Words fail us: university marketing-speak

A Russell Group tagline rap is further proof that we need to reform the academy’s approach, argues Philip Moriarty

September 24, 2015
David Humphries illustration (24 September 2015)
Source: David Humphries

Ever since I was obliged to take a marketing module as part of my BSc in applied physics, I’ve been amused and bemused by the stark contrast that exists between teaching theoretical concepts in my discipline and the approach adopted in marketing theory (as it’s called).

Physicists expend a great deal of effort in the courses they teach trying to elucidate intellectually challenging theories such as quantum mechanics and general relativity. Metaphors, models and analogies are liberally adopted and applied in an attempt to couch the esoteric in terms of the familiar. Sure, we often fail to explain this stuff as well as we’d like to but at least our core objective is to take complex concepts and express them as clearly as possible.

Teaching the principles of marketing, on the other hand, has always struck me as involving pretty much the polar opposite approach. Rather trite observations are dressed up in needlessly florid language, or, at best, are couched in statements pinched from the Department of the Bleeding Obvious’ most recent newsletter. I hesitate to reel out the tired old “It ain’t rocket science” cliché, but it’s certainly not quantum physics.

Over the summer, as university marketing departments went into overdrive in their attempts to attract students, I was too often reminded of that module I had to endure as an undergraduate. What’s the purpose of marketing? What do we need in order to establish a strong “brand”? How do we connect with an audience? These are questions that are strikingly simple to address in the context of higher education. A great deal of navel-gazing is really not necessary.

Be different. Be distinctive. Be daring. Oh, and be honest. Above all, be honest.

Simple, right?

So just why is it that university marketing is so tediously derivative, so mind-numbingly clichéd and, too often, so buttock-clenchingly embarrassing? This lack of originality was deftly highlighted in a poem constructed from the taglines of 88 universities, recently published in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Here’s a sample: “You First”; “The Education You Want. The Attention You Deserve”; “The Perfect Fit for You”; “As Distinctive as You”; “Like No Place Else on Earth”; “Exceptional Education. Exceptional Value”; “Become Exceptional”. OK. Enough.

Those are taglines for US universities, however. British universities wouldn’t be quite so, errm, “treacly” in their marketing, would they? Well, let’s see. Liz Morrish, principal lecturer at the College of Arts and Science at Nottingham Trent University, was inspired to put together the following Russell Group tagline rap: “Together we can go beyond. A place of possibility. Developing great minds. For student satisfaction. Ambitious and innovative. A world top 100. An engaged university. A research beacon. Be inspired. Change the world. It’s meant to be.”

It’s all a far cry from sapientia urbs conditur (if you’ll excuse the parochialism).

As an undergraduate admissions tutor, I’m keen for our university to attract students who think critically, who challenge ideas, and who have a healthy level of scepticism with regard to hyperbole and overinflated claims. In other words, we want students who see through all of the vacuous marketing guff. Fortunately, it’s clear that the majority of students indeed place no stock in identikit marketing “creatives”. (I thought my irritation with marketing had peaked until I found out recently that “creative” is used as a noun for marketing campaigns. Ugh. Yes, I know that language evolves. But mutation is at the very heart of evolution and some mutations are not helpful or welcome.)

In August, Times Higher Education reported on a survey of 1,475 applicants to undergraduate courses where only 14.5 per cent of those placed a high level of trust in university marketing via social media (“Applicants put little faith in sector adverts”, News, 27 August). The results of the survey are described at length in a paper in the Journal of Marketing for Higher Education, in which the authors (Paul Gibbs of Middlesex University and Aftab Dean of Leeds Beckett University) reach the following helpful, but not-entirely-earth-shattering, conclusion: “The main sources that are both informative and trusted are those that are perceived as factual and not as marketing from the university.”

In other words, marketing can much too easily damage the perception of those very aspects of the university it purports to promote: critical thinking, independence, originality, innovation, rigour, prestige, and, if we really must, “brand”. The University of Bristol’s decision earlier this year to recruit an “associate dean of eureka moments” – I kid you not – is a particularly egregious example, but there’s a universe (or multiverse?) of toe-curlingly awful #CorporateUniBollox out there which harms, not enhances, university reputations.

One of the reasons Jeremy Corbyn secured such unprecedented support in the Labour leadership election was that he doesn’t indulge in the type of tiresome marketing-speak that was the hallmark of New Labour. There’s a lesson here for universities. Stop insulting the intelligence of students, at all levels, and transfer some of that marketing budget to rather more worthwhile aspects of the university experience. You know it’s #MeantToBe.

Philip Moriarty is professor of physics at the University of Nottingham.

