Essex ‘lighthouse’: not very illuminating

Essex’s efforts to stand out in marketplace confuse English speakers. John Morgan reports

September 5, 2013

The cynics predicted that the creation of a market in higher education would lead to universities pointlessly splurging on marketing as competition for students increased.

But they reckoned without the “Challenger Lighthouse”.

A paper titled “Developing a ‘Challenger’ Lighthouse Identity” was recently presented at the University of Essex’s governing council.

Essex has commissioned consultants eatbigfish to work on “creating a convincing narrative around what distinguishes the university…projecting an identity that will help [it] to recruit the students it wants and needs”, the paper says.

Eatbigfish specialises in “challenger brands” – smaller names that want to grab a bigger share of the market. The firm explains on its website that challenger brands “project what they believe like a lighthouse, so you notice them, even if you are not looking for them”, and are “anchored on a product rock or compelling truth about their offer”.

The firm explains that the “Challenger Lighthouse Identity Programme” is “an intense facilitated process run over a 12-16 week timeframe with a cross functional team (including agency partners)”.

And “with strategy and execution running together the deliverables for the process are both tangible – a 3-5 year vision and illustrative executional ideas to accompany it – and intangible – ownership and alignment across a team through co-creation and addressing all needs”.

Randy Banks, University and College Union branch president at Essex, said that while it was “right for the university to think about how it competes for students…I’ve got to say that examples such as this make me despair”.

He questioned why Essex needed to resort to “obfuscatory and barely informative language in order to convey what is at root a simple message: ‘Come to Essex because of the quality of the education we provide, the quality of research that we produce, and the quality of the staff’”.

Chris Chapleo, senior lecturer in marketing at Bournemouth University, said he “struggled to see real differentiation” between the Challenger Lighthouse concept and “a good brand generally”.

Dr Chapleo said that while many universities talk about the need to create a “distinctive” brand in the emerging market, they are “inherently similar and…don’t have absolute control over their products”.

The Essex minutes state that “work was ongoing to capture and distil” the university’s “sharp points of difference, such as internationalism and social mobility, and to work popular conceptions of Essex into the university’s self-image”.

Given that the institution already has a promotional video that junks the popular stereotype of the county, eatbigfish may have to anchor its Challenger Lighthouse on something other than white stilettos, fake tans and Joey Essex.

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