When you think about competitive market places, the world of higher education might not be the first that springs to mind. But issues like rising student debts and Brexit mean universities are having a tougher time recruiting students. Now more than ever, universities are turning to branding and creative marketing to attract students and make themselves stand out.
This year, university applications in the UK have fallen by 4% compared to last year, with a huge drop in applications from mature students in England and Northern Ireland. And it’s not hard to see why. The increase in tuition fees and living costs coupled with rising interest on student loans means graduates will leave university in more debt than ever before. On top of that, they’ll be graduating into a job market where the name of prestigious university on a CV won’t be enough. The number of EU students planning to study in the UK is also down by 5%. No prizes for guessing why that might be.
For universities, branding has never been more important than it is now. As more and more students think twice before even applying, universities need to position themselves as an attractive option. They also need to distinguish themselves from other institutions in order to compete. But a lot of university branding and marketing feels the same - a grand strapline about the future, students sitting under trees on a prospectus, and a number from whatever league table they’ve ranked highest on. Nowadays, winning over prospective students is going to take more than that.
So what can universities do to bolster their brands?
Degrees of separation
A university’s brand is about a lot more than its academic reputation (although it is still important). To stand out, universities need to think about what really makes them different and then show it. An exciting location, good facilities, and unique programmes are all good places to start. They should also look at the strengths within their faculties and focus on them. A big part of deciding which university to go to comes down to what the course has to offer. After all, students do have to spend at least some time studying. But putting too much emphasis on individual departments can sometimes be risky - the sub-brands may become disconnected to each other or start to overshadow the university’s core brand. Making sure all the sub-brands are working towards a common goal and keeping any visuals similar can help maintain consistency.
Some universities are getting creative with the ways they promote themselves too. Collaborating with NME magazine for Reading Festival 2016, the University of Reading gave 12 students the chance to interview artists and create content for NME’s website and social media. As well as being an incredible opportunity for the participants, it put the university’s brand centre stage at a festival where many attendees are prospective students. After the festival, there was a 30% increase in applications during clearing and 7% rise in attendance at the university’s open days.
Job hunting 101
With the graduate job market in a state of turmoil, investing in a university education can feel like a big risk. Many students are opting to go straight into work after secondary school or college or choosing government-backed apprenticeship schemes rather than putting themselves in debt. Emphasising employability is now crucial for universities to attract students. Percentages of how many students found a job sixth months after graduating are fine but there are more ways to tie employability into a university’s brand. Talking about courses that offer placements, professors that know the ins and outs of the industry, or what alumni are doing and how they got there can be more compelling and reassuring than statistics.
The best years of your life
For many brands, experience is everything. And luckily for universities, they all automatically offer the student experience. The quality of the experience varies depending on the institution and individual of course, but it is a big draw for many. Universities should spotlight the experience they offer and they should do it through the lens of their students. Current students and alumni are a university’s best brand ambassadors, and letting them tell their own stories or even create content is a much more authentic way to give prospective students a glimpse of what their university life could look like.
Likening universities to businesses is still something a lot of people are uncomfortable with.
No-one likes to think of students as consumers but at some point in their degree they will think ‘what am I paying for?’. Universities need to show that they’re worth it. And if they build a great brand and deliver on it, they will be.