What does our research mean for university brands?

By Avarina Wilson-Dyer-Gough

Over the past four days we have been sharing insights from a recent focus group we held with a group of 16 and 17 year old school students. While it was small-scale research, the insights gained highlight some interesting points that we see as being important for universities to consider.

Entering the consideration set
When these bright young things start their search they will add or reject potential universities based on emotional pulls and well-calculated research. This initial phase is the most critical stage for universities.

To succeed, universities need to adapt their brand and marketing messages to a potential student’s ‘research and purchase’ cycle. As a result, now is the time for universities who hover below the radar, with interesting courses or ‘you at the heart’ philosophies, to sneak onto young people’s long consideration lists. Whereas the complacent can often find themselves nudged out by universities promising more student-centred communications or use of channels.

Prospective students want to hear the ‘truth’ about a university.
Young people aren’t stupid, they don’t want the ‘polished’ version of what the university can offer each student and don’t want a cookie-cutter response to their questions. They will go online and talk to peers to understand what it's really like to study at a particular university.

Universities need to put their students and staff at the centre of their brand and communications activities. Allowing them to share their experiences directly with applicants means a university can anticipate and answer the questions that really matter to young people. In addition, by directly involving their students in how the brand communicates, the content is trusted by prospective students and the university is actively encouraging its students and staff to become brand ambassadors.

The location is an important and differentiating factor for a university.
This isn’t a new learning for many universities, students have always placed importance on the location and its social life when deciding on their university. However what it does highlight, is a need to better integrate the local community and its culture into its brand communications. By highlighting how the city and geographical location play such an important role in what makes the university so special, it can help prospective students to fall in love with the city and the university, making it a destination to want to live and study in.

Course league tables are more important than university league tables.
Students are driven to find the best version of their chosen subject. Placing more importance on individual course ranking, instead of the universities, means that universities need to steer their messaging away from the ambiguity of overall league tables. Strategic focus and messages should instead be focused on where they academically excel and differentiate themselves; what makes their courses special, the teaching staff and their teaching methods. To be reliant on the overall university’s academic reputation isn’t enough when students want a return on investment from their course and level of teaching.

Key learnings

The traditional sources of information and methods of analysis of universities are changing. Young people actively turn to digital channels and word-of-mouth for ‘real insight’ to help them distinguish between universities and their offerings. It isn’t good enough anymore to rely on a league table position or have centuries of heritage. A university needs to understand the purchase cycles of prospective students and engage directly with them.

For the universities that continue to create their brand and marketing strategies in isolation, they will quickly see themselves eclipsed by more student-centred universities. But regardless of its reputation, universities have to remember that they are there to inspire and transform the lives of their students, so what better way to do that than include them in the brand strategy and messages? Universities need to let knowledge and teaching speak for itself, and let their own consumers promote the institution.