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Learning to Grow

Even in the big-time world of college athletics, the new Carmelo K. Anthony Basketball Center made a monumental splash. With a price tag of $19 million, the Syracuse University practice center garnered national attention – not only for its fancy accoutrements, but for the $3 million individual donation that came from the school’s national-championship-winning alumnus and the facility’s namesake.

The dedication for the building was packed, featuring the men’s and women’s coaches, current players, Anthony himself and 250 donors and invited guests. To commemorate the event, which took place in September 2009, Syracuse put out a call to several promotional product distributors to solicit ideas. Creativity ultimately won the day when one distributor presented his idea: a navy mug with a picture of the building and the university’s trademark “S” logo. The kicker: special ink that caused the image to change when the mug is filled with liquid.

The Melo Center dedication showcases all the best qualities of a successful promotion in the education marketplace. The never-ending slate of events. The multitude of departments and student groups. The constant emphasis on marketing and recruitment. And lastly, a reward for strategies that go beyond just the cheapest price.

A business study conducted in fall 2009 found that nearly half of educational institutions expected to spend more on marketing in the second half of 2009 than the previous year. (The next-closest industry was only 27%). Nearly two-thirds (64%) of schools increased or maintained their promotional product spending in 2009. And out of all the industries surveyed, the education market had the highest number of respondents who believed promotional products deliver a positive return on investment.

Promotional marketing in the education sector is typically steady, because the market is believed to be a recession-proof one. “I don’t think it’s as adversely tuned into the peaks and valleys of the economy,” says one promotional products distributor. “I think it is more stable. Yes, during down times they may have fewer students. But they don’t eliminate departments, and their budgets may be reduced, but they’re not eliminated.”     

Not only is the face of school marketing changing in the digital revolution, but the very idea of what constitutes a school is being radically transformed. The result is great challenges for those who fall behind the curve – and tremendous opportunity for those who can forecast the future of education.

Schools’ schedules are jam-packed with events. “There’s always something on a college campus that they want to commemorate,” says an account executive for an ad specialties company that works with schools like Texas Tech, Loyola-New Orleans, Auburn and many more.

A huge variety of items cater to educational institutions, thanks to the number of people involved and the wide range of individual preferences. When it comes to alumni groups and administrators, “They’re very concerned about how their logo looks, and they’re looking for classics,” says a rep for a custom-apparel company. “They’re looking for mugs, stainless-steel thermoses, things they know will last five or 10 years and alumni will look at and say, ‘Yeah, that’s something I want.’ ”

In comparison, the rep adds, “The students are looking for what’s hot now.” In translation, that means fashion that’s in tune with the times and tech toys that appeal to students’ electronic interests.

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