Q&A: Stuart Franklin, marketing and communications director, Exeter University

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Marketing Week (MW): Exeter University is pouring £250,000 into its marketing. What do you aim to achieve?

Stuart Franklin (SF): We have a small in-house market research function along with marketing and communications officers that produce recruitment publicity and web copy. We also have college marketing managers.

The university has grown over the last eight years, so it’s about adding the capacity to develop things like market research and employing additional marketing communications officers to give the college managers the time to act more strategically. Demands have been growing within the university for more effective marketing.

MW: You have advertised specifically for a new head of marketing. What will the post holder be required to deliver?

SF: The new head of marketing role is about a much more considered approach to how we develop academic programmes and drive value from them. We want to look at our programme portfolio so we can come up with a way of assessing performance, look at how we bring new programmes to market and put more rigour into any process than we currently have.

This person needs to be aware of what academic programmes cost to teach, whether it is a declining or growing market, and what competitors are doing. They will help develop programmes that are attractive to the market and manage them in a more organised and overt way than we have in the past.

MW: How does your approach to marketing compare with traditional brand building strategies in sectors such as FMCG or retail?

SF: We are aware of our brand and our place in the market. We’ve done a lot of research over the last couple of years to hone that position and to look at how our brand compares with other universities in terms of its value.

But one of the difficulties is differentiation. It’s not like an FMCG company where you pick a single statement to base your communications around. A university encompasses areas such as teaching, research, industry engagement and lots of other things.

You can, however, look at a range of distinct attributes. For example, Exeter scores highly in the National Students Survey [where final-year undergraduates are polled for their views] and is seen as a heavy hitter in research. We have a fantastic location in Devon. But thinking in a more business-like way will be crucial in the future.

MW: Do you think universities will end up viewing students as ’customers’?

SF: It’s not a straight commercial relationship, like selling a car or iPod. The relationship with the student is a lot more complex because it requires something from them – proof that they are [academically] good enough. But with fees going up, students will become more demanding in terms of what they get for their money, so it’s up to universities to make sure they are satisfying that, whether that’s through facilities, teaching hours or even staff-to-student ratios.

MW: Does your new marketing strategy involve encouraging alumni philanthropy?

SF: In the 1980s, there was a realisation that universities had to raise more money from non-government sources and philanthropy was an important part of that. It’s only in the last 10 years, though, that it has been significantly invested in.

MW: Do you see new private university business models as a threat to traditional educational institutions?

SF: It’s not something we’re afraid of, as we think it would be hard for a private sector provider to come in and replicate what we have for a lower cost. We also have the advantage of being able to offer a better service because we are willing to enter into partnerships with other providers.

There is a marketing conundrum here in that you want to be seen as cutting edge but you also want to be seen as an organisation with history – new entrants to the market won’t have that kind of history to support their brand.

MW: Corporate brands are beginning to provide their own education offerings. Is this a positive shift in the sector?

SF: Brand partnerships have to add value. We have a One Planet MBA, which is done in partnership with the World Wildlife fund. We also provide a degree in partnership with the professional services firm KPMG. I can see more of these partnerships emerging because we have a lot of industry links. We are also keen to talk to businesses about what sort of degrees they see as most useful.

This should be taken into account when designing a degree course. From a marketing point of view, you get extra branding power if you’re presenting a degree programme with an organisation that also has a powerful brand. A number of areas of the market are already quite saturated in terms of programmes, so any point of differentiation is very important.

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