Education helps one cease being intimidated by strange situations.
Old-school marketing executives and new-school social media professionals alike learned the “4 P’s” early in their careers: the marketing mix of price, product, promotion, and place. While marketers have added to and tinkered with these pillars (conceiving of “7 P’s” and “4 C’s,” among other variations), the original 4 P’s have largely stood the test of time. However, the digital revolution and other emerging marketplace forces are calling into question the continued viability of a formula created half a century ago.
Price, product, promotion, and place have been part of the marketing reality since, presumably, humans first began engaging in commerce many eons ago. But these 4 P’s were first grouped together as a working model in the 1960s and have remained mostly intact over the decades.
But a lot has changed in the marketing industry since the “Mad Men” era—and we’re not just talking about hairstyles and fashion sense. The emergence of the social Internet—which is impacting every area of commerce—is disrupting the validity and interpretation of the time-tested marketing mix.
For higher education marketing professionals, it is time to re-evaluate the 4 P’s through a contemporary lens, not with the intent to discard the model entirely, but to update our understanding of its components for the realities of 2012.
A recent article in Fast Company, titled “Why Do B-Schools Still Teach the Famed 4 P’s of Marketing, When Three Are Dead,” questions the viability of the marketing mix in today’s altered business landscape—one that bears little resemblance to the staid corporate culture of the 1960s. The authors argue that of the four venerable P’s, only product remains in today’s digitally driven economy.
“Let’s look at promotion,” they begin. “In recent years, we have seen the explosive growth of companies that don’t do any advertising at all. … The other P’s are just as dispensable. Place is obviously becoming less and less important as more commerce moves online. And price is also less of a potential strategic marketing advantage. With price comparison sites like Tripadvisor.com, Pricegrabber.com, and Bizrate.com, many companies are forced to let raw market forces determine the price of their products.”
As the importance of promotion, place, and price recede, product emerges as the last “P” standing: “The only real way for a company to build a growing brand is to design products and services that are so good that they become marketing vehicles in and of themselves.” This leads the authors to conclude that “the golden rule for today’s hyper-competitive and information-rich markets is this: The only way you can increase the value of your brand is by increasing the value of your offering.”
When it comes to the higher education sector’s marketing mix, all four elements appear to be alive and well, at least for the time being. But the Fast Company article highlights a shift that is sure to impact college and university marketing efforts for years to come: the increasing importance of its product in providing value.
In many ways, product has always been the most complicated of the 4 P’s in higher education. Place, price, and promotion are easier to identify. Price looms large in the public consciousness. Despite the rise of online education, as long as college campuses exist, then place will always be an obvious component. And though methods of promotion have changed over the years, it’s still an important part of the higher education marketing mix.
Product, however, has traditionally been more difficult to define. What is the product in higher education? Is it the student who receives a diploma at commencement? Is it the well-rounded, educated alumna who contributes to her community? Is it the overall college experience? What about the academic programs and student services? And how is a successful product defined? Is it with reference to retention rates? Student satisfaction? Starting salaries for graduates? Graduate school enrollment?
In reality, most or all of these elements influence how we think about the product in higher education, and yet none of them alone are sufficient; the higher education product is the sum of many parts.
Traditionally, liberal arts colleges in particular have had the luxury of describing their product in nuanced and intellectual terms. The founding of the liberal arts tradition was predicated on the concept that education in itself is an ideal worth pursuing. The outcome of a college education was primarily the formation of educated, open-minded individuals who were able to understand and contribute to the world around them; vocational preparation for specific career tracks was secondary to the formation of sound, active minds.
Yet what is clear in 2012 is that this idealistic understanding of higher education, and its purpose in society, is under pressure from nearly every angle. The digital revolution, a troubled and shifting economy, and new expectations from families and legislators are compelling higher education institutions to define their product in new terms. For the first time in decades (or perhaps ever), the value of a college degree is being called into question. Rising costs and shrinking budgets are reframing the higher education discussion, pushing measurable employment and financial outcomes to the forefront; pragmatism, at least for now, dominates the conversation.