Mathew S. Isaac and Carl Obermiller are professors of marketing at the University of Seattle. Rebecca Jen-Hui Wang is Professor of Marketing at Lehigh University.
Seattle University is a mid-sized private university in a thriving technology metropolis with some of the biggest technology names, including Amazon and Microsoft. It is also a Roman Catholic, Jesuit University that just built a sparkling new science and innovation center, intending to usher in a new era of STEM education.
There is a growing interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics in many institutions. However, given that the two of us are members of the University of Seattle faculty, we were interested in how, if at all, a sectarian university’s religious identity and advertising affect perceptions of its academic programs and quality, especially STEM programs and offerings. As professors of business schools and behavioral scholars, we wanted to know whether religious advertising raises or diminishes the academic reputation of a sectarian university. Simply put, does it attract or discourage students?
On average, religious universities tend to be smaller than their non-religious counterparts (consider large public universities) and may be at a disadvantage their marketing and recruitment budgets. A seemingly logical attempt to separate religious universities may tempt them to double their religious affiliation and identity in their advertising and marketing messages.
Religious advertising can be conveyed through language, such as through the re-use of religious words or terms such as faith, Christian, God, or church, on a university website, or through the employment of brochures. It can also be visual – expressed through religious images, symbols or icons (such as the Christian cross) in the university logo or marketing materials.
As described in detail our new research article In the Journal of Advertising, we note that religious advertising may indeed influence perceptions of the academic quality of a university, but it does have a different impact on evaluations across disciplines. Interestingly, religious advertising has the most negative impact on the university’s perception of STEM disciplines. Given the growing demand for STEM education, this is a finding that should be of real concern to religious universities.
Why do people penalize university STEM programs that emphasize religion in advertising? Our work shows that people engage in “zero-sum” thinking when assessing the strengths and weaknesses of a university. They believe that when a university loudly advertises its religious aspects, it means that more resources are devoted to religion and less resources are left for other academic programs, especially disciplines that seem completely opposite to religion.
As a result, evaluations of academic programs closely related to the rise of religion, suffer from evaluations of programs or disciplines directly or indirectly related to science. While religious advertising strengthens awareness of programs such as religious studies, theology, and ministry, programs such as science, engineering, and even business and economics are declining.
Interestingly, zero-sum thinking about science and religion is not unique to atheists or agnostics. Our results – from six experiments involving more than 2,400 participants – show Everyone at least to some extent think about science and religion, whether or not they themselves are religious.
So what should marketers at Seattle University and other religious universities do with these insights? First, recognize that proper communication for all should be avoided whenever possible. Instead, consider taking a page out of the business world and emphasizing personalization and customization in many marketing communications. If university employers and marketers can categorize prospective students according to their intended specialties, they can create customized messages that more or less emphasize the university’s religious background and affiliation. This approach could significantly increase enrollment, especially among students who are interested in an academic career but consciously or unconsciously assume that religion-oriented universities cannot be better at STEM.
It may be possible to strategically select the best brand elements for an audience, depending on whether the advertising is designed to emphasize the quality of a religious or scientific program.
Second, re-evaluate the overall image of the university brand and examine media positions when customized marketing is more difficult, such as hiring brochures, billboards, and websites. Do these placements align with the university’s strategic goals, brand identity, and position?
Finally, keep in mind that even subtle hints, such as a cross embedded in a Christian university logo, may be enough to encourage zero-sum thinking and thus draw conclusions about academic quality that university leaders find undesirable. While it may not be possible to replace the old university logo, many universities do many brands, including word marks, seals, signatures, and spirit marks. It may be possible to strategically select the best brand elements for an audience, depending on whether the advertising is designed to emphasize the quality of a religious or scientific program.
In short, when religious school leaders face the challenges of proving the value of higher education and managing admission, they need to realize that sometimes a financial lack of divinity can also be felt.