The university sector has been transforming into a ‘near’ classic marketplace for several years, turbocharged by the abolition of the Student Number Cap in 2015/16. For better or worse, students are now consumers. Why ‘near’ classic? Competing on price is not a realistic option, and the product itself is relatively homogenous. As such, university brands must now strive harder to be authentically different. Convincing people you’re a good university comes later – in truth, nearly every institution can produce facts, stats, testimonials and a narrative to support a proposition of excellence. To truly kick off a customer journey, you must connect and inspire.

Uncertain times lie ahead. In an overcrowded sector, with growing economic anxiety centred upon (but not exclusive to) Brexit, universities must prepare for the real possibility of fewer international students, and the stark reality of a declining supply of UK-resident students. It may be a generation before numbers of the latter reach those of the current 20-24 demographic. Universities also must consider challenges arising from the Post-18 Funding Review, including the establishment of Institutes of Technology, and the growing push for workplace/paid apprenticeships.  

In this environment, we believe there are five ways to counter this perfect storm.

1. Work hard on your brand and communications. Establish a clear purpose, mission and ethos as a platform, built on evidence and substance. And don’t play it safe. If some media spend must be sacrificed for this, so be it. All the media spend in the world won’t improve mediocre branding/creative. Proof that such investment works can be seen on TV daily – if media spend was everything, every TV commercial would be filmed on an iPhone.

2. Although deemed passé, don’t be afraid of the ‘big idea’ – a core proposition driving your brand that provides a positive point of difference, and guides specific tactical efforts. You can talk to different audiences without diluting your overall brand. Trying to present specific brand experiences to numerous market subsets can result in the overall brand losing all meaning. Never forget, by their very nature, universities offer individual and collective experiences.

3. Like all consumer markets, if you want people to choose your institution, you have to give them a distinct choice. Your brand must resonate with audiences across all markets (including PGT, PGR and beyond), taking into account the complex relationships students will have with their universities. What used to work won’t cut it anymore, as we realised with the University of Reading brand five years ago. What makes your brand stand out? Start with this premise – it’s not ‘being’ a university. Be wary of: leading with ‘stuff that could be from anywhere’; relying on league tables, which actually promotes homogeneity as everyone competes on the same ground; and of focusing on stats so overused they’ve become meaningless, e.g. “90% of students are in employment in six months”. If everybody’s saying this, what’s so special about it?  

4. Transform the traditionally fragmented student journey to counter the inevitable student drop off, especially of first years students. Conversion of prospects is only the beginning of what should be an on-going, lifelong relationship. To keep students satisfied, consider forms of ‘aftersales’. For example, promote the numerous student-centric initiatives often residing on the margins, such as placement programmes. Also consider specific, marketing-driven ‘customer care’ initiatives, and stronger alumni promotion. Ensure your students are always aware how the relationship benefits them.

5. Finally, strongly promote the conversion of UG students to PGT, PGT to PGRs, and so on. You have the ultimate captive market!

In summary, be brave with your brand and communications, go big, turn journeys into relationships, cast your net wider, and if you want people to choose your institution, give them a distinct choice.