New research shows HE marketing has become more credible since the introduction of higher tuition fees says MD, Justin Shaw.


The research conducted independently by Bournemouth University, supported by Communications Management shows that over two-thirds (69%) of Higher Education marketing directors in UK universities report an increase in investment in marketing over the past three years, demonstrating that more value is being placed on university marketing in response to higher fees and increasing global competition.


Key findings

  • Over two-thirds (69%) of UK marketing directors have seen an increased investment in marketing over the past three years
  • Branding is often still not understood within the higher education sector
  • Modern students are ‘demanding customers’ looking for a response 24/7, meaning that a shift in marketing techniques is crucial
  • Social media must be handled in the right way to avoid “pushy communications” and encroaching on student space
  • Increase in senior strategic marketing appointments in Higher Education Institutions


However survey respondents – a third of the UK’s HE marketing directors – also stated that though budgets still rarely approach those in the private sector, they consider short term funding to be less important than moving to such a “marketing culture,” in which return on investment of each activity is carefully weighed up.


Branding was identified as a major challenge for universities, with marketers saying that there is sometimes still a misconception by some staff that branding is the logo and visual identity,  rather than what the institution stands for and believes in. Some innovative suggestions for future branding strategies were discussed such as experiential branding, building differentiation through “emotional resonance.”


Respondents also identified students as ‘picky consumers’ and ‘demanding customers’ who are looking for a response and able to access information 24/7. As a result, marketers are no longer able to control brands and messages with the precision they were once able to, and an evolution in tools has been necessary to support this shift.


Dr Chris Chapleo, Senior Lecturer in Marketing at Bournemouth University and author of the report says that, “most marketing directors spoken to reported an increase in marketing budgets in recent years, which indicates that senior management has started to realise that as a consequence of the changing operating environment, marketing is not only necessary to attract students but also for the university’s reputation”.


Other key findings include:


  • Spend on outdoor advertising has reduced at expense of integration of print and online marketing and social media channels. However respondents warned against “looking at social media too simplistically” as “it is not a panacea”. Social media tools must be used with caution to avoid “pushy” communications and encroaching on students’ social space
  • Universities are shifting to ‘lifetime communications,’ staying with students throughout their life journey, before and after joining. Communications that were previously task specific and sporadic, now have to be on-going, building up the role of ‘brand ambassadors’
  • With higher education fees, comes a higher expectation of quality and this does not come cheap. However, it is important to choose specific communications channels and make sure these are well executed rather than “having a presence across the board and being master of none”
  • “Face-to-face” marketing is still crucial for academic staff, heads of department and faculty representatives – open days with access to staff, students and prospectuses provide an experience that inanimate digital platforms cannot convey
  • HE institutions have started to adopt more competitive and aggressive marketing strategies to secure quality students for income and research excellence. Increased fees, semi-regulation or deregulation of HE providers and policies surrounding student number controls have all led to this change.


Dr Chris Chapleo continues, “Modern marketing planning in higher education is challenging; the sector has been through a period of great change and continues to evolve. More than ever there is a need for marketers to be flexible and nimble, able to respond to the need for ‘lifetime communications’ with students and the ever-changing communications landscape. This requires a certain calibre of professional and we have seen increasingly senior strategic appointments within marketing departments over the past few years to support this shift.”


In conclusion the research shows that there is more considered investment in marketing in the UK’s universities. There’s no doubt that increased tuition fees, international competition, the establishment of more universities, online options for study and the impending removal of the cap on undergraduate numbers are all contributing to an intensive phase in which universities need to stand out more and drive choices in their favour. We hope our resesarch will enable university leaders to reflect on the growing significance of marketing as a discipline in this context.


The research was conducted through in-depth interviews with 15 universities and through a survey to reveal marketing budget trends with 37 directors of marketing (or similar) in UK HE institutions.