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Print headline: Words fail us: marketing-speak damages the brand

Reader's comments (15)

I agree: Marketing is certainly not rocket science and indeed #CorporateUniBollox abound. Otherwise, I find this article belongs to the rant genre, where emotion is more important than logical soundness.
So you agree with the article but then criticise its "logical soundness"? I'd appreciate it if you could point out where it's logically unsound. Thanks. Shame to see you commenting anonymously. See https://muircheart.wordpress.com/2015/09/04/we-are-anonymous-we-are-legion-we-are-mostly-harmful/
Hi Philip, if you're sitting comfortably ... I'll start by being very clear here: it was an act of God when I got a Maths O level back in the early 70s. I can't add two fractions together, let alone do anything remotely associated with quantum mechanics or its like. I do not even know what 'nanoscale science' is. And I doff my cap to those who have mastered that – or any - science. Furthermore, your impressive profile [it is widely available on the Internet via Google – I hope you can appreciate the irony of your ability in self-promotion] tells me that in terms of IQ you better many – if not most – people on the planet. And I give you due respect for that. However ... The rather superior tone of your 'lecture' seems to be that Applied Physics is in some way superior to the discipline of the bleedin' obvious that is Marketing. And – by definition – those who practice or teach Applied Physics are superior beings to those who practice or teach Marketing. So ... if marketing is easy. No, scratch that. If EFFECTIVE marketing is so easy, how come so many people cannot master it? There is good marketing and there is bad marketing. I too have little time for 'creatives' and cringe more than you ever could at examples of bad practice in marketing – including all of those W1A-esque phrases. But ... the next time you buy anything – and I mean anything – give some thought to your buying process [sorry, that phrase is a bit trite – but then aren't all of 'our' phrases? I should have said 'buyer behaviour' because at least that's from a science of sorts]. Why did you buy that particular product, from that particular seller, at that particular location, for that particular price? Think it is your superior mental ability that helps you make that decision? 'Fraid not, it is good old marketing practiced by good marketers which dictates what product you will buy, where you will buy it, when you will buy it – oh, and how much you will pay for it. Don't believe me? You think it is you that makes those buying decisions? Think again. How do you find out the attributes of products to make your buying decision? Where do you go to buy it – or order it for home delivery? Presumably you will seek best value for money so you may look for the lowest price. All of that information will be delivered to you by marketers – not rocket scientists - in a space, time and manner that is attractive to you. Still think it is so easy. OK – when you have decided to buy a certain product from a certain seller it means that seller's marketing is better than that of their competitors. If it was so easy, all marketing would be equally good – or bad - wouldn't it? If marketing were so easy, customers would have no choice because all products would be the same, sold in the same place for the same price. Which means the quality might be equally low; with a limited number of places to buy it; and it will be expensive. At the same time as you look down on my discipline, you also quote two marketing academics who are critical of some practitioners of 'their' discipline. You see, we too recognise bad marketing. Maybe 'good' marketing is like football referees: you do not even notice the good ones, bad ones spoil the game. I doubt I will ever change your view on marketing and/or marketers, but consider this ... If your students go to work in the private sector their salary will depend – primarily – on how many customers buy the product on which they work. Hmmm, I wonder whether they would rather work for a business with good, bad or indifferent marketers? Marketers tend not to do 'anonymous', so: my name is Alan Charlesworth. Although in a previous life I did actually work for a living, I am now a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at a UK university – which I will not name as these views are mine and not necessarily those of my employers. Needless to say, it is not 'red brick', but a number of my ex-students are managers or owners of businesses that employ numerous folk. One of them owns a business that employs people with qualifications in applied physics. If he wasn't so good at marketing they would not have the highly paid jobs that they currently so enjoy. And buy the 'i' products they cherish [do you see what I did there? :-) ] BTW: I fully endorse the views expressed in your post in physicsfocus on May 22nd – there is management and leadership and there is good management and leadership ... and unless it is the name of a Rap artist or MC, there should be no such thing as the 'Dean of Eureka Moments'. I'll end with an ironic irony [RIP Yogi Berra] ... if any VC was so daft as to give me the responsibility for the marketing of his/her university, you would actually like to work there. Ah, a good rant refreshes the soul – and makes you thirsty ... I'll think I'll have an ice cold, refreshing bottle of perhaps the greatest lager in the world and bemoan Huddersfield's late equaliser against my team this evening. Best wishes and happy sciencing ... Alan
