Universities thinking like brands

Cubo are an independent, integrated strategic and creative agency with a decade of experience in the higher education sector, and twenty years outside it – so we find it interesting to view the HE market from both perspectives. 

Our Head of Planning, Nick Ward recently had the pleasure of speaking in the higher education stream at the YMS event in London, exploring what universities can learn from out-of-sector marketing best practice.

We believe the HE sector is changing rapidly as it heads towards a more ‘marketised’ environment, with students becoming demanding ‘paying customers’. Universities are having to become more business-like, behaving more like true brands – driving recognition, fame and meaning in people’s lives. It’s not surprising that institutions are taking a keen interest in how their out-of-sector peers engage with youth markets. 

Many global markets have already walked the path of marketisation, with out-of-sector marketing principles coming into play in America, Canada, and Australia. By examining their different creative approaches, we can see what the future could look like for the UK. 

Some universities set out to drive emotional connections, which is a proven source of effectiveness when building brands.

Others aim to build distinctiveness, carving out a clear space in student’s minds.

While some dramatise a strong position/point of view which brings to life their beliefs and personality. 

It is becoming ever more clear that to connect with youthful minds, universities will need to adapt, think and speak more like them. There’s a lot to be learnt from out-of-sector brands like Instagram, Snapchat, Sonos and Netflix who dominate the youth market – they speak like their target, their content is engaging and they don’t take themselves too seriously.  

However, currently UK Universities are far more used to marketing themselves ‘in-sector’, staying close to traditional perceptions of academic quality, rather than straying out to position themselves at the heart of their prospective students’ worlds. We wouldn’t expect this to change rapidly in the near future, as ideas of reputation and prestige are so heavily ingrained in the UK market. That said, hopefully our YMS presentation demonstrated some of the directions that things could realistically stretch to in future, bringing in out-of-sector thinking without undermining the sector.  If you didn’t get a chance to be at the presentation on the day you can have a look here.