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.

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