University marketing teams trying to attract international students should seek inspiration from ice-cream flavoured postage stamps, crystal-encrusted fridges and free coffee samples.
This message came from Colin Gilligan, emeritus professor of marketing at Sheffield Hallam University, at last week's British Council Going Global conference in Edinburgh.
Professor Gilligan said that the new youth market, called Generation C (for content), was radically different from traditional consumers. Universities had to take this on board if they wanted to be successful in recruitment, he said.
"I see a huge wave of change, and we as marketing people can ride this or be sucked under. If you don't understand your market, you will get sucked under. That might sound obvious, but universities' understanding of the market is partial rather than detailed."
Professor Gilligan said that there was no such thing as information overload for Generation C, which took constant stimulation and online culture for granted. "Students are becoming much more demanding and discriminating. This generation searches for excitement. We must excite, enthuse and delight them."
He pointed to innovations such as "tryvertising", which urges potential customers not to reject a product, such as a brand of coffee, until they had tried it.
Brands were updating their image through new partnerships, such as Gorenje fridge-freezers decorated with Swarovski crystals, and Austrian postage stamps sponsored by ice-cream giant Häagen-Dazs, which when licked tasted of an ice-cream flavour.
Because students' attention span had dropped, institutions could take nothing for granted and had constantly to demonstrate their own relevance, Professor Gilligan said.
The danger was that unhappy students would not complain to an institution but would publicise their concerns to others through blogs and mobile phones.
"I'm not sure I particularly like the picture that emerges, but it's not a question of liking it, it's [one of] recognising it," he said. "Generation C is much less loyal and very easily bought."