Higher Education can often feel as if it is caught between two very different ways of communicating. The Academy, rational to the very core, instinctively prefers to present itself through cogent, well-argued cases. What works in marketing, though – long demonstrated by research and results – is to build an emotional connection with the audience.
And this disconnect between rationality and feelings creates a dilemma for university marketeers, who are tasked by the Academy to meet ever more demanding targets. Does the institution speak in a manner that comes from its own way of doing things, or does it try to engage with its audiences in a way that appeals to them? Now that universities find themselves operating in a highly competitive environment, it is more critical than ever to find the right answer. And HEIs are not so different from each other that their offers stand clearly apart.
To understand how to go about resolving this dilemma, we need step out of Higher Education for a moment and think about brands which have really managed to engage audiences. For instance, if you hear: ‘Should have gone to…’, most likely you’ll have the answer ready: ‘Specsavers!’. Or if it‘s ‘probably the best…?’, ‘Carlsberg’. For the reader of a certain age, it’s enough to mention Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut for Frank Muir’s lisping voice singing ‘everyone‘s a fruit and nut case’ to come flooding back. In fact, classic British confectionery brands do extremely well in the test of memorability: Mars (‘a Mars a day helps you work, rest and play’ – created by the great adman Francis Harmar Brown in 1959), Fudge (‘a finger of fudge is just enough’) or Milky Bar (‘the Milky Bars are on me’) are good examples. Anyone who remembers them, remembers them.
Decades after the campaigns promoting these brands were retired we recall not just the slogan, but the music, settings and storylines. All of which testifies to just how effective they were as communications. After all, that’s what a brand is (or should be): something that lives in our imagination. But if you were to be asked in thirty years time about great UKHE campaigns of the 2010s, would you be able to pull out examples as easily as ‘For Mash get Smash’ (voted TV ad of the twentieth century by Campaign Magazine) or ‘Any time, any place, anywhere…’?
Classic consumer advertising has a great deal to teach universities about how to make their offers memorable.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that we are suggesting the university should adopt a silly jingle or mount a demonstration of buffoonery: ‘A degree in every course!’ ‘Reaches the employers other degrees cannot reach’, cartoon squirrels or penguins waddling about.
However, the great Fast Moving Consumer Goods campaigns of the 1970s and 80s contain abundant clues for two of the biggest problems in Higher Education marketing: establishing points of difference, and cultivating unprompted awareness. And this doesn‘t mean sacrificing gravitas or authenticity: there are plenty of ways these approaches can be made to satisfy serious academic sensibilities.
Never forget me!
The first lesson great consumer campaigns can teach is how to make a really memorable impact. And this is something Higher Education has struggled to achieve despite all the effort and resources that go into building university brands.
What makes a brand unforgettable? If we look at the example of the best consumer advertising, the answer is simple: a campaign strategy which aims to capture people’s imaginations. The success of these brands didn’t depend on a logo, or any of the other essentials of the modern brand. (If you don’t believe this, just try and draw the Curly Wurly brand mark from memory). Nor did they depend on products with an already well-established reputation (Cadbury’s Smash being an excellent example of a completely new invention). What made them so successful was rigorous consistency, with new twists building on past history, good storytelling, strong characters, catchy music, humour and likeability.
By the middle of the 1970s, the formula had been perfected. Indeed, there has been no significant change to the basic principles of these kinds of campaigns ever since. They all led with an ‘above the line’ approach, which in those days meant television commercials, and this was supported right the way down the line by materials which were consistent with what viewers saw on the screen. The message here is clear: the approach taken on your highest profile campaign materials needs to be echoed through every other supporting item.
In the way it works in our brains, memorability is closely associated with incongruity. But one of the chief things that any modern organisation wants to avoid is looking incongruous. Ironically, though, the use of incongruity has sound academic roots. The ancient ‘art of memory’, whereby scholars were able to retain and retrieve whole texts by heart, used the juxtaposition of images – the more bizarre, the better – to form memorable associations. And Aristotle famously demonstrated how to make something unforgettable by incongruously slapping a student in the middle of a discourse. When asked why he did it, he replied that the other students would now always recall what he had been saying at the moment of the slap. The odd, uncharacteristic action – and the sense of drama it produced – burned the lesson into his students’ memories.
