Will Universities suffer from the ‘squeezed middle’ and how can strategic marketing help?
The term ‘squeezed middle’ has become very topical, currently in relation to the coalition government’s economic policy and the recent Budget. In his first speech after becoming Labour leader, Ed Miliband coined the phrase ‘squeezed middle’ and this was picked up to such an extent that the Oxford English Dictionary nominated it as ‘word of the year’ in 2011!
In the world of marketing and communications, the issue of the ‘squeezed middle’ has been with us for many years. There are examples in numerous sectors where those products or services occupying the middle ground have struggled to establish and maintain a sustainable rationale and, ultimately, to justify their existence.
In retailing, for instance, the middle ground is particularly unforgiving when times are tough and many of the retailers who have fallen by the wayside in recent months, without naming names, have consciously or otherwise occupied this space. The retailers that survive and thrive are those that stay closest to their customers and are able to develop and articulate a clear offering and proposition to a well-targeted group of customers (the John Lewis Partnership, including Waitrose, being a prime example).
Within HE, a similar situation may be emerging. On the one hand, deregulation is expected to result in increased competition for the brightest students, with quotas for individual institutions related to the ‘AAB+’ bar being removed. On the other hand, many institutions have also lost quota places because of earlier reform which re-distributed 20,000 places to low-cost universities and FE colleges.
The ‘squeezed middle’ of universities is, and will increasingly be, under pressure if their student numbers decline. This may be compounded by the rise in tuition fees, if this results in greater polarisation between the premium and low cost segments, or groups of universities.
So, what can marketing departments do to support their institutions? Let’s qualify that immediately by talking about strategic marketing because this challenge requires strategic as well as marketing communications capability.
Firstly, all organisations, whether in the public, private or voluntary sector, benefit from regularly reviewing their customer or value proposition, to ensure its clarity and saliency. We summarise a customer proposition as ‘what can you (university x) do for me (target customer)? A value proposition is typically described as a promise of value to be delivered and a belief from the customer of value that will be experienced.
This requires market and customer research, so that, importantly, insights are gathered from the ‘outside: in’, from the customer’s perspective, rather than from ‘inside: out’, the institution’s perspective.
Secondly, the insights can then be used as part of a debate about, and refresh of, the university’s strategy and positioning, where positioning can be summarised as ‘what is different about you (university x)’?. From a marketing perspective, this is about ensuring a meaningful differentiated positioning and one that genuinely reflects the university’s strengths versus its competition.
Two interesting current examples of differentiated positioning in HE are Northampton and London Met. Northampton has a particular focus on subject specialisms and has set out its stall to be the ‘top university in the UK for social enterprise by 2015’. London Met has used the opportunity of increased tuition fees to introduce differential pricing for its courses, in support of its ‘affordable quality education’ proposition.
Finally, it’s about developing or modifying communications in line with the customer proposition and positioning, and promoting a consistent message to the various stakeholders and target audiences through the appropriate media and channels.
A university may decide it wants to avoid, or alternatively thrive in, the ‘squeezed middle’. Either way, its marketing team should be able to provide valuable insights and support.