Announcements of three colleges shutting down made the news in May 2018. Two are over 100 years old. As these institutions learned, while a century’s worth of experience can be a wonderful asset, many colleges today are struggling to find the right balance between upholding tradition and meeting contemporary needs.

Here in Minnesota, we are home to numerous higher ed institutions that are over a century old: the University of Minnesota, Macalester College, the University of St. Thomas and several more. At the same time, unique to the Twin Cities is the 98-year-old Betty Crocker brand, which was created here, as well as other large companies that depend on listening closely to their customers every day: Target and Best Buy. (And before that, Dayton’s, which became part of the Macy’s brand.)

So, the culture of marketing, advertising and higher ed may be more likely to overlap here than in other locations. And perhaps it is the smaller size of this metro area that makes the leaders of these Fortune 500 entities accessible to nearly any marketer in the area.

Mediums Change While Content Remains the Same

General Mills’ Head of Content Marketing and Media Platforms, Audra Carson, addressed Twin Cities marketers at a May 2018 event hosted by the Minnesota Interactive Marketing Association (MIMA). Her presentation, “Not Your Grandmother’s Betty Crocker,” focused on how the enduring brand has remained a trusted, connected source over the last century in spite of snowballing changes in marketing technology and buying habits.

The Betty Crocker brand, owned by General Mills, has experienced whopping disruption in its industry, just as higher ed has. Carson asked the audience of around 250 to raise their hands if they had shopped for groceries online. The majority of the audience had.

Likewise, we see in higher ed that prospective students are using Google searches and social media to inform their choices about where to pursue a degree. No longer is it enough to rely on a physical location or mail to reach prospective students. Instead, it’s critical now to be findable online. When students seek information in a Google search, they are essentially raising their hands to let colleges know they’re interested.

What colleges must do to connect at this important stage in students’ research is harness the power of digital marketing to get their college’s name at the top of a search results page. Should the information seeker click through to the college’s website, the site must be user friendly. It only takes a few seconds for a prospective student to move on if they do not locate the answers they seek.

But, even as colleges evolve to embrace the way today’s prospective students explore college information, the goal can and should remain the same: providing high-value information to the student.

Said Carson, “The mediums have changed, but the idea of content and media has been around for 100 years.” She relayed that the now well-known figure of Betty Crocker was born out of an unexpectedly high response to a small ad in a local newspaper in 1921. The company had offered a prize to readers in exchange for completing a puzzle. Expectations were low, so when more than 5,000 responses arrived the company was taken by surprise. Along with the submissions were unsolicited questions about how to use the company’s Gold Medal Flour.

This was a first for the company, so there was no infrastructure in place to respond to the queries. But, the advertising manager recognized the importance of both listening and responding to its customers – and Betty was born. Some in the digital age might call this an opportunity to connect, others might call it audience nurturing. Either way, a need was met and the company went from merely being a provider of a product to being a trusted authority.

Right Info, Right Channels shares that Gen Z, the generation of students now entering college, does not pay attention to ads, but to value. “They see through blatant advertising.” By providing helpful information at the right time, through the right channel, colleges can demonstrate that they are more than a name or their reputation: they are a source of day-to-day practical, useful information.

Carson shared how her company wasn’t sure how to embrace Amazon’s “Alexa” at first. Then her team realized that the company’s wealth of cooking expertise could be shared through this tool, allowing cooks to ask Alexa to “Ask Betty” their questions without having to stop to wash cookie dough from their hands or leave a hot stove. The tool is especially popular around the holidays when people have been known to ask anything from what to substitute for a key ingredient to how long to cook a turkey.

There are countless opportunities for colleges to mine their expertise to help prospective students in similar ways. Step-by-step admissions-process information can be a great help to students and their parents, but consider also insights into degree information, tips on how to study, etc.

While Betty Crocker tuned into the idea that its customers were most likely to need help while in the kitchen, colleges would do well to provide information through mobile-friendly apps. After all, though their parents might ask Alexa for advice at home, Gen Z students are on the go and consider their phones an extension of themselves.1

Wrapping up her talk, Carson noted that although the packaging of today’s offerings may seem different, the core essentials remain the same. As an example, she relayed how she’d attended a newspaper camp at the University of Minnesota when she was in high school, and this year her son will attend coding school there. Some ingredients have changed, but people still want to learn. If Betty Crocker can help people carry treasured family recipes forward, colleges can also help students through the challenges of their contemporary goals for higher ed – and secure their own futures at the same time.


1. BROENNIMANN, ALEXANDRA “Generation Z” Retrieved from: Accessed August 8, 2018