On Sales and Marketing of Oneself

No matter how great you are, it’s your job to sell others on your greatness. They have no duty or responsibility to simply notice it, and only a fool assumes they either will or ought to.

Over at Ed Brayton’s Dispatches, a commenter critiqued as “cynical,” my claim that “We’re all in sales. “We’re all trying to sell others on something.” I understand his feelings, I really do, having just those same instincts in my own background. So I’m sympathetic. Nobody decent is really comfortable with the application of cold-hearted business concepts to our everyday lives, with the reduction of humans to commodities, are they?

I run into this attitude frequently, because it’s very common. Those who hold it aren’t abnormal: It’s probably those of us who reject it that are. And yet the attitude, however well-meant, is not only misplaced but harmful. A product that doesn’t get marketed doesn’t get sold,* and a product that doesn’t get sold is an unsuccessful product. The same principle applies to humans, not because I’ve reduced them to products, but because the principle itself is broader than just product-marketing, and obviously predates it. Why “obviously predates it?” Because the most important marketing we do–from an evolutionary perspective–is to prospective mates. Anyone who doesn’t think people market themselves to prospective mates has never observed people out on first dates (and probably is the world’s worst person to go out on a first date with). Closely linked to mating prospects is social influence, and gaining social influence requires marketing oneself as well. Even those who have a natural gift for leadership–the type of person who instantly draws everyone’s attention just by walking into a room–has to, at a minimum, get out there among the people instead of being a recluse and avoid undermining his own natural gifts by offending and alienating other people. Marketing themselves is easier than it is for others, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need to do so at all. It’s easier to market Ford Mustangs, for example, than no-water composting toilets, but Ford would never assume no marketing of the Mustang is required.

In reference to leadership, I’m currently on the board of a local environmental group. Our president plans to step down soon, so we’ll have to choose a replacement. Looking at the other board members, I’m not sure any of them are the right person to lead it. Frankly I’m highly dubious that I am, either, but I may be the best of an unsatisfactory choice set. So in case I decide to try to get the position, I’ve begun marketing myself to my fellow board members, not by openly declaring my interest and telling them why I would be the best choice (and thereby implicitly insulting each of them), but by choosing my words very carefully, and making some hard choices about which issues I weigh in on, when I weigh in on them, and how I do it. That smacks of Harold Lasswell’s definition of politics as “Who gets what, when, and how,” but of course marketing is a political act, even if the product is Ford Mustang’s. Ford (the “who”) is trying to get your money (the “what”), preferably sooner rather than later (the “when”) by persuading you to buy their car (the “how”), and you can be damn sure they’re very carefully choosing how to market to you, when to market to you, etc. I’d bet that you’ll see more Mustang commercials during college football than during morning soap operas, and even fewer on weekday morning children’s programming.

As I noted in my response to my critic, I once chaired a hiring committee at my college. Out of 60 some applicants, at least 45 badly failed to market themselves properly. For those who’ve never thought about it, there are at least five distinct markets for would-be academics: R1 (research oriented) universities (Northwestern, Yale, Michigan, etc); regional public universities (Southern Illinois, Central Michigan,** etc.); non-religious liberal arts/baccalaureate colleges***; religious liberal arts/baccalaureate colleges; and community colleges. Aspiring academics often aren’t too choosy, applying widely to at least the first three groups, because it’s a buyer’s market (oops, more business lingo applied to humans), so you normally go wherever you’re fortunate enough to find a job. But one application does not fit all types of schools, and most of our applicants failed to give any indication that they would be a good fit at a Midwestern liberal arts/baccalaureate college. For example, the applicant who had done their undergraduate work at New York University and grad work at Columbia. Out of fairness to both my college and the applicant, I have to ask if that person would be happy at a small college in a small Midwestern town. Perhaps getting out of New York was this person’s dream, but then they should have let me know. When you have 15 applicants who are clear “maybes” you can’t waste time on remote possibilities like that.

