How Purpose Drives Marketing and CX Strategy at the University of Phoenix

Gone are the days when price and product alone dictated what consumers bought and where they bought it from. What brands say and do has become the new barometer for whether they buy.

Indeed, recent global research shows that consumers are four to six times more likely to purchase, protect, and support purpose-driven companies. And a majority of companies (86 percent) that overperform on revenue growth link everything they do to their brand purpose.

“People want to do business with brands that they feel are in alignment with their own values — beyond just the transactional nature of what you can provide as a business,” says Steven Gross, CMO of the University of Phoenix, which, with the pandemic as a backdrop, has had the opportunity to showcase how much it values education beyond business reasons. “If there’s one thing the COVID-19 global pandemic and recent racial justice campaigns have shown businesses, it is that people support brands that stand for something. During the virus outbreak, brands were more trusted than government, and people expect brands to now provide community support.”

The University of Phoenix, a higher education school founded in 1976, has been purpose-driven since its inception, says Gross. His team focuses its marketing programs and customer experiences around the university’s greater purpose, which is to equip students — most of whom are working adults — with the knowledge and skills necessary to achieve their professional goals.

According to Gross, a working adult who is considering going back to school is making a high-stakes decision.

“It's not a small thing,” he says, “and it needs to be dealt with in a way that matches the importance of that decision. We believe that focusing on our purpose and doing good around that purpose is what we're all about. It's about really letting the real you or the real brand shine through beyond the service or product that you're offering.”

COVID-19 response

The University of Phoenix acted fast when COVID-19 began to spread across the United States. From April through June, the university offered a curated set of courses free to teachers in the K-12 and higher education community about how to teach in a virtual environment. The school saw more than 32,000 visits to the course landing page, and 3,400 enrollments into the eight free courses.

Also part of its COVID-19 response was a partnership with online education technology platform Blackboard to form The Alliance for Virtual Learning, a collective of leading experts with a mission of helping educators create a blueprint for the future of virtual education. COVID-19 dramatically impacted our country’s school systems, says Gross, and they weren’t set up for virtual instruction. The University of Phoenix recognized this as another opportunity to give back to the education community.

The Alliance launched The Virtual Teaching Academy program, which is a series of free online interactive events that are designed to help teachers and administrators adapt to the new virtual learning landscape for the 2020-2021 school year. To date, the University of Phoenix has had 5,940 total registrations for the Virtual Teaching Academy. The event also has earned over 3,000 earned media placements with almost 600 million positive media impressions.

“The primary purpose of doing this virtual teaching academy was to help when we could,” Gross says. “This was also a great opportunity to demonstrate who we are and what we're about. This approach to our marketing differentiates and conveys our higher order, purpose-driven approach that we're trying to pursue."

Data + creativity is the winning formula

Measuring the impact of brand purpose-driven marketing and customer experience is essential to success. The University of Phoenix looks at consumer online behavior, sentiment analysis, brand-tracking research, and marketing copy research to better understand the impact of its marketing outreach.

According to Gross, it’s important to understand how customers internalize your brand and its impact.

“And if something's working, that's great,” he says. “But if something's not working, we have the data and insight to be able to deal with it, and we are focused on making even more progress on that front in the months ahead.”

Gross noted that the rise of big data has resulted in some marketers focusing too heavily on bottom-of-the-funnel engagement — getting people to purchase — at the expense of building relationships with customers along the path to purchase. However, brands that truly connect with consumers creatively will be the ones that win the hearts and minds of their customers. 

“When new capabilities present themselves, people dive in pretty strongly,” Gross says. “Over the last period of years, there's been new analytical capabilities, new insights into behavior, and the ability to understand marketing on a personal level that wasn't always the case. I think the industry went [too] hard in that direction and in some instances lost the creative piece.”

Data, of course, is of huge importance, but don't forget your marketing basics, he says.

“If you do not have a compelling value proposition, that's just never going to be overcome by huge amounts of data going down the funnel,” Gross says. “If you do not have a great value proposition that's not communicated in a compelling way, that's always going to be a headwind. Or it might be something that just stops you short. The data is important, but so is the strategy for coming across in a way that's motivating, impactful, and genuine.”

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