Who are you? Branding in Higher education

Well, who are you? (who are you? who, who, who, who?)

I really wanna know (who are you? who, who, who, who?)

Tell me, who are you? (who are you? who, who, who, who?)

‘Cause I really wanna know (who are you? who, who, who, who?)

  • Pete Townsend

University marketing has been in the news again recently following the ASA reviewing University advertising and telling some Universities to change their messages to avoid misleading claims.

The majority of challenges have been about University’s messaging on their positions in rankings, awards and comparison tables.

The ASA has now issued guidelines to Universities to provide more robust data and be sure they can back up any claims with solid evidence.

Of course, this brings them into line with the commercial sector and is another example of how Universities are being seen as commercial operations as much as teaching and research institutions.

This brings me to the second interesting development which was the recent report into University branding published recently by SMRS (branding in higher education: an inside view – November 2107)

This report highlighted the importance of branding to senior management given the competitive market and changing external environment.  Apparently, 94% think branding in HE will become more important in the next 3 years and 60% of institutions identified internal understanding of brand as a key challenge.

For me, the most interesting challenge was that Differentiation remains  the top aspect of branding that respondents feel is ‘very important’ to the ongoing success of universities today (60% in 2017 and 57% in 2016) and that internal understanding of the brand is one of the main brand challenges.

What are we to make of all this?

Firstly, Universities are businesses and must look at their marketing and advertising in the same way as any commercial business. It would not be acceptable for a commercial business to claim they were in the “top 10” or “top 1%” or to claim some kind of uniqueness without being able to support it with evidence.

Secondly, it shows Universities are still struggling to articulate a clear proposition which differentiates them in a crowded market. The emphasis University management puts on differentiation in the SMRS report shows this longing for clear blue water.

Finally, the importance of an internal understanding of the brand so that staff and students recognise the importance of delivery to the brand and the customer experience.

Where does this leave us?

It is incredibly hard for Universities to differentiate themselves – they all do research, they all teach, they all work with business etc.

It is also hard for them to say they offer a significantly different or better “product” as commercial companies do – stronger, more powerful, more features, unique technology type claims are very difficult and they can’t really compete on price without an open market.

This is why they are led to making claims about their position in league tables or indices like TEF.

I would argue that it is more important than ever for Universities need to think about the values, the personality and the vision of their brands – why they are there and what they are trying to achieve. This is as important to the staff as it is to prospective clients. These intangibles then need to be backed up with stories illustrating who they are, but these stories need to be evidenced and believable or they will damage the brand.

I have a simple formula which is:

Credibility + visibility = profitability.

Universities need to take a long hard look at who they are, what they do and why they do it and then tell people internally and externally in an engaging and believable way.

There is no easy answer, and sometimes it might have to be the case as with AVIS – we’re number two but we try harder.

University marketing – every little helps

Despite all the awards, NSS scores, TEF evaluations and the millions spent on campus upgrades, the fact is University marketers are selling into a market where the competition either has products that are just as good as theirs or they have products that are perceived by students to be “good enough” in comparison, and choice often comes down to location.

Robert Cooper in his book on product leadership offers these “seven ingredients of a unique, differentiated superior product with real value for the customer”:

  1. Meets customers’ needs better than competitive products.
  2. Is a better-quality product than competitors’ (however the customer defines quality).
  3. Has unique benefits and features for the customer.
  4. Solves customers’ problems with competitive products.
  5. Reduces the customer’s total in-use costs (better value-in-use).
  6. Has highly visible benefits for users.
  7. Is innovative or novel — the first of its kind on the market.

So, if you judge them against these criteria, it’s clear Universities are operating in a market where true differentiation is very difficult (as witnessed by the interchangeability of mission statements, vision statements, key messages and brand values!)

In that sense, Universities are very much like supermarkets who all offer similar product ranges, similar shopping experiences and similar pricing strategies.

So how do we (and they) develop winning marketing strategies in what are basically undifferentiated market sectors?

The first thing is to focus primarily on the customer, not the competition.

It is easy to take your eye off the ball and fall into the trap of becoming defensive and reacting to the competition but it is critical to stay focused on the customer’s needs first and foremost, and then to manage the competitive challenge by asking key questions such as:

  • Who are we competing with and what is the customer’s perception of us versus them?
  • In the eyes of the customer, what are they doing exceptionally well and poorly and why?

The second thing is a focus on the product. Theodore Levitt says there is no such thing as a commodity because “the generic thing is not itself the product; it is merely, as in poker, table stakes; the minimum that is necessary at the outset to give the producer a chance to play the game.”

When the generic product is undifferentiated, the offered product makes the difference in getting customers and the delivered product in keeping them.

To differentiate itself from competitors, a supplier may offer the customer more than he expects – ‘an augmented product’. This could be innovation, product variants, flexibility to tailor products or service to exact customer needs, financing, consultancy services to improve the performance of the customer’s organisation, and many other enhanced benefits.

In other words, the offered product is differentiated, though the generic product is identical.

We all know this – it is marketing 101 on most syllabuses.

But I wanted to restate it, along with Levitt’s view that it is the role of management to identify the best way to add value in customers’ eyes through enhancements to the product itself or by developing value added services and by a relentless focus on the customer experience.

Crucially, it is superior customer insight that enables management to succeed in this task and it is suppliers of undifferentiated products that need it most.

Which brings us back to where we started.