If we look at confectionery advertisements of the 1970s and 80s as an example, we can see incongruity writ large: a child cowboy walking into a Western saloon, a middle-aged comedian dressed as a 1950s schoolboy, serious adult role models who break into a comic calypso at the sight of a Wholenut bar… But the ‘lightweight’ nature of these examples shouldn‘t blind us to how cleverly this technique anticipates the processes of cognition.
There are many ways in which universities could use unusual, surprising and engaging juxtapositions of ideas to make themselves stick in their audiences’ minds. For instance, a very successful low-budget campaign for the NHS Blood and Transplant Service removed the letters A, B and O from notable landmarks (such as the Downing Street sign) to highlight the insufficient numbers of people are giving blood. There could hardly be a graver issue than this, yet the playful connection between letters as blood types and as missing characters is able to make a serious point in a lighthearted way, and in the process press a serious message home.
Standing out from the crowd
The need to make us of an intuitive campaign strategy in order to create memorable campaigns are not the only thing universities have to do with fast moving consumer goods like chocolate. Another important similarity is the problem of differentiation.
Classic 1970s confectionery brands were built around products which were really very similar. They all contained a few common ingredients (chocolate, caramel, nougat, in some cases dried fruit and nuts); they all came in similar weights and measures and at comparable price-points; and they all had roughly equivalent nutritional value (or, at least, roughly similar numbers of calories!) In many ways there was not much to choose between them. And although this might seem like a trivial comparison, universities find themselves today in a comparable position. HEIs now offer equivalent programmes, taught in similar ways, in near identical environments, over the same lengths of time, with an often indistinguishable student experience wrapped around them.
When competing offers seem barely distinguishable, standout cannot come from the offer itself. That might seem like the most glaringly obvious observation, but it is one that organisations in all kinds of sectors struggle to comprehend. In this situation drilling into the offer to try to find a ‘unique selling proposition’ just results in more and more obscure points of difference (for example ‘the UK‘s greenest campus’). Compare this approach to: “Isn’t that the one James Corden advertises?” A successful campaign can’t be built on esoteric distinctions but needs a substantial ‘hook’ on which to hang its difference. Classic confectionery advertising shows us that there absolutely is no reason why this hook needs to come from the product; celebrity endorsement, catchy music, or just a really good joke are among the many things a campaign can be suspended from.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that Higher Education marketing needs to trivialise the offer (especially at a time when increased fees, greater interest rates and a larger number of alternatives make buying into a university’s offer more difficult for the purchaser than ever before). But if The Economist can use intelligent humour to promote a thinking brand, why can’t the LSE? (Or any other HEI.)
And hooks are not the only differentiating factors. Great campaigns also depend on outstanding writing (which highlights the importance of HEIs investing seriously in ‘verbal identity’). To stand out, a campaign really needs to sparkle.
Which is not to suggest that universities aren‘t trying to create distinctive verbal assets. In fact, more than half of UK universities are now using straplines. But these straplines tend to be generic, with bland writing making them barely distinguishable from the mass.
As an example, you know which university calls itself: “Individually Different, Collectively Brilliant”? Or which uses the strapline: “Life Changing, World Shaping”? These straplines tell us little that we can use to connect them with the institutions they represent (or, indeed, anything any other HEI couldn’t claim). Compare these – and they are among the best – with Worldwide Cancer Research’s ‘cancer knows no boundaries – fortunately, neither do we’. Here is a serious organisation concerned with a serious issue telling us a great deal about itself (and distinguishing itself from its competitors) in just eight words.
Suppose, though, that the institution which describes itself as Individually Different, Collectively Brilliant” instead used something like: “From The Deep to the profound”. Might you then know who they were? Or if “Life Changing, World Shaping” were “Imagine all the people…”? Small indications can send out big signals, if we get them right.
Giving the brand legs
We measure campaigns on their longevity. And longevity is important for universities because audiences can be exposed to messages over a long period of time (as with the secondary school pupils who see clearing campaigns in public transport for years before their turn comes to apply to university).
And the single most important factor which gives a campaign ‘legs’ to walk on, year after year, is intelligent repetition.
