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Make Sustainability a Marketing Centerpiece

In Boldly Sustainable: Hope and Opportunity for Higher Education in the Age of Climate Change, authors Peter Bardaglio and Andrea Putman describe ways that building a culture of sustainability can help institutions crystallize their visions, energize their missions, and give them an enhanced position in the marketplace. This excerpt explains the value of branding and marketing an institution’s sustainability commitments.

By Peter Bardaglio and Andrea Putman

In higher education, as in the corporate world, sustainability provides a source of hope and opportunity for facilitating institutional renewal and ensuring an organization's future. Growing out of a deepening awareness that the economy, society, and environment are deeply intertwined, sustainability fosters a culture of innovation, resourcefulness, and holistic thinking. It provides a way to bring fresh thinking to bear on old problems and identifies new solutions that can move an organization forward. In a rapidly changing, increasingly complex, and more interconnected world, as Daniel Esty and Andrew Winston maintain [in Green to Gold: How Smart Companies Use Environmental Strategy to Innovate, Create Value, and Build Competitive Advantage (Yale University Press, 2006)], sustainability strategy will “emerge as a critical point of competitive differentiation.”

For the vast majority of colleges and universities that do not have gold-plated brands and huge endowments like the Ivies, developing an identity that differentiates the institution from its competitors is essential. With limited resources, these colleges and universities must be sure that they invest their branding and marketing dollars wisely.

How can sustainability provide a branding strategy that builds value? Just as sustainability has the potential to stimulate more effective operations and more creative problem solving, it can spark a new way of thinking about branding. Sustainability, to be effective, has to be more than a tagline and a logo. Every decision made in an organization that commits to sustainability becomes a branding decision. Stakeholders must become co-creators rather than passive spectators, and the brand story must be authentic. Most important, in the words of Raphael Bemporad and Mitch Baranowski [in “Branding for Sustainability: Five Principles for Leveraging Brands to Create Shared Value” (SRwire.com, Sept. 17, 2008)], sustainable brands “deliver ideas, experiences, and opportunities to address the issues that matter most to us.”

What does this new approach to branding mean for higher education? For most institutions, particularly during difficult economic times, the primary challenge is developing an adequate revenue stream while containing costs to the extent possible. Yield, retention, and fundraising become critical metrics in this context. Most colleges and universities outside the first tier have plenty of room for improvement in these three areas. Success in strengthening yield, retention, and fundraising all depend on increasing the value proposition of the institution. This, in turn, depends on telling a persuasive story about why the college or university matters and getting this story out to the target audiences—in this case, students, their parents, alumni, and donors.

Making a Credible Sustainability Effort

According to Ann Rappaport and Sarah Hammond Creighton [authors of Degrees That Matter: Climate Change and the University (MIT Press, 2007)], a credible sustainability effort includes at least eight main characteristics:

1. A campus master plan that considers sustainability.

2. Funding for the implementation and monitoring of energy-efficient systems.

3. Standards for new construction and extensive retrofitting of old lighting.

4. A campuswide recycling program.

5. Integration of climate change, energy, and sustainability issues across the curriculum.

6. Development of alternative transportation.

7. Establishment of a baseline of the institution's greenhouse gas emissions.

8. Monitoring for improvements.

If branding and marketing efforts are successful, students will want to come to the college or university, they will want to stay there, their parents will be satisfied that the experience is worth the tuition, alumni will value their degrees and maintain ties with the institution, and donors will want to give money. If not, then in all likelihood the college or university will endure a bleak future trying to make do in an increasingly competitive world with only the resources it has at hand. Of course, things are never quite so simple, but this admittedly rough summary captures the essence of the dynamic.

The key to success, then, is making the case for distinctiveness—that is, articulating clearly and convincingly how an institution meets a particular demand in the higher education marketplace in a way that few others do. Although hundreds of books and articles have been written on this topic and each year dozens of conference sessions address it, there is no real mystery when it comes to branding in higher education. In almost every case, the three most significant assets that any college or university has to carve out a successful niche in the marketplace are place, academic program mix, and approach to teaching and learning.

Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that the college or university in question has exceptional advantages in each of these three areas. The campus is located in a community that has received wide recognition for its quality of life, perhaps due to its unique natural environment, its cultural vibrancy, or its historical character. The institution offers a distinctive mix of professional and liberal academic programs that sets it apart from traditional liberal arts colleges and offers cutting-edge programs in such increasingly popular areas as communications, environmental sciences, and socially responsible entrepreneurship. And, finally, the faculty has a vigorous commitment to and solid experience with hands-on, collaborative teaching and learning that engage students from the outset and focus them on solving real-world problems, making it possible for the college to claim that it is helping to create a path-breaking “third way” in undergraduate education.

