'Constipated' pitches about being 14th best fail to hit the mark

Institutions marketed like a novelty band will not stand out, conference hears. John Morgan reports

November 19, 2009

Universities that market themselves as being in the "top three modern universities" or having "the UK's 14th-best politics department" are on a par with Flight of the Conchords, the fictional novelty band who bill themselves as "New Zealand's fourth most popular comedy folk duo".

That was the argument set out by Richard Taylor, director of communications and marketing at the University of Leicester, at a conference on "Effective Marketing of Higher Education" held in London last week.

Mr Taylor said that universities must articulate distinctive and honest messages to attract students in a crowded marketplace, moving away from the "constipated" language they traditionally use.

Discussing orthodox marketing, Mr Taylor cited an unnamed university that trumpeted the fact that it was among the "top three modern universities in The Sunday Times league table" and a politics department that boasted of being the 14th best in the country.

He said such claims are on the level of Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement, the Kiwi pair in TV series Flight of the Conchords who claim to be "New Zealand's fourth most popular guitar-based digi-bongo a cappella-rap-funk-comedy folk duo".

"So much of our marketing sounds like Flight of the Conchords," Mr Taylor said. "We've got to cut through that."

In the past, he said, Leicester had experienced recruitment problems: prospective students' perceptions had not matched the reality of the university's achievements because "what we were saying about Leicester wasn't distinctive".

Referring to a ranking of the top 20 UK universities, Mr Taylor said Leicester was the only one in the group to meet its benchmarks for admitting state-school pupils and students from deprived backgrounds.

This combination of accessibility and high achievement, Mr Taylor said, offered a "distinctive voice and a true position for my institution".

Judges for the Times Higher Education Awards described Leicester as being "elite without being elitist" when they named it University of the Year in 2008.

Mr Taylor said the university had taken up that line as "our proposition to the market" in a campaign that followed its win.

The conference, which discussed the challenges of digital communication, also heard that some universities were hiring staff to police social-networking websites such as Facebook and counter comments damaging to their reputation.

In a panel discussion on digital communication, Dan Shaffer, senior project officer at the Supporting Professionalism in Admissions programme, an organisation that works with universities to provide admissions advice and support, said: "I know there are a number of universities that hire people to just look at social-networking sites.

"That is their function, to travel around social-networking sites and find out ways to counter them (negative comments)."

But Mr Shaffer said universities could not hope to "police every single piece of information on the net".

Giving students the best experience possible was the most effective antidote to negative perceptions, he argued.


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