HE Marketing: Time to Stand Out, Not Fit In

Marketing is nothing new to universities. Decades ago, before fees and loans were on the table, money was being spent on how an institution looked to potential students and stakeholders.

Whether or not students consider themselves as consumers, the higher education sector is aware that appearance is important. Marketing will remain and will likely grow in terms of both use and cost. At the Warwick Higher Education Summit on 28 Jan 2012, Professor Bernard Longdon described how American for-profit institutions spend around 25% of their budget on marketing, yet only 10% on teaching. It appears that marketing pays.

photo by Angela Rutherford

Dressed to impress long-term or is it just window dressing? (photo by Angela Rutherford)

Brand realities must trump brand appearance.

The UK isn’t in the same place right now with such high marketing budgets, but I was left wondering about the best way universities can make an impression on applicants. In my eyes, we are in a time when identifying brand realities could help universities stand out far better than merely promoting a glossy and beautiful — and potentially misleading — appearance.

How did you imagine your university to be before you were a student there? Did that image change after you’d started?

We get it. Every university is brilliant. They’re all in the top 10% of universities… Students are happy and smiling, the buildings are marvellous, the surrounding area is beautiful, the atmosphere is delightful, and so on. And so on.

But where are the brand realities? It’s all too easy for brand appearances to take on generic views of excellence, quality and beauty rather than highlighting how one size certainly does not fit all.

Sauntson and Morrish suggest the lack of diverse voice resides even in mission statements, which appear “to be an indefinable kind of ‘branding’ in which concrete purposes and achievements are replaced by a symbolic avowal of the values of business and industry” (p.83). While mission statements are rarely viewed as important from the perspective of applicants, it is a concern that the search for a unique brand may be faltering on a wider scale.

The UK HE sector may require some institutions to specialise more than they currently do. This, in turn, would force a need to point out unique selling points even more urgently. But even if every institution stayed the same, there is already great diversity within the sector. At the Warwick HE Summit, both Sir Richard Lambert and Pam Tatlow agreed that HE doesn’t reside in a single size system. To emphasise the point, Lambert and Tatlow had plenty to disagree over, but not this. Tatlow explained that there is not one model to answer all questions and provide all solutions. In short, there is more than enough room to show true colours without looking out of place.

photo by maistora

Which solution fits you best? (photo by maistora)

Diverse or generic?

The Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) recently reported that while the sector appears less diverse than ten or fifteen years ago, any change is relatively minor. As for the future, the HEPI report on institutional diversity warns of major changes “as growing market pressures come to bear on institutions”. In coming years, it will pay to stand out rather than fit in.

How useful, then, is it to be all things to all people?

Institutions have long been in a strangely favourable situation where applicants and those involved in guiding student choices will generally look to official literature as the first port of call. In some cases, the prospectus is left alone in favour of a university’s website or mobile app. Whatever gets chosen, this official marketing and information is consulted a great deal and won’t be ignored any time soon.

Given this, it pays to communicate where each institution is different.

I advise applicants to look beyond the marketing. Students cannot make a fully informed choice on this alone. But while universities continue to hold the attention of applicants at an early stage through their marketing and promotional material, it must help the individual as well as the institution. Pointing out brand realities is a great start. Upon this scaffold, universities can outline their purposes with conviction and everyone should benefit in the process.

University marketing must highlight unique traits and core focuses over a general approach. This will still allow enough room for a diverse set of wants and needs, which is far better than attempting to be an ‘everyman’ figure. Allowing for diversity is not the same as promoting universal appeal.