Education Insights

The striking features of the HE marketing landscape in the UK

Jamie Armstrong | 4 min read

One of the striking features of the HE marketing landscape in the UK is that few universities invest in the articulation of a distinctive brand proposition. It is notoriously difficult to achieve genuine differentiation in what is a crowded market and that lack of distinction exacerbates the intense competition for student eyeballs and ultimately, bums on seats. Why then, are more universities not investing in the creation and activation of a differentiated institutional brand that allows them to rise above the fray?

Maybe it’s because everyone is too busy. All HE marketing leaders have a lot on their plate and marketing budgets only go so far. Research reputation and rankings loom large for many, as does the growing need to justify claims of civic university status and progress towards the UN SDGs. Global competition for academic talent is in the mix too but they are all sideshows in comparison to student recruitment.

The fierce competition for students seems to intensify every year on both domestic and international fronts. The UK sector is facing serious headwinds in terms of attracting international students and recent indications are that we are losing market share to other countries. Ever more ambitious recruitment targets exacerbate the issue as the criticality of international fees to university balance sheets becomes more pronounced while a sustainable funding model for the domestic market continues to prove elusive. Consequently, the majority of UK universities devote the lion’s share of their marketing resource – financial and otherwise – to direct student recruitment activity. This varies between institutions of course but tends to be 60%-80% of their budget focused on what could be considered sales activation activity.

The dizzying stream of rankings stats, scholarship offers, accommodation guarantees and so on must make prospective students feel like they are unsuspecting participants in a worldwide Dutch auction. It makes for a homogenised marketing landscape where genuine brand differentiation is notable by its absence.

Student recruitment colleagues may complain that lack of brand equity in (insert international market here) is a major obstacle to achieving their targets, which in many cases is probably accurate. However, the reaction of most institutions is to persist with the same promotional messaging as their peers as opposed to creating a distinctive and compelling brand proposition that stands out and generates demand.

It’s not all bad of course. Marketing focused on other objectives such as reputation building activity to influence rankings and build industrial partnerships tends to be more nuanced. A greater consideration of what differentiates the university in any given area of research is evident in many cases. Similarly, some universities have done some really good work to underline their civic contributions and sustainability credentials.

However, very few institutions choose to nail their colours to the mast and really set out to achieve a distinctive brand proposition at an institutional level. Many university marketers would, I suspect, love to do so, but are persuaded or conditioned to focus on the activity that is perceived to deliver quicker return on investment.

This isn’t the case in other markets. Our counterparts in Australia and the U.S have long recognised the power of their brands and invest accordingly. Many of us working in the UK sector look on enviously as Australian universities such as Monash, University of Newcastle and Western Sydney produce polished brand campaigns that come with a price tag that most in the UK can only dream of.

This isn’t a magic bullet of course. Australian universities have their own challenges and it is a different market to the UK for a host of reasons. However, a greater proportion of their universities appear in the upper echelons of global rankings and they attract similar numbers of international students despite the total student population being much smaller so they are doing something right.

Beyond the higher education bubble, there are endless examples of brands that have flourished by focusing on building their brand as opposed to product marketing or promotional messaging. Take your pick from Guinness, Brew Dog, Patagonia, John Lewis or many others that will immediately spring to mind. You wouldn’t find their equivalent of global rankings or scholarship offers anywhere near their marketing.

In an attempt to quantify this lack of brand differentiation, we recently conducted a survey over just over 1,000 UK undergrads to explore their attitudes. Only 25% of them considered UK university brands to be well differentiated. Ouch. It’s a sobering thought, especially when you consider how many talented and hard working colleagues there are across the country who dedicate their professional lives to university marketing.

Ask yourself this. Can you name five UK universities with a genuinely distinctive brand proposition?

Tough, right? If your own institution wasn’t on the list, maybe it’s time to consider what makes your university special.