Zen practitioners seemed to understand much before Philip Kotler that a great product was just the beginning of marketing bliss. They used to ask the question, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear, does it make a sound?”

Being a noble endeavour for society that is viewed with immense respect, the education business has traditionally been out of the ambit of large scale advertising in India. But as the lopsided supply-demand situation leads to a flux of public and private investments in the sector, marketing has acquired an unputdownable importance, as Vishal Deep Dhillon, Regional Director – Asia (Sales and Service Delivery) at CSC, Singapore tells 4Ps B&M, “In a world where there is a glut of B-schools with varying degrees of quality of education, some good B-schools get lost in the crowd due to the lack of branding. Targeted marketing of B-schools via ‘appropriate mediums’ (online, mobile, cable & TV, print media, hoardings, even direct sales) is of paramount importance.” Is he exaggerating?

“Not at all,” says Prasoon Majumdar, all India Dean Academics at the Indian Institute of Planning and Management (IIPM), “B-schools in India became the talk of the town post liberalization in 1991, as the need for managers skyrocketed in all business arenas. This was the period from where B-schools started to make a smooth entrance into the education system of the country. At that time, some private B-schools realised the need for branding themselves, mostly in order to close the public perception gap between them and those B-schools that had traditionally grown on huge government funding and support, which anyway had mostly been wasted irreverently by these so-called ‘nationalised’ B-schools.”

Subsequently, and now especially, the competition to attract students is growing, with the last two years of economic slowdown being perhaps a clarion call for many new-on-the-block B-schools, most of which closed down due to lack of students. Industry players like Amarendra Kumar Shrivastava, Chairman, Asia-Pacific Institute of Management and Priyanka Ahuja, Chairperson, Academics Media, ISB&M School of Communication, acknowledge to 4Ps B&M how integrated marketing communication is being used more now by some B-schools to get the cream students. But clearly, that’s the case with only a few B-schools, as Harold D. House, President, Opus One Media (a media house that handles the branding accounts for a few B-schools) tells 4Ps B&M, “Developing a brand for a B-school is an effort that, internally, is the last of the considerations for many B-schools. They hire us to conduct the branding exercises but rarely do they either attend or get into it.”

But marketing is not just about branding. Marketing also includes convincing the prospective student and his/her parents about the quality of course contents, specialisations offered, international exposure, industry interface, long term potential, placements (national and international), financing options (given the high investment required for quality courses), and most importantly, closing the sale – ensuring that after all the marketing spin, the student signs up.
Says Deepak Kaistha, Managing Partner, Planman HR, “You’re forgetting the most important element of the whole process – finding out where the prospective student is and reaching out to him to apply to the particular B-school.” Ali Mohammed Bhayani, COO, Michigan State University, Dubai accepts the same to 4Ps B&M, “Reputation of B-schools is dependent upon the number of applications to admissions. So the B-school that is able to increase its application numbers creates a demand-supply gap.” Elements of marketing have come into the picture for the very same reason.

But another aspect, the ‘place’ in the marketing mix, is the development of a broader market base in Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities, and not just in terms of increasing advertising, but also in terms of actually opening up newer campuses and centers. This is one aspect that nationalised B-schools never come up to as they have to undergo huge bureaucratic clearances in order to open up a new campus or even to increase their students intake. Some of India’s top B-schools like the FMS Delhi, in their past interactions with us, have shared the tribulations they have undergone on such issues.

On a concluding note, just like modern day products, few institutes can have an appeal that goes across segments. The key, therefore, is to clearly define one’s competencies and market them comprehensively to a particular target market, rather than believing ad nauseum in product myopia – that if you have a great product, it has to sell. In the real world, it doesn’t!

Ashutosh Harbola