The university brand challenge

Would-be students are being courted like never before by universities looking to grow their numbers, says Chris Walmsley

This year marks the first time universities across the UK are able to recruit an unlimited number of students following the government’s decision to lift the student numbers cap. As a result, the higher education sector has become more of a marketplace. 

However, it would be inaccurate to liken the system to a pure play market but there are emerging similarities and the language of marketing can be easily applied to the recent moves. There has been a shift to a much more demand-driven and liberalised environment and would-be students are being courted like never before by universities looking to grow their numbers or in some cases just to hold their positions.

But it’s not just the cap removal that is exerting influence – increasing pressure from private providers, a bigger push by government and employer initiatives such as apprenticeships and greater scrutiny on value for money from would be students and their parents. All of these factors are combining to form a more complex and evolving environment.

We are now entering an age of even greater uncertainty. We simply can’t tell yet if the cap removal will increase the overall size of the market. If it has little impact on student numbers then small marginal gains for one institution will increase the risk for others. In some cases, the cumulative net effect will be potentially very damaging to some institutions.  With greater uncertainty, institutions cannot afford to continue to market themselves in the ways they always have done.  We may start to see greater alliances and even some ‘merger and acquisition’ activity.

If removing caps leads to a significant increase in student numbers then who knows what will happen to universities attitude to quality, shifting objectives and resulting investment in marketing.

Whatever shifts start emerging this summer’s clearing round could prove to be a twitchy one for some university VCs. Inevitably institutions will all judge success differently depending on where they sit in the market. The vice chancellors leading the higher end Russell Group universities will no doubt continue to confidently steer their institutions through any changes in conditions, continuing to pick up the best students along the way.

‘If removing caps leads to a significant increase in student numbers then who knows what will happen to universities attitude to quality, shifting objectives and resulting investment in marketing.


The traditional university recruitment cycle is becoming null and void and we will likely see different patterns emerging such as the open-ended recruitment initiatives practised in Australia and New Zealand.  As students know they can shop around come the traditional period of ‘clearing’, they may well not actually apply until they know their grades and target the universities that they want.

The more interesting segment to watch will be the one that contains the lower end of the Russell Group and some of the better performing post 1992 universities. Let’s call them the “challengers”. Here the battle is likely to get fierce. With the protectionism of the caps gone, universities will have to behave more like true brands to ensure they succeed. 

So what can each of these challengers do to increase their chances of success in the uncapped world? As recruitment becomes more open ended they will have to work out how best to provide year round content that engages and not just rely on traditional marketing linked to the legacy recruitment cycle.

I suggest they also need to take a long hard look at what content their university currently relies on to attract new students. The challengers that see lots of images of “three perfectly diverse smiling students under a tree” probably need to reappraise their brand communications. The challenger universities have to break out from being so “beige”. They should not be slavishly conforming to sector norms when they communicate. Instead they should be standing out and attracting attention. What makes them better, different and special will be overlooked if they simply blend in with the HE landscape. Wherever there is perceived parity with peers, they must have a voice, a personality and a point of distinctiveness.

To achieve this they will need to deploy more finely-tuned consumer marketing strategies to challenge successfully. In reality, this group of universities currently have similar positioning’s: with comparably good facilities (usually ‘world-class’) and predictable incentives to sign up like free gym membership and text-books. So despite being openly provided with a wealth of detail on course content, placement opportunities and employability stats, potential students often struggle to differentiate between institutions from their marketing communications.

‘Best practice brand building is required to help protect universities for the long haul as well as deliver short term numbers.’

Best practice brand building is required to help protect universities for the long haul as well as deliver short term numbers. Deep product-level differentiation between institutions, especially amongst the challengers, will always be difficult to truly deliver upon.  So HE brands need to stand for something distinctive, without over-promising something they cannot deliver.

For some challenger institutions, taking a distinctive niche position will be the way to progress. Communicating that effectively requires creativity. In one particularly notable campaign for UTEC in Peru, the university used its engineering expertise to build a billboard that produces potable water from the air and help relieve the local drought problem.  So rather than simply saying they are a leading engineering university, they have proved it, raising their reputation and establishing their brand.

One or two UK challengers have also started to carve out distinctive positions by finding creative ways to communicate the personality of their university. A notable example is De Montfort University. They invested heavily last year in a national TV campaign with an emotive call to students to not surrender to convention. The creative and media choices lived up its campaign promise by breaking many of the tradional HE communication conventions.

Both these examples have been very successful to date but they also promise a great deal in terms of long term brand building providing exciting opportunities for each University and a certain amount of protection from the changing winds of HE.

In recent years, marketing in general has seen a shift towards short term measurement – be that clicks or likes, direct revenue or responses. Obviously HE institutions are measured on their yearly success in terms of recruitment and conversion. But in this evolving marketplace, true brand building will be required as a long term reputational strategy in order for many institutions to remain relevant and prosper and, in some cases, ultimately, survive this shifting market.

Doing nothing is not an option for many institutions, especially the challengers, the practical steps universities can take are:

  • Take meaningful, distinctive brand positions that make sense of the product offering i.e. go beyond category generic thinking such as ‘universities improve society’.
  • Demonstrate to academic departments that branding and marketing is not the enemy – it will increasingly be a source of growth (and survival) and it completely relies on the quality of proof provided at departmental level. Institutions will need to encourage all staff to act as brand ambassadors.
  • Act more like actual businesses to survive – know how much it costs to run each course, where the money is made and where to prioritise marketing spend.  Also using the data they have and the insights they bring – this will help improve the robustness of the product offering which in turn helps to define the brand.
  • Look to develop big creative marketing ideas that chase saliency and fame, not just short term recruitment goals.
  • Approach marketing from a contribution perspective to stand out from the sea of generic communications – ask what can be done, via your communications, to help make your student prospects lives easier or better? 

Chris Walmsley is co-founder and Head of Planning at Cubo Group.

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