The Inherent Conflict of Branding and Rational Choice
by Sarah Butler Jessen & Catherine DiMartino - March 02, 2018
This commentary examines the ways in which marketing and branding in education, or "edvertising," come into conflict with the distribution of information and rational choice processes.
Over the past several years, public education has witnessed the explosive growth of a new educational industry: marketing and branding. Emerging research shows that marketing, branding, and advertising in public education (what we call edvertising) have become widespread practices (DiMartino & Jessen, 2014; Jabbar, 2015; Olson Beal & Beal, 2016). In highly competitive school markets, marketing and branding serve to help consumers (of all types) differentiate between schools, but also between school management organizations. Schools and organizations alike use edvertising to compete for families, faculty, funders, and political support. Research has found that, in particular, charter management organizations (CMOs) and other privately-led educational managers like Teach for America dedicate a significant share of resources, including organizational time and money, to creating and maintaining strong brands (DiMartino & Jessen, 2018). These organizations invest in glossy campaigns and lead the industry in developing a new class of educational marketing executives (DiMartino & Jessen, 2018). Questions have been raised about the equity of these practices related to resources, as well as the lack of oversight of the industry itself.
Yet, many maintain that edvertising is an inevitable, even positive outcome of the introduction of market-like systems into public education. From this perspective, marketing is a sign that organizations are responding to competition, which is a foundational component of markets. Choice systems are ostensibly intended to empower parents, and, in theory, marketing is a means of providing information for choices. However, we contend that, in fact, the activities of edvertising and the stated theoretical foundations of school choice policies run contrary to one another.
The confidence in markets espoused by many policymakers and theoreticians is rooted in a belief in rational choice theory (RCT), the central theoretical component of a market-based choice system. RCT contends that people make decisions based on a cost-benefit evaluation of all possible alternatives (Heck, 2004). In an educational setting, RCT suggests that parents are utility maximizers who make decisions from clear preferences based on calculations of cost, benefits, and probabilities of success of various options (Bosetti, 2004). According to this theory, consumers in an educational choice system will gather information on alternatives, weigh the options according to their interpretation of the best possible outcome, and choose the top schools from among those options. In making a rational choice, the dissemination of information is a critical component of any functioning market.
To what degree, then, do the activities of marketing and branding undermine rational consumer choice? Research from the private sector indicates that they are, in fact, conflicting decision-making processes. Sherry (2005) writes, A brand is a mental shortcut that discourages rational thought (p. 41). A strong brand is intended to trigger quick, instinctual decision-making. Branding and marketing are intended to elicit an emotional, sometimes subconscious response from the consumer. We buy a particular dish liquid or jam simply because our parents bought it, for example. Consumer product companies know that we do not think about the details of every purchase because we use the associations we have with brands, or marketing campaigns, to quickly limit our choices (Sherry, 2005). Whether or not brand associations are representative of the truth is not necessarily part of the marketing equation, perhaps especially when the industry is unregulated, as is the case with education. In fact, research from the private sector shows that consumers perceive financial investments in glossy marketing as indicators of the quality of a product (Ackerberg, 2011).
Brands and marketing become particularly important in situations where there is a great deal of choice available to the consumer. Iyengar and Lepper (2000) call these situations choice overload. They contend that, faced with an excessive quantity of options, choice becomes more unmanageable for the consumer, especially if their time is limited or their primary language is not English. Choosers have a harder time processing the range of alternatives and make less effective decisions. In these situations, branded identities or marketing messages become critical as they allow a product to stand out among the range of choices.
We can see how easily this research translates to the realm of public educational market-based contexts. In a vast system of school choice, like in New York City or New Orleans, consumers experience choice overload (Jessen, 2011). Rather than supporting the process of rational choice, edvertising works to undermine calculated rationality. Much like a purchase of jam based on brand, consumer familiarity with educational brands, like KIPP, immediately triggers messages about the product. The importance of this is why we see large educational management companies investing in multi-person, in-house marketing teams.
Thus, edvertising activities undermine the theoretical foundations and rhetoric upon which choice advocates and policymakers have built market-like systems in education. It can be assumed that consumers (parents, students, teachers, and even the public) react to educational brands and marketing in a way thats similar to when they are faced with more traditional consumer product choices. Complicating the matter further, because education is an experienced good, consumers must rely on signals to indicate quality (Buckley & Schneider, 2007). Thus, instead of critically evaluating all information, consumers may be inclined to trust more deeply in the experience conveyed via marketing and branding in an attempt to interpret the value of a particular educational institution.
We use the phrase theoretical foundations of choice because research has shown that not all parents practice what might be considered a traditionally rational choice process in selecting schools. Many parents rely on social networks and biased indicators like the racial composition of schools in choosing (Holme, 2002; Schneider & Buckley, 2002), resulting in the perpetuation of educational inequality. The widespread distribution of quality, objective school information is one critical component of addressing inequities in market-based systems.
In spite of this, brand associations and marketing entice us to trust manufactured images rather than facts. As a result, we are led to spend less time processing the fine details of information, even when it is available. This is a serious problem if we are to push forward with unregulated marketing and branding in education. Given the combined research from the private sector and from the field of education, we can see how those organizations that can commit more money and resources to building strong brand identities and broad, impactful marketing campaigns can skew applicant choice-making in their favor, regardless of whether their product is superior or whether their message is based in fact. Conversely, schools that may have strong or innovative models may fall by the wayside if they lack the resources to invest in marketing campaigns. As a result, organizations are incentivized to allocate budgets toward edvertising rather than toward less flashy curricular improvements, social/emotional supports, or even innovations in teaching, all of which have been widely lauded by market enthusiasts. This is antithetical to the best ideals behind choice policies.
In education, the stakes of choice are very high. Choosing an educational pathway is more important than most consumer products we buy in our daily lives. We owe it to students, and to society as a whole, to carefully consider the impacts of marketing and branding in public education.
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