Christopher P. Puto, Ph.D., President of Spring Hill College, on Higher Education Marketing

Christopher P. Puto, Ph.D. is the thirty-seventh president of Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama, and a proud, Jesuit-educated member of the Spring Hill Class of 1964. After completing his undergraduate degree in economics on The Hill, he earned a Master of Business Administration in marketing from the University of Miami and a Doctorate in Business Administration in marketing from Duke University.

Dr. Puto has held numerous leadership roles in higher education, including professor of marketing and dean of the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University, dean of the Opus College of Business at the University of St. Thomas, and professor of marketing and psychology, associate dean, director of the MBA program and director of doctoral studies in marketing at the University of Arizona.

Dr. Puto’s significant industry and consulting experiences include work with major brands including Bank of America, General Electric and the Burger King Corporation. He is the author of numerous journal articles and publications. His expertise in marketing, particularly his work dedicated to understanding consumer preference, is extensive. He is a past recipient of the Sheth Foundation Award for his research that appeared in the Journal of Consumer Research. His chapter, “The Marketing and Business of Higher Education” for the book, Restoring Trust in Higher Education, was recently published by Praeger.

Dr. Puto recently discussed his years of professional experience in higher education marketing with Spring Hill College’s chief marketing officer, Donna Heroux. The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Heroux: What are some of the challenges that marketing professionals and administrators currently face when marketing higher education services? 

Puto: I’d like to point out that although marketing has been a part of corporate America for quite some time, multiple constituents in the higher education setting are often skeptical of the term. Is marketing promotion, customer experience, media relations or advertising? From my experience, it’s often a lack of a common understanding of what marketing is and what marketing can do for an organization that prohibits or impedes an organization’s ability to maximize its potential. So, strong internal communication, education and alignment of faculty, staff and administrators are key to ameliorating any misunderstandings or false perceptions of the concept of marketing.

Additionally, the market place is noisy and competitive. Potential customers – prospective students and their parents—are focused on choosing the services of an organization with maximum perceived value. Amidst all of the market noise, an organization must be able to communicate a value proposition that supports the goals and values of today’s customers. It is essential that we as Jesuit leaders are able to articulate the value of a Jesuit education, and that of our institution, to our potential customers.  

What, in your opinion, is the role of marketing in higher education?

Marketing, in its broadest terms, is a process through which organizations understand and define needs, create solutions and communicate the value of those solutions to those in need of it. It is incredibly important to know and try to understand your customers. What does the market – what do the customers -- want? What is important to them? Are we able to offer what they want and need? And, if so, is what we are offering truly different than our competitors and do our customers value what we have to offer?  

For the purpose of our conversation, it is important for readers to understand that I define the word “customer” to mean an individual who has a need that an organization can solve or fulfill and who is willing to exchange something of value in return for the solution that he or she, in turn, values.

With prospective students and parents as primary customer segments for those of us in higher education, part of the job of marketers is to help facilitate the student decision process in an effort to meet and fulfill customers’ needs and demonstrate value.

As the emphasis on mastery, outcomes and co-curricular experiences increases for customers seeking undergraduate experiences, it is important for us to consider matters such as predicted hiring trends and industry growth, the importance of work-life balance to today’s students, and vocational discernment’s role in preparing young adults for independent lives that will enrich both them and the world in which they live.

How can colleges and universities articulate and communicate their value?

At Jesuit institutions, we have the rich history and immensely valuable experience of Jesuit education to articulate. Through the work of the AJCU and many individuals from its member institutions, we are well on the path to communicating and demonstrating that unique value proposition to our customers.

Yet each member institution has its own unique value to communicate as well. And the process of understanding that begins with listening – listening internally to one another and listening to your current customers and understanding their needs. 

Another important step in this process includes honestly examining and understanding the core capabilities and key strengths of your institution.

As the president of one of the oldest Jesuit, Catholic institutions in the United States, how do you see institutions of higher education – particularly those in the Jesuit tradition – remaining relevant?

The impact of the retail industry and its approach to service on our reality is an important one. All of us must understand the customer journey, the complete experience of the student from his or her initial awareness of any need or desire to pursue an undergraduate degree – which is occurring earlier and earlier in a student’s lifetime – through graduation and beyond. Some of the research shows that this upcoming generation of students is even more focused on cost savings and value. To best reach them, we must understand what precisely they perceive as valuable.

And of course, we live in a world that is vastly different than when I attended Spring Hill. We are recruiting and educating digital natives. As a primarily residential campus, for example, we are envisioning what a truly immersive, 365-day, 24/7 experience looks and feels like, and what it takes to provide this for our students. We are also exploring innovative collaborations that allow us to partner with other organizations and to meet others, in the true Ignatian spirit, where they are at the present moment. 

The wonderful news is that there has never been a time when Jesuit education seems more relevant. For more than 450 years, Jesuits have been crafting a complete educational experience for students founded on the belief that knowledge is not something to merely be acquired but rather used to better the world. As one of 28 institutions founded on this principle of service, as well as those of faith, leadership, social justice and community engagement, there has never been a more relevant time for Jesuit education.

Dr. Christopher P. Puto with Spring Hill College students in Italy in November 2016 (Photo by Spring Hill College)

Dr. Christopher P. Puto with Spring Hill College students in Italy in November 2016 (Photo by Spring Hill College)