When the university flunks marketing research

As I prepare for a guest lecture to a group of MBAs I am reminded of a lesson in Marketing Research 101 from Drake University. It wasn’t the kind of case study that Drake University would want to brag about, however. As a reader told me a few years ago when the story broke, “I thought it was something from The Onion. I couldn’t imagine that a university would use ‘D+’ as its marketing message…at least not with a straight face.”

Well, there are some things you just can’t make up. Drake–a very solid institution, by the way–managed to violate some basic tenets of strategy and research and, in the process, tick off much of its faculty, staff members and alumni.

The “Drake Advantage” campaign was designed for recruitment purposes. According to various news reports, the goals were to “catch the attention of high-school students” with a tone that would be “edgy and intriguing.” Here is part of the result:

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The so-called research underlying this campaign was, as far as anyone can tell, limited to an online survey of high-school students. No one on the team bothered to run the concept by faculty members, the development team, alumni or community leaders in Des Moines.

Perhaps a group of adults (had they been asked in the research) would have reminded the creative team that, in college, “D+” indicates substandard work! What type of student is Drake trying to attract?

Colleges and universities have rather unique cultures in which consensus plays the key role. They also have a high number of stakeholder groups (more than is the case with most companies). If Drake’s leadership wants alumni to give money, faculty to feel connected and the local community to feel pride, then it should have included their views as part of the research.

Drake got attention, all right. Media sources such as Yahoo! News and AdWeek mocked the campaign. There was a positive year-to-year jump in both inquiries and campus visits, but there were also dozens of comments like this one across the web: “I USED to be proud to have graduated from Drake.”

I can’t imagine the circumstance in which an organization should be willing to trade the loyalty and pride of its current friends in order to momentarily gain a glance from newbies who might never be friends.

Neither market research nor the value of longstanding organizational relationships should be taken lightly.

The University subsequently kept the “Drake Advantage” theme in its recruiting materials but dropped the “D+” shorthand. For that, perhaps we can give Drake an A on the re-test.

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