Repetition, which increases awareness whatever we repeat, is a simple principle that can be difficult to implement well. And even more difficult to stick to. Externally the challenge is to find the right balance between novelty and sameness to keep the audience engaged. If there is too little change, we tune the message out. If there is too much, we don’t remember who the message is from.
Great consumer advertising introduces new elements while maintaining consistency through format or storytelling. The saga of the Nescafé Gold Blend ‘coffee couple’, for instance, ran from 1987 to 1993 and increased sales of the brand by more than 50%. The soap-opera format, which focused on the relationship between characters played by actors Anthony Head and Sharon Maughan, allowed the advertisements to be changed-up without breaking the all important continuity.
Today, Specsavers and IKEA successfully also use narrative led approaches which change the storyline within a recognisable framework. Both are outstanding examples of how to get the balance right.
However, just as there is an external challenge to repetition, there is also the internal challenge of keeping the marketing team on board with a campaign strategy which runs, year on year, with minimal variations. University marketing is amongst the most varied, with HEIs often running separate campaigns for undergraduate and postgraduate recruitment, domestic and international audiences, clearing, and alumni engagement. Constant changes helps to keep the team engaged (even if they can rack up significant costs for the institution). It takes a steady hand to keep the team on track with an approach which allows for far less variation.
The power of moving image
Higher Education has never had the budgets, or the inclination, to stretch to high-profile television advertising. So it could be argued that the kinds of high profile treatments which classic British FMCG advertising depended on could never be made to work for university marketing.
That‘s not quite true any more, though. As bandwidth grows and users come to expect moving image, there will be a need to focus more on video.
In the multi-channel world of today, HEIs are engaging audiences through a range of media, many of which are capable of accommodating moving image treatments. For instance the homepages of 111 of 145 UK University websites feature a hero banner (an image or image carousel taking up most of the screen estate ‘above the fold’). In only nine cases, however, is this a hero video.
Given the ease with which media queries can serve different content for different types of device, browser, or screen (and substitute still images in situations where video may not be desirable), it’s hard to see what the downside of leading with a moving image treatment might be.
That video treatment could very well be a 30 second tv style advertisement – the length that the World Advertising Research Center has shown is ideal for engaging the semantic, episodic and procedural memories without losing the viewer‘s attention. Indeed, it could even be a series of such advertisements, set up so that repeat visitors are presented with a different video each time they return.
Campaigns of the future
The last few years have seen much of the attention in marketing focused on new ways to understand audiences (particularly through the collection and use of ‘Big Data’), and on new channels to reach those audiences (especially channels with a ‘social‘ dimension).
In terms of content, though, it has not been a great era for impact or creativity. In almost every sector messaging seems to have gone backwards, feeling the pinch of cost-savings (which, in some cases, have even seen message creation brought back in-house). It goes without saying, then, that a better understanding of the target, and more diverse and sophisticated ways of reaching them, require something better to say.
In 2017 HEIs need to stop assuming that they have an irresistible story to tell. Even 800 year old institutions are having to work harder to attract applicants, and a combination of adverse factors (dwindling population of prospective students, rising costs of being a student, immigration controls and worries, and the attraction of alternatives to university, such as apprenticeships) has made competition more intense than it has ever been in the past. This is not a situation in which universities can afford to fall back on customary ways of doing things; it‘s a situation in which only the boldest will be winners.
University campaigns need to make people sit up and pay attention. They can’t go on meandering off in different directions, but need to pull, consistently, towards greater recognition and memorability. Differentiation is going to require a new approach, whether it is bringing in a celebrity, using sparkling language, making people laugh, developing a good story-line or adopting a catchy tune.
Higher Education campaign strategy: What we can offer
We know that campaign strategy is not simple. So how can we help you? In the first instance, let us give you some thoughts on your campaign strategy without cost or obligation.
Send or email us some visuals of your current campaigns and we’ll come back to you with our thoughts about the ‘quick wins’ (suggestions of things you could introduce which would help with the differentiation and memorability of your brand, without huge budgetary, resource or decision-making implications).
We’ll share one principal insight, with a 100-150 word explanation of how it could work for your brand. It’s an offer we don’t make lightly: there is a great deal of experience behind our perceptions. But ‘thought pieces’ only go so far. We’d like the opportunity to demonstrate how the principles we talk about in general could be made to work for your specific needs.
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