Are reputational issues lurking in your marketing material?

By Lucy Parker | April 7, 2021

A few years ago, I was asked by a head of student services at a higher education provider in England to explore how the duty of care to students was framed in their recruitment marketing materials.  

The tone, style and content of this institution’s marketing material is pretty standard across the sector. My client wanted to know whether the narratives in their recruitment material set unrealistic expectations amongst prospective students. Was the information provided creating reputational risks that would emerge as issues later on?

In the UK, the burden of paying for academic studies has shifted from the government to students and/or their parents. Expectations have risen, too. Students rightly want a return on their time and financial investment: quality teaching informed by cutting edge research, top-notch campus facilities and equipment, and professional-level employment upon graduation.

Consumerism’s influence on marketing

To start, I consulted some theory on consumerism. French sociologist Jean Baudrillard argued in his groundbreaking 1970 book The Consumer Society: Myths and Structures that “Modern societies are characterized by the ‘dialectic of penury’…a constant sense that one does not have enough… characterized by differentiation and competition, which contributes to the reality… that there is never enough.”

Reviewing the institution’s webpages and prospectuses revealed a compelling narrative of how student “consumers” could maximize their experiences. Each potential student was consistently described as being “in the driver’s seat” of their academic studies.

Despite the student being “in charge,” there was no mention of students needing to work hard to obtain a degree and apply themselves to their studies, engage with their subject and learning or develop other skills valued by future employers, such as working with peers on group assignments, meeting deadlines and managing their independent study time.

The institution’s literature described at length the wide-ranging academic and non-academic services available to students.  Learning support, as well as physical, social and emotional support, are important, and the marketing material should cover these. But ironically, in devoting a lot of space to emphasize the range of additional support on offer, the narrative seemed to leave the student in control of the academic side whilst the institution assumed responsibility for the pastoral side of student life!

Underplaying the academic angle

The accompanying student testimonials described the institution’s supportive environment. Academic staff were portrayed as readily available and able to advise on a range of issues, even beyond academic studies. At times positioned as ‘surrogate parents’, academic staff were rarely referred to in terms of their teaching experience, research background and subject knowledge. How their passion ignited a thirst for learning amongst their students or deeper engagement with the subject remained unclear.

Baudrillard argued that “the heroes of production are everywhere giving way today to biographies of the heroes of consumption.” Details of ‘free’ gifts and trips available at the start of students’ studies were complemented by testimonials about the top-notch facilities, services and opportunities available for students (to consume) during their studies.

Whilst the literature provided details on the courses offered, there was scant mention about the opportunity and purpose of academic study; the aims and objectives of studying for a degree; or the skills required to understand how knowledge is created and transformed and its vital role in the information society.

Consumerism needs to be funded, and various funds, grants and bursaries were described in detail. Again, the limitations of these ‘money pots’ passed unmentioned, it seemed the support was relatively accessible; the flyers were encouraging: “Why not apply?”

High expectations were set about the quality and resourcing of the support on offer. The issue is that this provision is limited; it might be available to all students in principle, but in reality, it is not currently resourced to support everyone. Failure to deliver is inevitable. Interestingly, there was no mention of how institutional support sits alongside other support networks such as friends, family, guardians and mentors.

I recommended to my client that future iterations of the marketing literature should use more specific language to ensure the institution’s responsibilities are clearly defined. The transition to higher education should be explained better; how does study in higher education differ from that in high school (especially important for students who are the first generation in their families to enter higher education). Accurate descriptions of the support on offer, and the help academic staff can reasonably be expected to provide, should be given. Information should explain the kind of work and effort expected of undergraduate students; what kind of study skills will they learn? How will academic study help them enter employment?

Collaborating on marketing

Much of this student recruitment literature was produced in isolation from key internal stakeholders. I recommended seeking the input of colleagues across the institution when producing further collateral; colleagues who often find themselves on the frontline tackling issues arising from unmet expectations will have valuable insights. My final recommendation was for teams to come together annually to review the content and any live reputational issues emerging from it. 

I have recently completed some work for another client that involved reviewing their competitors’ marketing materials. Some of the issues mentioned above are finally being addressed, which is encouraging. There is still much more to do in building the narrative around how skills learnt during academic studies, decision-making skills, problem-solving skills and higher-order thinking skills can be applied in today’s workplace.

Based in the UK, Lucy Parker is a strategic communications and policy consultant specializing in higher education. After spending 18 years in the technology and natural resources industries, she jumped ship into HE and has worked for universities, the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the English regulator, the Office for Students.

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