The most disturbing case was that of an applicant who I really thought would be great–an ex-career military officer (which most of my students would really respect, and who’d bring some really interesting knowledge) who was at the time teaching on a temporary basis at a liberal arts college. The rest of his application fit our job description ideally. But he didn’t indicate that he was enjoying teaching at a liberal arts college or that it was the type of place he wanted to be. He was in my top five, and we brought three to campus for interviews. The other four all clearly expressed their desire to work at our type of college, including one who had done his undergrad work at a top liberal arts school, so ex-officer didn’t make the cut. Three days after we made a job offer, his department chair called to plump for him. I explained why we hadn’t interviewed him, and the chair literally groaned, and said, “that’s exactly the type of place he wants to be.” If I had known, I would definitely have brought him in. I could have called him to find out, of course, but I have limited time. He was a desirable candidate on paper, but not so much more desirable than the others to make it worth the extra effort. If he really wanted to be at this type of school, he had already had ample opportunity to say so.

As a consequence of my experience running a hiring committee, I wrote an article for a disciplinary journal titled, “How to Apply for the Liberal Arts Job,” trying to explain just how you needed to market yourself to get the hiring committee’s attention. Because it’s their job to get our attention, to get us to notice them particularly among a field of well qualified candidates. It’s not the hiring committee’s job to recognize the qualities you don’t market to them. For example, we wanted someone to teach democratic theory. While perusing applicants’ transcripts, I noticed one who had taken 5 or more graduate courses in democracy, democratization, and democratic theory. Wonderful, except the person said not one word about wanting to teach that topic, even though we explicitly asked for it in the job posting. Was this because he’d grown sick of the subject and didn’t ever want to see it again, or was it simply bad market on his part? Even if he’d grown sick of it, it was bad marketing, because he took the effort to apply to our job, then failed to emphasize one of the critical skills he could offer. He might as well not have wasted the time and postage.

So is it cynical to talk about job applicants’ need to market themselves? I don’t think so. I think it’s helping them recognize their skillset and employ it to their best advantage so they can be successful in whatever they attempt.

That’s why I created a career seminar class for my academic program, and made it a required course. I learned that my students couldn’t write a letter of application or a resume, and most had abysmal interviewing skills. Most of them are great employee prospects that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend, but they didn’t know how to market themselves. So they’re required to wear business casual for the course (which sometimes takes a few class sessions to get right), they write (and rewrite, and rewrite) resumes and letters of application, and they practice interviewing skills. I begin the first session of class by shaking everyone’s hand, and teaching them how to do it properly (really folks, no-one likes the dead fish handshake, and most bosses don’t appreciate the “how tough are you” vice grip). Each week I randomly select a few people and throw tough interview questions at them. It’s fun to see how badly they flail at first (and I’m rather merciless in my critiques), but then begin to really get it and become significantly better at giving at least good, if not always great, answers. Of course we also introduce them to various career opportunities with guest speakers and all, but the primary purpose of the course is marketing. Sometimes it’s simple things, like the student whose resume noted that he’d worked on a farm feeding horses, etc., etc. That’s good for signaling that you have a good work ethic, but does it develop critical skills? It does, but the student had no idea how to say so. After some probing, I found that he also was responsible for buying, stocking, and keeping track of the feed. “Aha! Inventory control,” I said. And it is. Only a fool lies on a resume, but emphasizing the specific skill hidden in a seemingly mundane job is not lying, it’s marketing.

Is that cynical? Helping students become more successful by more accurately being able to show others what skills they have?

Understandably, some people balk at applying business concepts to education as well. I have a running battle with people who insist the students are not consumers, and that a customer service approach to students is killing education. I think that’s bullshit. Without a customer service approach, a small, expensive, non-top-level school like mine just isn’t going to attract or retain enough students to remain viable. The question is not whether students are our customers, but what it is they’re buying. Faculty assume the customer-oriented approach leads students to think they’re buying good grades, but I have rarely experience that type of student. They aren’t always clear on what it is they’re buying, but that’s not unusual at all (I once rented Tremors–unwillingly–thinking it was a horror film). Part of my job, as is the job of any customer service representative, is to make clear exactly what it is the student has paid for, and then to make sure they get it. It turns out that however uneducated they are, most aren’t dumb. They know they’re paying three times as much as they would at Ginormous State University for the particular type of experience they get here, for smaller classes, for being able to command the prof’s attention when they want to, and for the opportunity to get a good education. In my experience, when both the professor and students are aware of this, it works very well.