These are all crucial competitive advantages, and any college or university would be happy to have them in its toolbox. To leverage these strengths fully, however, the institution needs to identify the interconnections among the three components of place, academic program mix, and approach to teaching and learning and then package them in a coherent message. Only in this way will a college or university be able to capture the attention of a world overwhelmed with messages about being the best and the biggest and the newest. To break through the static and get its message heard, in other words, it needs to find a way to generate a whole that is more than the sum of these parts.

The trick, of course, is creating new synergies among ... constant, long-standing components. The value of sustainability, from this perspective, is that it offers one of the most powerful means currently available to weave together in new ways place, academic program mix, and approach to teaching and learning. It accomplishes this by abandoning the notion of education as a commodity, emphasizing relationships, shared values, and common purpose, and focusing on the whole person and allowing stakeholders to make a difference in the world around them. ...

A college or university can make its mark if it commits to an authentic and comprehensive sustainability effort that involves curriculum and research, campus operations, and community outreach. But it needs to be bold, or the commitment won't matter. Halfhearted measures won't work. By taking on one of the greatest problems the world currently faces and coming up with pragmatic solutions, the college or university can not only dramatically increase its value proposition. It can also make a positive and enduring contribution to the betterment of all. In short, it can provide an education that matters.

Colleges and universities have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to take advantage of their accumulated intellectual, social, and cultural capital in a way that is grounded in their location, academic program mix, and approach to teaching and learning. By having the vision and courage to do so, they will provide the kind of leadership that will reinvent higher education and help transform the quality of life on our planet in the age of climate change. ...

Although closely related, branding is one thing and marketing another. ... Robert Sevier, a pioneer in higher education marketing, reminds us that when it comes to branding and marketing, making “a promise that matters” is the first step. Making it in a way that gets heard is the second step. To accomplish this ... the institution needs to take a stand and claim the territory, even as it recognizes what still needs to be accomplished. ...

Ensuring that the effort continues to gain momentum and becomes self-sustaining is crucial. Unfortunately, too many efforts to convey the message of sustainability drop the ball at this point by raising the specter of apocalyptic consequences if the message is not heeded. Nothing is guaranteed to turn off one's target audience faster than adopting this approach. As recent research shows [Peter Gorrie, “Beyond the Doom and Gloom of Climate Change,” thestar.com, Oct. 27, 2007], efforts to mobilize support for climate protection, energy efficiency, and sustainability must move beyond the traditional doom-and-gloom approach of the environmental movement. For “boldly sustainable” to be an effective marketing strategy, in other words, it must stress hope and opportunity rather than fear and despair.

The reason for this approach is not hard to find. If the problem is unsolvable and our fate is sealed, if there is no hope and no opportunity, then why bother with a college degree? At the heart of education is the belief that it is possible to better one's life and make a positive difference in the world and that acquiring new knowledge and skills provide the critical tools to do so. Thus, one must tell a hopeful story of opportunity, avoiding the compulsion to emphasize what has gone wrong.

Striking the right tone, then, is absolutely necessary. In addition, there needs to be substance at the heart of the marketing effort. If branding is about making a promise that matters and marketing is about communicating this promise effectively, then “living one's promise” (as Sevier puts it) is what distinguishes a credible effort from greenwashing.

Besides being bold, framing the sustainability story in terms of hope and opportunity, and communicating through consistent actions, building consensus among the internal stakeholders is key to a successful branding and marketing campaign. Joel Makower [author of “The Four Simple Steps to Pitch-Perfect Green Marketing,” GreenBiz.com, Nov. 24, 2008] notes, “They're the first group that needs assurance that any claims you make hold water and the first to become cynical if they find out otherwise.” By bringing the various campus constituencies into the process in a way that allows them to be co-creators, a sense of shared purpose and common language can be forged. One advantage of the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment is that it provides a focus for the campus sustainability conversation and an excellent opportunity for a college or university president to put together a task force to make a recommendation about whether the institution should become a signatory. If it does, then the same or a similar task force will need to develop and implement a plan of action. It is hard to imagine a better process for building consensus on campus.

Finally, persuading the target audiences that sustainability is a core attribute of the college or university's brand identity requires being able to demonstrate bottom-line results. Developing metrics, establishing benchmarks, measuring progress, and sharing this information in regular reports make it clear that the institution is serious about its commitment and building value as a result. A consistent, transparent effort along these lines will build stakeholder trust and loyalty and reap a continuing return on investment for an institution's reputational endowment. At a time when the rising cost of tuition and demands for accountability have brought higher education under public fire, the importance of such results is obvious.

Read Rustling Up Resources or return to the introduction.