Recruiting the best graduate talent is a serious concern for companies across the business spectrum. However, as graduate expectations of the workplace shift to focus on wellbeing and finding a cultural match, brands cannot rely on a slick advertising campaign to attract the best candidates.
Similarly, as the cost of undergraduate degrees soars to £9,250 a year, universities are seeking to prove their worth to students by forging strong relationships with graduate employers.
While the commercial side of brand relationships tends to be negotiated by student unions, university marketing departments are focused on strategies that build strong employer branding partnerships, explains Emma Leech, director of marketing and advancement at Loughborough University.
Over the past few years, a university’s links with industry and ability to offer placement opportunities has “crossed the line” to become as important a factor in a student’s decision to apply to a university as its reputation, says Leech.
“Brand association is therefore really important so more time and effort is being put into nurturing these employer brand relationships. It’s about the halo effect.”
The Loughborough marketing team aims to strike partnerships with brands around shared agendas, where there is a genuine synergy between what the university and brand stand for.
One way into these partnerships is through a skills match, which sees brands working with universities on targeted projects to attract fresh talent in areas where the business might have a skills shortage.
“We’re seeing what you would conventionally see as ‘harder-nosed businesses’ now understanding the value of people, and they’re cherry picking the brightest students and going out of their way to connect with them,” she explains.
Brand association is really important so more time and effort is being put into nurturing these employer brand relationships.
Emma Leech, Loughborough University
In July, Loughborough took part in a four-day residential course with Ford, which was focused on encouraging girls to consider applying to the university to study for a ‘STEM’ career in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Tasked with designing communities of the future, the girls took part in a series of workshops ranging from design and architecture to computer science and robotics.
“A lot of engineering firms are desperate for great people and we train more engineers than anyone else in the country. So there are some really interesting and nuanced ways that we can connect brands and students. It’s through those employer and placement opportunities, and shared synergies,” says Leech.
For high profile graduate employers, partnerships with universities help brands remain top of mind with the best talent.
This is a serious area of focus for Marks & Spencer, which is concerned not with the number, but the quality of the applications to its graduate training schemes. Marketing, along with HR, consistently proves to be one of the most popular areas of study.
Future talent recruitment advisor, Hazel Bradford, measures the success of M&S’s university marketing by the number of good applications from candidates with appropriate, relevant degrees and quality work experience.
“We have on average 16 graduate programmes all in different areas, meaning that the courses and the sorts of universities we need to target are really quite varied,” explains Bradford.
“On average, we tend to go to 25 universities across the UK every year because we want to make sure we’re visible everywhere, though some graduate programmes require specialist university courses. We also work with an external research company to see how we perform on different university campuses and then target specific universities to attract a diverse mix of students.”
A crucial part of the graduate recruitment strategy is the retailer’s partnership with the university of Leeds, home to the M&S company archive dating back to 1884.
During the five years since the partnership began more than 6,000 students have used the archive, the study of which is also embedded into academic modules.
As part of the partnership, M&S provides work placements, volunteering experience and research opportunities for Leeds University students.
To date, the partnership has created more than 100 paid work opportunities for students and generated more than £1m in research funding for collaborative projects, including research into future international business models and gender diversity in the workplace.
Aside from its formal partnership with Leeds University, M&S also takes part in experiential activity to capture students’ attention.
Last year, the retailer took its ‘Vandwich’ – an ice cream van covered in M&S branding serving free lunches – to seven universities, following a nationwide student vote. The retailer ensured that the free lunches were served up with a healthy dose of career messaging.
Local and national
Anglia Ruskin University adopts a multifaceted approach to partnering with brands and businesses, which is focused on creating opportunities for students and the broader community.
The university will, for example, collaborate with businesses on the structure of the courses to ensure that the curriculum is tailored to the skills graduates need to excel in the workplace.
Graduate employment opportunities are another key component of these partnerships, explains director of marketing Andrea Turley, which reflects a desire among students for practical experiences that add real value.
Anglia Ruskin looks to find partners both on a national and local level. “Universities have a massive commitment to the local footprint that they’re in and the value they add,” says Turley.
