Higher Ed Marketing & Communications Theory

Marketing Layer Cake

A throwaway comment last week has stuck with me, and I’ve been thinking about a layered approach to marketing since then. It’s not a new idea (to me, or the world), but I’ve been mulling it over. There are lots of layer analogies out there — geological strata, atmospheric bands, the ocean — but everyone loves cake.

Branding is the frosting. It’s what the world sees first, and organizationally, what most people think of when they think of marketing & communications. Look and feel, conveyed through design, photos, videos, text. It’s the delicious outer layer of the whole thing.

(It’ll also ultimately make you sick if it’s the only thing you’ve got going on. Eating icing straight from the a tub is not a great idea — yes, I know you’ve done it. We’ve all done it. Anyway, there has to be more than just throwing a brand around if you’re going to be healthy and thrive.)

A good cake, though — the cakes I love — the frosting isn’t just on the outside. It’s also between every layer of the cake. It’s not only an outer shell, it permeates the structure. You can’t cut into another layer without getting a bit of frosting in the mix. “Branding” has to be more than bit the world sees. It has to be something that informs all the layer, and drives decisions all the way up the stack.

A good cake — as I bake them — has three layers. More than three, and you’re either preparing for a wedding or you’re going to have something unwieldy on your hands. Fewer than three, and what are you even doing? That’s not a cake. Make brownies or something. C’mon.

(at this point, I got caught up with how you write a layer cake analogy. My instinct is to organize things like a process chart: upper-order functions on top, execution on the bottom. But as somebody who has baked his fair share of cakes, I don’t think that’s good cake-baking: you build from the bottom up. So for the sake of the analogy, we’re going bottom-up. This upsets my natural visualization of processes. I just want you to know what I’m sacrificing in bringing this analogy to you. I deserve cake.)

The lower layer is marble cake: research and alignment, together. Research is something I talked about recently, and goes way past “what do people want” or “what do people like about me”. It’s a really rich, introspective process that sets you up for the next stage. Following research — or, dangerously (but sometimes necessarily) concurrent with it, alignment. What does your senior leadership believe in? What are they willing to sign off on in terms of goals and objectives?

You can theoretically move forward without the research (but you’re accepting a lot of risk if you do). Conversely, proceeding without alignment among your senior leadership is also risky, but good research gives you a fundamental basis for action if your senior leadership can’t dedicate time to reviewing or approving marketing work (they may be distracted, by, say, a global pandemic that has completely forced everyone to rewrite how education is done from scratch). It’s something you can reliably point to if asked down the line.

It’s a marble layer because the two things complement each other. You shouldn’t do without either at all, but if you have no market research funding, focus on institutional alignment, and speckle in what you can (existing research in your area, best practices, etc.).

Both — again — have a thin spread of frosting across them before you move on to the second layer. Brand is part of the research; it’s also part of the internal alignment process.

If the bottom layer of your cake isn’t super solid, it risks collapse. More importantly, if you try to change the lower layer of the cake once it’s made and frosted, it’s a total disaster. You can’t just hack out the bottom layer of a cake, and swap in another layer, without some sort of baking calamity.

The next layer up is strategy. You know what the goal is, but how do you get from now to a desired future state? The first layer — itself a set of goals and objectives — gets operationalized.

You (hopefully) have researched and know your audience, their wants and needs, what your strongest offerings that meet those are, and where / how your audience looks for information. This should be enough for you to build out the actual plan; a primary set of strategies and a contingency plan. Without research, your upper two layers become research in retrofit — which comes into play in the next and final layer (with, of course, brand spread between, gluing the layers together and seeping into both).

The top layer is actually another marble layer — it’s execution and analysis. Like the bottom layer, you can get by without one of the two (analysis), but it’s… not a good idea. Given the option between the two, though, execution always wins. And if you didn’t conduct research down at the bottom layer, analysis becomes much more crucial on the top layer.

Why not two layers? First, because cakes that are more than three layers tall start to get a bit goofy. Second, because we’re well past the age where execution and analysis are really discrete steps. We live in the age of the rolling campaign, where we learn as we go and adjust on the fly. I’m not going to wait until a long period of paid social tanks weeks after week after week on a given platform to pull budget and reinvest in what works — if there’s a dogged strategic reason to pursue an experiment to its bitter and expensive end, of course, that’s one thing, but I don’t have the budget (or time) to entertain that kind of thing very often.

And this is why I like the cake analogy, rather than a three-course meal with the brand as, i dunno, the plate or something. It’s all happening inside the same cake. This is important, because a deficiency in one layer can be compensated for on the other layers. If you have rock-solid research in the lower layer, and strong institutional alignment, this buttresses any deficiencies in your other two layers. Excellent research, and a deeply informed set of goals built by experienced and knowledgeable people, will push you through strategic deficiencies. You can’t build strategy or execution with nothing underneath them, but excellence at either the strategic or tactical level can backfill some issues with the opposing layer. If market research at the outset turns out to be flawed, or institutional alignment was weak, then analysis at the top of the chain can turn a project into its own exercise in both. It’s a lot more agony, because you’re learning as you go. It’s more expensive, and more work, and ultimately not really the best approach, but it’s doable.

Cake! It’s delicious, and if done well, deeply satisfying. As somebody’s who is trying to slash baked desserts for a while (happy 2021, everybody!), I feel a bit weird writing about something this fundamentally bad for you, but not every analogy is perfect.

We bake a lot of cakes in this work. There are internal communication cakes, student recruitment cakes, research promotion cakes, sponsorship cakes — the list goes on. The bakery can be overwhelming, and sometimes we have to let some cakes fail to let the larger cakes succeed. To further torture the metaphor, we’re ideally applying the same icing to all of them… or are we? Is a consistent brand something that is absolutely mandatory, or — heresy!! — are we living in a world where brands themselves need to change to contextualize to different audiences and purposes?

That’s something we’ll be unpacking fairly soon.

January 10, 2021

Soundtrack: Kruder & Dorfmister, “1995”; The Kleptones, “OV,” “LO” and “ER”


I’m far from the first person to think of layer cake as an analogy for marketing. There’s a marketing company in California NAMED “Layer Cake.” It’s been used to describe other marketing processes, content strategy, and data-based marketing. It’s a good metaphor!

Other layer cake/marketing analogies I found, and found interesting:

Another “marketing cake” analogy:

Cake as content development:

Cake as marketing data analysis processes:

Cake and influencer marketing:

By mattshepherd

I love your story.
You’ve got one. Everybody does. Storytelling is what makes people people, and it’s what makes organizations succeed or fail.
For 40-odd years, I’ve been in love with stories, and I’ve spent a lifetime building structures to help people tell them.