An amusing example of this business-model-applied-to-academia discomfort occurred several years back when our then-new president brought in a marketing consultant. In a meeting with the faculty, the consultant emphasized that our college had no brand identity. He showed logos without business names, such as a swoosh, a mouse head, and a piece of fruit with a bite taken out of it. You know what those signify, even without seeing them. That’s brand identity. It reflects very successful marketing over the years. In academia, Harvard, Stanford, Swarthmore and Oberlin, among others, have that kind of brand identity. We had zip, he emphasized, and we needed it. The brand tells people what to think about you.**** In the absence of a brand identity, they’ll invent ideas about you, which may not be to your advantage.

As I looked around the room, I saw three distinct responses. Some people looked a bit puzzled, but interested. The Business and Economics faculty were nodding their heads in agreement. And somewhere between a third and a half of the faculty had looks of utter horror on their faces. But we were a college that had seen declining enrollment for about a decade, slipping from 1400-1500 students down to about 950. As uncomfortable as those faculty were with the concept of being branded, their good intentions had us on a path toward closure.

I’d say that my college has a temporary brand right now, as we struggle to develop a real identity. U.S. News and World Report listed us as the number one up-and-coming baccalaureate college in the Midwest two years in a row. We have a big banner on our sports stadium announcing that fact, and have repeated it in many our our publications. It’s not an ideal brand, nor one you can keep long term (being up-and-coming for years on end is much like being a hot minor league baseball prospect year after year), but it’s a fine starting point because it sends several valuable signals, including “it’s an exciting place to be right now,” “it’s on the way up, not the way down,” and that all-important signal on which we hopefully can build as we transition to a more long-lasting brand identity, “quality.”

Is it cynical to signal prospective students that your school is a quality institution? You can’t do it without marketing. Is it actually less cynical for an educational institution to avoid having a brand identity, thus leaving prospective students confused and uncertain about coming there, than it is to have a clear and positive brand identity? I just can’t see it.

The line that stimulated both the criticism and the post was “”We’re all in sales.” That line comes to me second-hand, from a friend who was formerly in the shipping business, then left to become a college prof. He got it from a friend, when he was deciding whether to accept a job offer that would have moved him out of clerical work into a managerial position that involved sales. On the one hand, it would be a good career step, would offer him a vast increase in salary, and give him the opportunity to live in Asia for a few years (very attractive to him). On the other hand, it was a sales job, and he’d never done sales. He said all this in a lunch with a former boss, whom he’d sought out for advice on whether to take the job. Former boss said, “We’re all in sales. Everyone’s trying to sell something. Right now you’re trying to sell me on encouraging you to take the job.” And right he was.

I’ve done a little bit of theater in my lifetime. What’s an audition but a sales job? “You’ve got lots of Willy Lomans to choose from, but I’m the best Willy Loman available. You’d be a fool not to buy me!”

In the beginning and the end, humans are a social species. Almost everything we do requires interaction with other people. You either sell yourself to them or you become shunned and disregarded. Often we do it unconsciously, as a product of our evolutionary development, a part of our social intelligence. But most things we naturally do well we can improve through conscious attention and practice. And those who don’t do it well, well obviously they have the most to gain from attention and practice. And who doesn’t like people who market themselves well to us, as opposed to those who make no attempt to market themselves or do it badly?

Is it cynical to encourage people to be more socially adept, more influential, and more well-liked? I just don’t see it. The words “sales” and “marketing” may have negative connotations in people’s heads, but in their full scope they refer to crucial and positive human activities. It’s not that I’m not a cynic, but in this case I’m unable to be. In fact I’m somewhat in awe of the all-pervading applicability of the concept of marketing–not cynical, but in fact in danger of being too romantic about it.

