Unlocking Creative Potential in HE Marketing


Guest blog from Martyn Edwards @ Swansea University

As I type this, like many of us in the sector, I cannot help but look towards the quickly approaching A-level results day. Whilst simultaneously casting my mind forward to the 2020 recruitment marketing cycle, against the twin backdrops of Brexit and Augar.    

The well-publicised and seemingly unrelenting on-going turbulence across the external operating environment, with adverse geopolitical as well as demographic headwinds, has resulted in a harsh new reality for UK HE providers. The next 12 months are likely to be as demanding as the last for the majority of university marketers.   

I like to think that I am an optimist, albeit one living through a time of unprecedented uncertainty. Maintaining a sense of perspective is everything and I feel it is crucial to concentrate on those areas that we can realistically control and influence, to galvanise the collective genius and resilience of our people.

Bob Dylan once wrote that “behind every beautiful thing, there’s some kind of pain”. It is clear from the quality of many of the marketing campaigns being executed by UK universities as they face common existential challenges, that as we reach the nadir, the tough are getting going. Rolling with the punches has become the new normal.

Good marketing is imbued with emotion and evokes an emotional reaction. It moves and challenges us, reinforcing or even changing our perceptions. The only way to create that sort of output is through working in partnership with talented people; encouraging teams to think differently and enabling their creative freedom to try new things.

Universities are all about pushing the frontiers of knowledge in order to have a transformational impact, be it on the lives of individual students or for the betterment of society and the world in general. Human relationships, social connections and contact, remain the most important element of why we do what we do. It is that desire to connect with others and to be understood, accepted and appreciated. This motivates us, our students, colleagues and wider stakeholders. By keeping sight of that reality and effectively reflecting it in our marketing, this is how we ensure impact and is also how we should look to manage innovation.

One of my own sources of inspiration in this area is Pixar and the philosophy of their former president, Ed Catmull. During periods of rapid change, the ability to pivot by innovating quickly and effectively can be an enduring competitive advantage. This will not happen by luck alone, but rather by design and assembling the right people irrespective of hierarchy. Catmull wanted to ensure a fertile environment where the team could do great things. His vehicle for this was the Brain Trust; an innovation forum, the foci of which was the removal of the fear of failure through the simple recognition of the fact that mistakes are not a necessary evil but an inevitable consequence of doing something new, because without them there is no originality.

At Swansea, we have the Big Ideas Group (BIG), intended as the foundation stone of a sustainable and cohesive creative culture. Providing a safe space for marketing people at Swansea to show and tell about their work, exchange lessons learned and interact informally.

Failure is an agent of learning and exploration if we are not experiencing failure that means we may be driven by the desire to avoid it and can allow it to inhibit us. In the HE sector, which by its very nature is highly cyclical and often quite traditional, there is a risk that teams can be trapped by repetition and as a result work becomes derivative. UK university marketers need to fight the pressure to always take the safer more familiar option, and instead trust their instincts when assessing new channels for engagement and storytelling.

Intuition and decisive action must also be informed and empowered by real insights that are evidence-based. Another key part of the puzzle at Pixar was the use of data, specifically the collation of actionable audience feedback as a rubric to refine and improve the current project. At Swansea, we are fortunate to have a dedicated Marketing Intelligence team that scans the horizon for trends and spots gaps in our portfolio. But also collaborates with our creative and digital teams to test and optimise our marketing outputs, so that we are continuously learning and becoming more agile. This year two major research projects delivered by the team have focused on developing a better understanding of which rankings mnemonics resonate most with students. The other has been to build a comprehensive suite of personas to allow us to better meet the information needs of our different student audiences.

It is also worth mentioning the growing expectation for university marketers to make a significant contribution to customer experience management (CXM) such is the emphasis on digital engagement with students and stakeholders. A recent study commissioned by Accenture found that 87% of organisations agreed that traditional experiences are no longer sufficient to satisfy their customers. It is not enough just to be “ok”, organisations have to deliver excellence and ensure that there is little or no discrepancy between promise and delivery. For this winning experience to be realised there has to be empathy with students and a deep understanding of their needs. This is informed by data insights and further enabled by the bringing together of cross-cutting teams to shape our offering.  

The ability to innovate is therefore crucial for HE marketing teams but we should not regard creativity as something that can be turned on and off like a tap (much as we would like this to be the case) but rather a force to be nurtured. In practice, this means deliberately creating opportunities where staff can meet, mingle and have unhindered open and honest conversations.

Good ideas, after all, can come from anywhere.