“We have a lot of students who stay local and study local, so they are actually using the footprint of the campus. Some students will be drawn to national and global organisations, but there is [scope] for the local community and local businesses to benefit from the skills we produce.”
One such partnership is Anglia Ruskin’s tie up with Essex County Cricket Club. Students studying digital marketing and events management are given the chance to learn workplace skills as part of the placement, while sharing the skills they are gaining at university with the business, so both parties benefit.
Brands do have to be aware that student expectations of placements are shifting from the traditional six-month or 12-month programme, to internships that offer greater flexibility and variety.
In the past, the employer held the power balance, whereas now businesses will need to reshape how they offer a workplace experience.
Andrea Turley, Anglia Ruskin
Turley believes this reflects the evolving nature of work as graduates seek an “overall experience” in the workplace, rather than the transactional nature of a 9 to 5 job.
“We are seeing students look for a place where they feel they best fit and are best able to add value, but also there’s an expectation that the employer will be providing the opportunity for the graduate to grow and progress their career,” she notes.
“In the past, the employer held the power balance, whereas now businesses will need to reshape how they offer a workplace experience.”
Every brand association does, however, need to be carefully negotiated in order to feel authentic and reflect the values the university aspires to. It is for this reason that universities should partner with brands that are aligned with their mission, culture and values, says Turley.
“The partnership also has to be long term, open in dialogue and quite agile because the world is changing so rapidly that we need to be flexible and react to opportunities that might arise,” she adds.
Becoming a destination
The complexity and multi-level engagement universities have with brands is not just about enabling businesses to reach students, it’s about enriching the student experience in an effective and appropriate way, argues Matt Smith, director of marketing at Liverpool University.
“That’s why university relationships with brands tend to be governed by being focused on research, graduate employability or partnerships, such as the one we have with the City of Liverpool. It’s a complex and nuanced set of relationships, rather than just enabling access to another market segment,” Smith adds.
He explains that being embedded into the fabric of the city has helped the university tap into Liverpool’s identity as a global brand, which is crucial in terms of attracting new students.
A key partner in telling this destination story is Marketing Liverpool, the team responsible for marketing the city, which the university collaborates with on content and ideas, ensuring that their messages are aligned. The city marketers, for example, recently used videos created by the university marketing team depicting the student experience of living in Liverpool.
Smith explains that this partnership benefits both sides, since it amplifies the university’s work around the identity of Liverpool as a student destination, while for the city marketers using the authentic student stories adds an extra layer of credibility to the messaging.
“Increasingly, we’re seeing the city’s marketing team very much as a sister team to the one we have here at the university and work in really close partnership,” adds Smith.
“So it’s a really positive, pragmatic and effective way of achieving our aim to position ourselves at the heart of the city and achieving the aims of our colleagues at Marketing Liverpool in representing the knowledge assets of the city really effectively.”
Linking up with alumni
Tapping into the strength of the alumni community is another crucial link between universities and brands. Turley seeks out former students who are passionate brand advocates and enjoyed their time at Anglia Ruskin, and want to share stories with current students about the world of work.
“Our alumni community is a hugely important group for us, both in terms of being brand advocates, giving back to the organisation and forming a partnership once they do progress to employment,” Turley explains.
Loughborough also gets its alumni actively involved in sharing experiences with current students. One recent example is Dan Milner, now lead engineer for heat rejection systems at Mercedes, who invited automotive engineering undergraduate James Allitt to take a tour of the Formula 1 team’s engineering base in Brackley, Northamptonshire.
The marketing team were then able to share Allitt’s behind-the-scenes story with prospective students, playing into a wider content strategy focused on turning student stories into short, quirky video stories, vignettes, gifs and blogs.
“We develop a lot of what we call evergreen content and that’s about finding those nuggets and repurposing them,” explains Leech. “So the story might pop up in a CRM communication to a prospective applicant or it might be something that we use across different social channels in different contexts.”
Opting for partnerships in favour of commercial sponsorships or advertising is not only helping universities create richer experiences for students and establish a point of differentiation in a crowded market, from a business perspective telling compelling employer brand stories could also help companies find their next CEO.