An in-your-face brand promotion is just one way institutions are preparing for the introduction of market forces by beefing up marketing muscle. Michael North reports.
Marketing director Sandy Malone's enthusiasm for her university's new campaign is contagious. She says Luton's slogan, "Together we are amazing", is everywhere - in bus shelters, shopping centres and on the side of practically every taxi in town. "I get phone calls every day from taxi drivers saying: 'I want my taxi branded.'"
She says the campaign, which started in May, resulted in a recent sell-out open day for prospective students. "We expected 100 students and their parents. We got 182 students and their parents. It was heaving!"
Malone is one of a new breed of marketing professionals guiding British universities into an era in which they will have to fight for students and income. She is American, though she has lived in the UK for 18 years, and has a background in global marketing for the telecommunications industry.
Although she is new to the higher education sector, she is undaunted by the challenges: "We can cut through any governance that is applied to us if we hold on to the vision that we are an access and opportunity university, and our job is to get students who can take advantage of that. We are going to win... Give us a problem and, believe me, we will work our way around it and make something positive of it."
Marketing gurus such as Malone have this week been sharing their strategies with university representatives at a London conference supported by The THES - "Effective Marketing in Higher Education: Meeting the Challenges of a New Era".
One of the speakers, Nick Barr, professor of public economics at the London School of Economics, says universities will face big challenges if, as he hopes, the government implements its white-paper reforms. "The big change is competition, which shifts power from the producers to the consumers. If the white paper goes through, universities will face more competitive pressures and have greater freedom to respond to those pressures. They will have more flexibility to tailor what they offer to what punters want."
Barr says consumer power in the form of fee-paying foreign students has had a beneficial effect on the LSE, and he welcomes the market forces that variable student fees will introduce. "There will be a big effect on decision-making. They will be much noisier consumers who will say: 'Sod it, I'm paying £3,000 a year, I want the following...' It's not that they will have all the power, but they are no longer disenfranchised. They are key stakeholders who have a say."
Peter Crofts, head of marketing at Glamorgan University, says the more competitive environment has forced his university to change how it markets itself. "The need for more sophisticated marketing has driven the recruitment of professionals. In the past, academics would have approved or vetoed all marketing literature. Marketing departments are now dictating the message that needs to go out to our audience."
Crofts, who has a team of 20 staff and a budget of £800,000 this year, adds: "It's not just about flashy adverts. We have to look at product development of courses. We are saying to academics: 'This is an attractive course to the market, and if you add this or that you could make it more attractive.'"
Marketing's growing role in areas such as widening participation has seen the amount spent on it increase "significantly" in the past two to three years, says Crofts, with universities now placing ads everywhere from cinemas to the internet. "To attract non-traditional students, you need to sell the benefits more," he adds.
Some academics object to the increasing role of marketing, saying it is better to spend on quality staff than presentation. "It's a fine balance," Crofts says.
Glamorgan's latest campaign features intriguing banner headlines such as "Who put the @ in email? Why are blue films blue? How come hair of the dog cures a hangover?" The answers link directly to courses. Crofts says the campaign had a big impact: "Over the three weeks of clearing, we had a 20 per cent increase in telephone calls over [the number] last year."
Malone's description of Luton's "Together we are amazing" campaign reveals the depth of planning and analysis that goes into such initiatives. "From a competitive point of view, a lot of universities offer 'help'; we are going to help you (the student) make the best of things. We have moved up a level. We are going to work with you and realise your potential."
Once the message is out there, Malone and her team collect feedback on its reception. "We make a gigantic effort to keep in touch. We do a lot of 'mystery shopping': looking at what students are doing, what our staff are doing, what other universities are doing. We are always in the business of product redefinition. Students are always talking about things such as course ideas that we have never heard of."
Luton uses reams of marketing data and information about prospective students to place its message for most impact. "We decide where our resources can be put, where we can grow our market share more successfully at a lower cost," Malone says.
The whole sector is becoming more data-driven. Andrew Whitmore, assistant director of the University of Manchester and University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology careers service, says: "Our marketing people are becoming more and more sophisticated, analysing where applicants come from and where they need to put more effort in. They have phenomenal statistics and selectively target groups such as the Home Counties."
Manchester's marketers also, like many universities, seek students who fit the widening participation agenda. They work with Asda's many inner-city stores to promote the university in its broadest sense.
University marketing is not all aimed at student consumers, some of it is directed at cultivating industry. I10, a grouping of ten universities in the east of England, "provides a unique opportunity for businesses to tap into the region's pool of innovation, expertise and assets", its website says. Paul Kitson, communications manager at Cranfield University and a member of the I10 team, says: "There has been a realisation in universities that it is no longer acceptable (just) to say: 'We welcome inquiries from business.' Universities have to be more proactive in making overtures, more user-friendly."
I10, which is funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, backs the development of industry networks, allowing employers to publish company profiles and news on its website. It also runs a brokerage service whereby businesses with a query or need are guaranteed a response within two weeks from the institution(s) that can help.
Kitson, who spoke at this week's conference, believes such university-business links crossover will affect marketing. "I think in future universities will bring in more experienced marketers and use basic strategies that commerce has used in the past."
Tim O'Brien, head of Salford University's international office, showed conference delegates how universities could increase their visibility in foreign markets. Salford doubled its student intake from Malaysia in 2002 by developing a "research culture". "We put together staff-development conferences for Malaysian academics and invited opinion-formers and decision-makers in the market," O'Brien says. "We realised that had we used traditional channels, we would not have made the impact that we needed to make." The conferences will be repeated in 2004.
O'Brien identifies key strategies for success: "It is important to engage academic colleagues in the international student recruitment process, to network and to monitor the markets in which you are interested, identifying trends to which you can attach a promotional campaign. And it is important to differentiate yourself on what you offer."
Salford, Cranfield, Luton and Glamorgan are all at the forefront of identifying potential markets and consumers, but what of universities that are slower to crank up the marketing machine? Crofts foresees trouble for what he calls the "middle band" of universities - those that are neither new nor members of the Russell Group elite.
"The middle band will probably get squeezed by changes in the research assessment exercise bringing a drop in research income, and they will have to try to recruit more students. I wonder how equipped some of them are to do that. They still long for the days when they were selecting students as opposed to students selecting them."
He adds that the old universities will continue to thrive on their reputations and will probably frown on marketing. This seems to be borne out by Oxford University's director of public relations, Helen Carasso. At Oxford, she says, the choice of courses and marketing is driven by academics, not by a marketing department. The university itself does not have one. "I can't imagine a time when I would say: 'If we ran a course in leisure management, we could fill it ten times over, and we could start it tomorrow.'"
But Carasso's description of Oxford's intiatives to attract students and compete for other income streams to pay for the "true cost" of its enormous research output shows that the university is far from resting on its laurels. "We are certainly out there," she says. It's a common theme.