*Some might point to one of those rare cases where a product, like a film, ends up becoming successful despite having almost no marketing budget. But in those cases it sells through word-of-mouth. That is, customers end up marketing the product to others in lieu of the company doing so.
** These are often called “directional” universities, because they’re so often named Western, Southern, etc. Some get even more specific, such as Purdue University North Central, in north central Indiana. I like to joke about wanting to teach at Central Northwestern State University (a non-existent place, so far as I know), because it has three directions. My undergrad mentor had a more colorful description of such schools–“East Jesus State.”
*** Baccalaureate colleges range from mere tech schools, which I don’t really include here since few PhDs apply to work at those, to schools that are essentially liberal arts colleges, but have too high a percentage of people receiving professional and pre-professional degrees to technically qualify as a liberal arts college. My school, for example, has too many business and social work majors, reducing the proportion of students in traditional liberal arts majors, but each of them has to take natural science, social science, humanities, art, and philosophy or religion courses to get the degree.
**** That should not be taken to imply that you can simply create a brand and make people think whatever you want. The brand identity works because it is a relatively accurate signal of quality. You might be able to fool people temporarily, but not long-term. Chevrolet was once one of the most trusted brands in America, but they lost that trust, and even though they are now building very high-quality products they are finding it hard to re-establish the brand’s previous positive signal.


About J@m3z Aitch

J@m3z Aitch is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.
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3 Responses to On Sales and Marketing of Oneself

  1. Michael Enquist says:

    Everything you’ve said above is the message, like John the Baptist-style message, of Nick Corcodilos at his blog “Ask the Headhunter”

    He puts the whole thing into two messages:

    Network with people to become friends with similar interests. Those friendships may, or may not lead to jobs.

    Here’s an example:


    Nick’s second message is: Include a free sample in your communications.

    I bet that if any of the applicants had sent you a link to a video of one of their classes, that would have helped you immensely, no?

  2. James Hanley says:

    I bet that if any of the applicants had sent you a link to a video of one of their classes, that would have helped you immensely, no?

    What a great idea. I’ve never heard of anyone doing that, but it could certainly be really helpful. I’m sure some older faculty would simply harumph at the thought, but people my age and younger would probably take a look. We wouldn’t necessarily watch the whole thing through, but would look for comfort level in front of the class, how they present information, and how they interact with students.

    Perhaps most important, it puts a face and personality to what was previously just a name, making that person more real. Of course that all assumes the video positively presents the person, but, yeah, fascinating idea.

    And thanks for the link. I’ll use it in my class.

  3. D. C. Sessions says:

    Well, sales and marketing. The “brand” part, for instance, is marketing and it’s utterly essential. Bad university marketing is the sad cause of far too many case of students being in the wrong university, wasting their time and money while taking up space that other students (who may never have considered your school) could have used much better.

    It’s the whole value chain, end to end. As I try to hammer into my junior engineers, our job isn’t done when the chip RTPs [1]. Our job is to get our product, in volume, into use by end-users. That means that the part is produced economically, sold to OEMs in volume, assembled into final product reliably and economically, and put into service where they can be counted on to work efficiently for a long time.

    Academically, the same applies. The academic value chain should start early, by identifying what you really want to do (market research) and choosing a course of preparation (design) followed by preparing a “product” (you) to meet that application (production). Once in production, you bring that product to market (job search), customer relations (target-specific preparation), sales (application and interview), field applications (finding a niche within the hiring institution), and application (teaching and research.)

    Ultimately, the process isn’t complete until your customers (funding agencies, students) have received value commensurate with what they’re paying (tuition, grants). This is, obviously, dependent on the value system of the “customers.”

    Now, that’s a much larger scope than what you’re discussing today — but it’s the context. If you don’t want to call it “marketing” and “sales” you can pick other terms, but in the end it’s economics: directing resources (you, for instance) so as to maximize utility (including job satisfaction.) Don’t like economics? Find a cave in the desert.

    [1] Release To Production

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