Tesco saw the problem in simple terms – the only true differentiation in their sector was around customer service and the customer experience which was about all the big things and all the little things which needed to be in place from sophisticated logistics to having enough trained till-operators.

It also put marketing central to its thinking in the drive to understand the customer and ensure products and services matched their expectations.

This is the true role of marketing and is why it should be at the top table in determining university strategy.

Comprehensive universities – the wrong solution to a systemic problem?

An article on the BBC web site highlighted a recent report by Tim Blackman, vice-chancellor of Middlesex University, which contends that the university system, with its obsession with hierarchies and rankings, has become a barrier to meritocracy. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-40654935

Instead of driving social mobility, he says, the university system has become a mirror to existing inequalities and is amplifying social segregation.

Even if more young people from disadvantaged families are going to university, there is still a strong pattern of better-off teenagers getting into the highest ranked universities.

He says this creates a system in which a “good” university is likely to be synonymous with being the most selective, which is the opposite of what the country needs from a higher education system.

As with the debate of grammar schools versus comprehensives, the argument goes that the brightest students should be spread across the system, rather than being clustered in a small number of universities crammed with other similar youngsters.

“The root of these problems is academic selection, which has created a sector based on social class advantages,” he says.

I am not sure the problem is academic selection.

We know from parental behaviour that they assess schools and Universities based on academic performance and selection criteria (higher tariffs are seen as proxies for price and value – if the entry barrier is high, it is seen to be a “good” University)

There has also been a relentless increase in pupils achieving A* grades, presumably because they want to be able to get on the course they want, at a university they perceive to have a good reputation – so selection works both ways.

Although we know that poorer young people are still less likely to go to university than their better-off classmates, higher fees have not deterred students from applying to University and Students from all backgrounds are more likely to go to university than ever before – including the poorest, with numbers rising through the years of fee increases. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-40511184

So the “barrier to meritocracy” seems to be a very nuanced one of opportunity and standards at school level, support given at home and the economic environment and attitudes to education, not simply academic selection at a University level.

Focusing on academic selection is the wrong target – or maybe we should just do away with selection criteria and simply have University catchment areas as we have done in the school system?

How Will The Rise In Private Providers Affect Traditional HE Models – threat or opportunity?

The UK Higher education sector is facing unprecedented challenges across all aspects of the competitive landscape from increasing numbers of universities, government policy aimed at freeing up the sector, students becoming more demanding under the impact of tuition fees, and new entrants in the form of private providers.

Private provision will become an increasingly important element of the Higher Education landscape in coming years and there is no doubt about the thrust of government policy in making the market more accessible to private providers  and reducing barriers to entry by addressing the regulatory framework.

The private HE sector contains a range of different types of institutions, which can be broadly divided into for-profit and non-profit sectors. For-profits include international corporations with a UK presence such as Kaplan (owned by the Washington Post) and the Apollo Group (which in 2009 acquired BPP, a for-profit provider of professional qualifications, some at HE level), as well as small colleges, often offering non-accredited programmes.

Private providers employ business models ranging from partnerships with UK institutions overseas, partnerships with UK institutions to accredit courses, gaining degree awarding powers themselves and acquiring existing institutions.

There has been a sea-change in attitudes to Higher education under the impact of tuition fees. Employability is the number one driver amongst applicants along with the course and its importance in helping deliver career aspirations. Return on investment is a key driver.

These developments in student attitudes to UK Higher Education offer significant opportunities to those Institutions and private providers who can tailor their offer to meet these three drivers – cost, employability, and relevant student experience.

The US experience offers some salutary lessons when it comes to the regulation of providers and the maintenance of quality parameters, but the private sector is quick to respond to market demands and on current trends, they are clearly putting pressure on UK Universities in the areas of professional and vocational programmes. However, this is also a marketing opportunity given the increasing emphasis on employability and the trade-offs being increasingly made by students between courses, costs, employment outcomes and the overall student experience.

Private providers are more flexible, can react quickly to market demand and do not carry the large overheads associated with a traditional University model. In addition, they invest heavily in marketing themselves at levels around 10% of turnover, whereas most UK Institutions invest less than 3%.

The biggest challenge facing Higher Education in the next 5-10 years is a change of mind set, from “funding” to “income generation”, from thinking like a public institution to thinking like a commercial enterprise, from marketing communications to marketing strategy, and from corporate identity to creating a powerful brand.

Universities need to embrace the potential for private sector business partners to develop more flexible business models and tailored service offerings whilst putting in place managerial processes to manage risks, based on experience in other countries.

This is an extract from “How Will The Rise In Private Providers Affect Traditional HE Models – threat or opportunity?” published in the EMS vision series. For more details or to order the full report please email ivor.lawrence@underlyingform.co.uk

Changing attitudes to University

We are in a transition phase where – for most teenagers – University is the default option. That will change as the next generation of school leavers offsets the costs of University against the likely return on investment. This is a thought-provoking article about some likely trends in the next few years. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/9977803/Top-university-a-great-degree-but-as-for-a-job-dream-on.html

Private providers

I’ve just completed a report for the Education Marketing Solutions emsvision series called “How will the rise in private providers affect traditional HE models -threat or opportunity?” It looks at the effect of government policy, how traditional HE models can compete with private providers and what trends may emerge over the next 5-10 years. The report will be available from EMS and if you would like more details, please contact amanda@emsmarketing.co.uk