6 Actions for HE Marketers

HE is changing. But with change comes opportunity. Especially for those agile enough to embrace it.

Higher Education’s current overcapacity – tied to a demographic dip, broader options for school leavers, and more critical assessments of ‘returns after spending £60K’ – has given its providers a marketing challenge that goes beyond strong league table rankings. No longer does a ‘Top 10 for something-or-other’ cut through in the same way as it once did. Today’s audience, of savvy pragmatists, know that they can hold out for stronger offers at clearing than in years gone by.

We’re lucky enough to have studied HE, its audiences and marketing messages for many years. We’ve helped our clients to successfully navigate these busy, choppy waters. So, what advice can we share?

  1. Your brand is critical. Knowing why your organisation exists and how this meets audience needs, matters. Branding in HE has often been secondary to activation messaging. This has made sense. During periods of rapid expansion, business leaders are often tempted with short-term messaging over long term branding. But when control over the numbers shifts to the buyer, a strong, recognisable brand (and resonating purpose) really matters. As Binet and Field have proven, this is what drives long term growth across the ups and downs of market cycles. Find your why, as Simon Sinek would say. 
  2. A great brand makes your long-term budget go further and work harder. Successful branding is the glue that binds faculties together into one easily recognisable body. It enables staff members to share one voice; along with current students, alumni, local partners, commercial partners, school staff. It enables the organisation to build long-term value and recognition. 
  3. A great brand enables campaigns that build on that brand. Without this, year to year campaigns can easily sell differing stories. A solid brand enables campaigns that come from the same voice, building resonance over time.  
  4. Strive for uniqueness. Too many HE brands and their marketing claims sink within a sea of sameness. Try pulling the messaging from competing providers onto a single page. It’s really hard to see who stands for what and why. While ‘unique’ isn’t easy, one thing’s for sure: it doesn’t pay to ‘bland in’ during a period of over-supply. We say, ‘if you want a positioning, take a position’.
  5. Students are increasingly focused on outcomes. So, grounding your brand and marketing in the realities of your organisation, propositions, and target audiences makes sense. Our experience is that, for many universities, there is a radius of influence of about 60 miles. So, what’s unique about the area? And how does the university add value within the social, economic and geographic fabric of the area?
  6. Help students navigate the uncertainty of youth. Sometimes offering emotional comfort at a time of immense change is the most powerful message at your disposal. Our ‘3-2-1 GO!’ campaign for Bath Spa University offered guaranteed accommodation, a guaranteed place (depending on interview, portfolio review or audition) and a potential £750 scholarship.

Strive for consistent uniqueness, whether it be product development (the degree of the future), brand development that informs your campaign message and student experience; or the realities of your local area.

Now is not the time to do what has always been done and expect a different result.