University marketing campaigns: adapting to a consumer-led market

Cubo’s Head of Planning, Nick Ward will be taking to the stage in the YMS17 higher education stream, exploring what universities can learn from out-of-sector marketing best practice. Cubo are an independent strategic and creative agency with a decade of experience in the higher education sector, and twenty years outside it – so they find it interesting to view the market from both perspectives.

The 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. In advance of the conference, we thought it might be useful to take a quick tour around some of the standout campaigns we’ve come across, seeing what lessons they might teach us…

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

University of Phoenix – ‘Still I Rise – Gail Marquise’

Celebrating the struggle of a strong, black, gay woman, University of Phoenix serves us Marquis’ story as an inspiration to future students. This feels powerful, personal and emotional. While internal discourse at universities is often politically-charged, it is interesting to see an institution moving beyond basic ‘emotionally-involving’ advertising to advance a genuine political position in its external recruitment comms – this implies a degree of maturity in the strategy, building on the success of previous creative campaigns.

The University of Michigan – ‘Explore Ann Arbor’

Widely-known as one of the foremost research universities in the US, Michigan have taken a deliberately opposing stance in their marketing efforts. Rather than pure academic sentiment, they focus on the journey that life at university encompasses, encapsulating the dreamy, modern look, feel and production quality of a Levi’s advert. Bearing in mind the context, this unexpected approach is potentially disruptive, and more likely to be noticed and considered than a campaign that plays to their expected strengths.

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

Pennsylvania State University – ‘We Are Penn State - Brand PSA’

Using carefully crafted language, reminiscent of didactic children’s rhymes, this campaign oozes comfort and warmth. Its rallying call engenders pride for current staff and students, and it acts like a brand advert rather than the more obvious techniques used for recruitment marketing. What’s striking is the balance they’ve created between high-level production (making it feel more like an Apple ad) whilst still fitting credibly into the higher education category.

University of Oregon – ‘Explore the power of “if”’

Dramatising the idea of ‘if,’ Oregon use a well-crafted creative approach, tapping into many things students can connect with – up-beat music, youthful imagery and humour – whilst also providing inspiration and intrigue to showcase the university without being stuffy and boring. It explicitly feels like ‘an advert’ compared to some of the other examples, and the pace and tone of the language attempts to fit in with students, which may work well if they can maintain a good reputation to balance it out.

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

Monash University – ‘Question the Answers’

A lot of ‘marketised’ institutions’ campaigns stay close to traditional perceptions of academic quality. This is a good example of an approach that encourages the audience to look beyond the conventional and challenge the status quo. Quality production cues a filmic tone of voice similar to the likes of Apple, and it plays on expectations, keeping the audience guessing what it’s actually about until the end. What’s interesting here is that Monash are a prestigious research-led university – it’s hard to imagine this style of recruitment from a top 20 UK university.

Deakin University – ‘Think Young’

The campaign distinctly contrasts with its peers; it’s bold, colourful, futuristic and snappy. The call to ‘Think Young’ is brought to life through abstract fluorescent shapes which represent different states of mind, and our openness to challenge them. The point of view is a common one amongst youth audiences, but the execution here should give Deakin a good chance of being recalled by prospective students.

So whatever you do, consider the right balance of emotion, distinctiveness and personality for your university.

It is becoming ever more clear that to connect with youthful minds, you need to adapt, think and speak like them. We can learn a lot 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.

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 these examples have demonstrated some of the directions that things could realistically stretch to in future, bringing in out-of-sector quality without undermining the sector.

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