests that running a combination of branded and non-branded campaigns will generate a larger pool of more diverse prospects that will fill your admissions funnel for the next three quarters. In geographic areas in which you feel you may have saturated the market with your brand, non-branded campaigns offer ‘brand respite’ while continuing to produce starts and enrollments. Your branded efforts will continue to generate enrollments but mixing in simple innovations, such as non-branded direct mail, is the next step for making your marketing efforts more effective.

Your school’s brand will always be the cornerstone of your marketing, and developing more equity in that brand should always be a priority. However, non-branded campaigns, when executed correctly, will augment your traditional lead generation, growing your admissions funnel and providing a fresh approach to finding new students.

For further information, contact Brian Abbey at