There are many topics likely to promote prickly responses from academics across a variety of disciplines; the existence of 'Marketing' on any curriculum is one of them. Marketing people could help themselves if they could rally support around an acceptable definition of what Marketing is (other than those standard mantras found in student texts) so that non marketing people may learn how we might accept Marketing for what it is. Perhaps we could then welcome it to the curriculum. It seems only to be an eclectic mess of selected parts of other disciplines; making it appear bitty, fragmented and superficial. It all appears laudable, and students certainly flock to it, but to many it is just too soft and too flaky to be taken seriously; especially when its practice results in the highly public language identified by Professor Moriarty. A friend of mine worked as a Sales Manager for a very large American Global organisation for many years; he tells me that he would now be called a Marketing Manager because Sales Managers are 'old spec' ... is this the nature of the problem?? are we just renaming business terms?? are we trying to make the obvious more appealing simply because it is actually obvious?? Departments of the 'Obvious' abound in 'Business Schools' and there is a steady flow of 'experts' off the conveyor belt each year all knowing that 80% of new businesses (and their marketing campaigns) fail. Perhaps the other 20% didn't have a marketing 'strategy', perhaps they didn't have a marketing 'consultant/expert/strategist', perhaps they just used their common sense in dealing with those business fundamentals which were time honoured before the language changed the people who managed them. If I were a Marketing person I would consider Alan Charlesworth's post to have done me more harm than good.
Of course, "sapientia urbs conditur" is just the marketing speak of its day. You can just imagine the professors of the day saying "ugh, yet another pompous latin slogan stating that learning is good, I hate marketing"...
Indeed -- a very perceptive point. I had an additional paragraph on exactly this point which I cut from the original version before I submitted it. I had belaboured the point too much and diluted the rest of the article. Trite marketing slogans, in whatever language and of whatever vintage, are not useful.
An extraordinary campaign has just got underway in this space - see collision.unimelb.edu.au - wonderful execution of 'where great minds collide' (no really)
@Alan Charlesworth Hi, Alan. Thanks for your response to the article. It deserved a lengthy response so I wrote this: https://muircheart.wordpress.com/2015/09/27/how-to-win-friends-and-influence-people-your-marketing-department/ All the best, Philip
Hi Phillip ... many apologies for the tardy reply – I've been busy teaching marketing and it takes ages to pick up all the crayons and tidy the sand pit. Thanks back at you for the lengthy response - I must admit that I found it difficult to be provocatively tongue-in-cheek in my piece. I wish I had thought of Ritchie Benaud's famous quote on captaincy when writing that reply so I could have paraphrased him with: Marketing is 90% common sense and 10% skill. But it won't work without that 10%'. This medium is not suited to lengthy debate, so I'll just say that marketing [or 'sales' as your friend might say] is all about putting the right product in the right place, at the right time, at the right price – and letting folk know it is there. So when you decide to buy any particular product, at a specific time, at a price you accept after responding to any promotion [even the sign above a shop is promotion] you are a 'victim' of marketing. Tell you what ... next time I'm in Nottingham; you choose the beer, pub and time – and I'll pay.
Very interesting article. Thank you. You suggest that good marketing is not a difficult thing to do – “It ain’t rocket science” cliché, and “it’s certainly not quantum physics” and that all one needs to do come up with something that is different, distinctive, daring and honest. I was wondering if you could (i) do this for your university; or (ii) if not could you provide examples of marketing initiatives for any other organization that truly conforms to your criteria. Look forward to your reply. Ian
Hi, Ian. Thanks a lot for your comment. Take a look at www.youtube.com/sixtysymbols and Brady Haran's (www.bradyharan.com ) other channels. This is what I mean about being distinctive, different, daring and honest. Note the absence of a marketing "sheen". Note the 'rawness'. Note the level of engagement with the viewers. Note also the absence of the usual cliches in science 'programming'. (And further note that this is down to the talents of the prolific Mr. Haran). See also http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/~ppzstm/pdfs/Moriarty_youtube.pdf for more detail on the motivations and challenges of this type of YouTube-based public engagement. Best wishes, Philip
Thanks Philips. There are some interesting videos at those links. They do a great job of explaining the various phenomena they want to cover, but they do not market an institution. In fact, in many cases it is difficult to determine which institution/s these videos and the speakers are actually linked to. I understand the power of YouTube and other social media for individuals to disseminate their research, their work fields, themselves and even the silly activities of their pets, but I am interested in examples of how organisations/institutions promote themselves using the easy 'non-rocket science' criteria you outline. That's one of the key arguments in your article. Cheers, Ian
Ian, The Times Higher comments section has received a "revamp" in recent days with the upshot that the formatting has gone awry (paragraph breaks seem to be suppressed). I've therefore responded to your comment here: https://muircheart.wordpress.com/2015/09/27/how-to-win-friends-and-influence-people-your-marketing-department/comment-page-1/#comment-703. Philip
Oh, hyperlinks no longer work either. That's a shame.
Do not ignore the fact that the Russell Group are masters of marketing. They are self-selective and describe their membership as the top 24 research-intensive universities in the UK. Wher e is their definition of 'research intensive'? The timeshighereducation have used the term intensity in REF ranking as in https://pbs.twimg.com/media/CPvV9PLWgAAML6E.jpg A fundamental difficulty arises of course when mathematics are applied to an ordinal scale but herein lies the difference between maths, physics and marketing. Surely Intensity-weighted GPA is a measure of GPA, not a measure of intensity? There is no column for intensity in the table. Answers on a postcard please from maths, physics and marketers please. To place this marketing matter in context please see a glimpse of the future as featured here. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/09/07/college-calculus

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