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.
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.