How university marketing is stepping out of the shadows

How university marketing is stepping out of the shadows.

31 October 2023

Shade ThompsonSocial & Content Marketing Manager

"I joined the sector in 2009 when university marketing was extremely immature, but within 14 years, university marketing has become a half-a-billion-pound business. The level of sophistication in marketing we have now is in a completely different league"

Higher education marketing leader, Mark Garratt of Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) is leading the way to bring professional marketing expertise to a £100bn+ sector. Shining light on the importance of leadership and staff development whilst being ever-mindful of the need for universities to still be seen as a good choice for young people, we caught up with Mark to look at the evolution and future of higher education marketing.


Thank you for taking the time to have this chat with us, Mark. Firstly, we would love to know a little more about what you do…

I'm the Director of Marketing, Communications and Recruitment for Anglia Ruskin University (ARU), and I am chair of CASE Europe University's Marketing Forum (UMF), which is the body that represents all the senior marketing, communications and student recruitment directors in the UK.

Amazing! Given your experience, how has the role of marketing evolved in helping universities attract and engage students generally, especially now as we head towards the end of Clearing?

I joined the sector in 2009 when university marketing was extremely immature, and I always joke about the fact that the most important thing used to be to get sign-off from the vice chancellor on the imagery on the front cover of the prospectus.

At the time, universities had no CRM systems, and marketing was pretty small, both in terms of volume and capability. However, within 14 years, university marketing has become a half-a-billion-pound business across the sector. The level of sophistication in marketing we have now is in a completely different league.

Clearing is the most competitive time of the year, as we're all competing in a very short space of time to get a specific amount of students – a completely different perspective from when I first joined the sector. Many universities didn't want to be associated with going into Clearing and now pretty much every university is in Clearing.

What an evolution it has been. What are some of the key differences in ARUs approach to Clearing, when compared against both your competitors and your usual marketing activities across all other periods of the recruitment cycle?

The amount of money you spend is considerably more as it's an intense period of time, and the lead time to make changes to our media strategy can be literally by the hour, whereas in the main cycle, it's not.

It’s a very sophisticated, data-driven campaign between the media buyer and us (for example, identifying what people are searching for), and we can change how we spend based on which courses we think are important.

"Our strategy is to make sure that we’re at the top of search and of course, this year has been extremely competitive."

As the competition is so high, most universities bid for their ranking on search which keeps the majority of their marketing approaches online. Universities have traditionally tended to have out-of-home advertising (OOH) as well, but this year my sense was that universities weren’t investing in OOH quite as much. Digital marketing, that's where it's at.

Another key difference is UCAS, which makes it very easy for students to decline their place and look at other options. This highlights that Clearing is no longer just seen as a place to be for students with “bad grades”; it’s actually a place you can go to if you have better grades, or just change your mind.

In our experience within the higher education sector, we find that data and insights really drive brand success. Can you explain the importance of data analytics and market research in shaping effective marketing strategies for universities in the UK?

"The combination of data analytics and qualitative research is critical from a brand perspective, but also your marketing activities."

Now more than ever, the research you need to put into your brand is critical. It provides a sense of uniqueness in position, as each organisation is different. The combination of data analytics and qualitative research supports the brand perspective, as well as marketing activities aiding you to understand the needs of different generations.

Back in 2009, it was common for Vice Chancellors to make the decision of how marketing assets looked when actually, research and data would have been able to define what and how marketing assets would be most effective.

Although there’s still room for improvement in higher education compared to other sectors, the respect for marketing has increased exponentially in 14 years. The 2019 pandemic was an example of this as communications professionals were put on a different level – front and centre driving how we interact with our staff.

Great points! Now moving on from data to creation and execution, tell us about your recent Clearing campaign for ARU. What was the thinking behind the campaign and why do you think it stood out?

When we started looking at this year’s cohort it was clear that they were the first group post-pandemic to have exams that weren’t moderated, and the first to not have done GCSEs. We knew this experience would have been stressful, and our agency psLondon created the concept ‘Clearing Calm’.

This concept was great and was very well supported by our call centres, who were able to communicate right through to our audiences. Both UCAS and Universities UK Chief Executives, as well as one of our competitors used the term which highlights how much “Clearing Calm” resonated with people across the country.

What a great collaboration! Looking more broadly, what challenges do universities commonly face when marketing during the Clearing period, and how can they overcome them?

Getting the mix of the media right is one of the challenges. Ensuring that you and your media agency are hugely responsive because the conditions of the online and digital landscape can literally change by the minute. To overcome them, it’s important to have systems and structures in place to ensure that you can be responsive to external change.

HE is a huge industry that took a slow start in its maturity within marketing. How do we lift the profile of marketing in higher education to match the quality of other sectors?

As marketing within higher education is maturing,I think the important thing is to attract the best and brightest marketing talent into the sector. It’s about making sure the leadership skills of the senior leaders in marketing are seen to be on par with the professional services and academics, so the voice of marketing is on the top table.

Whilst the higher education landscape continues to evolve, how can universities maintain a strong and consistent brand image while adapting to the changing dynamics of the UK Clearing process?

"As a sector we need to be seen as a ‘good career choice’ for young people."

There is a strong push for going back to apprenticeships as well as studying undergraduate degrees. With this in mind, it’s important to show young people the choices they have, and amongst those, going to university is still a great choice – that can be a challenge at the moment.

In the current climate, the UK Government is trying to encourage people to go to university, enabling a more high-wage, high-skill economy with the exemplar being South Korea as 70% of their students go to university.

Another area of brand dominance and consistency is making sure that you are absolutely authentic about who you are. That's where the analytics, research, audience understanding and proposition are all critical to ensure that what we're saying is true.

What do we need to do to make it the norm for Vice Chancellors and University Exec Boards to embrace the fact that every university is, in fact, a brand that needs management?

Well, first of all, Marketing Directors need to be on the Executive Board and have a voice in all conversations in order to understand what the university’s proposition is, and that the quality of the marketing leadership needs to be seen as credible.

This effort is a combination of equipping people with leadership roles and attracting talent from other sectors. There's quite a number of marketing professionals we've attracted from other sectors, but it’s also about providing the space for training and development to develop people from within the sector too.

Finally, what does it mean for you to have psLondon as your lead creative agency?

psLondon are strategic, data-driven and creative geniuses. The experience with this agency started with strategy, evolved through proper insight, and the great creative people who can translate that insight into marketing that works.

It’s been wonderful to have had a chance to chat with you – one might even say calming. Thank you very much for your time, Mark!

Get in touch

Use this form to get in touch and find out how we can solve your problem(s). Or sign up to our mailing list to receive our newsletter and occasional thoughts and news. We promise we won't bombard you and you can unsubscribe at any time.

Let us know how we can help you:

By submitting your email address, you are agreeing to receive marketing communications from psLondon.