How to Improve University Marketing Communications

[University of Ghana Business School]


Marketing communications are probably the most important element of the university marketing mix. This is because, of the several elements in a university marketing programme, it is marketing communications that encompass the promotional elements of the mix and that are deployed to ensure consistent communication between a university and its internal and external stakeholder audiences on all matters that impact marketing performance.

The tools that can be deployed as part of a university’s marketing communications programme include advertising, public relations, sales promotions, direct marketing, trade show and exhibition attendance, digital communications and sales management. A university that fails at sales is in effect failing at marketing communications.

Despite the important contribution of universities to the development of African economies, they encounter several challenges that can undermine their survival and profitability. One of the challenges that these universities encounter is the inconsistency and fragmentation of messages communicated to their target audience.

For instance, several universities have on their websites inconsistent use of logos, confused messaging and outdated information. In extreme cases, this may include the profiles of faculty and staff who have died. These marketing communications challenges severely undermine the African university brand equity.

There is, therefore, a need to build consistent marketing and communication routines to ensure that messages communicated by universities to their target audiences are well-planned and consistent, and hence, universities are able to create an enhanced image and position in the minds of customers. This enables these universities to create and sustain a competitive advantage over competitor university brands coming from the Global North.

The African university context

With the increasing numbers of universities in Africa, the tertiary education scene is no longer populated only by local universities. The American University for instance has branches in Nigeria, Egypt and Libya. Lancaster University from the United Kingdom and Webster University from the United States have also established campuses in Ghana in the last decade.

Given the rising competition in Africa’s university sector, it is becoming imperative that universities on the continent begin to discover how to develop unique value propositions to make them attractive to students and faculty who want to choose universities that give them the best value for their money (in the case of students) and excellent working conditions (in the case of faculty and administrative staff).

This quest to create unique value propositions and achieve preferential university status is where higher education marketing communication kicks in. African universities that want to compete favourably into the future must better leverage marketing communications for institutional advancement.

Leading universities (according to the Times Higher Education ranking) in Africa, like the University of Cape Town and Stellenbosch University which have fairly well-developed brands, have achieved consistent branding. The University of Cape Town has an office of communication and marketing and a media relations office.

The majority of African universities, however, do not have clearly demarcated marketing and communications offices or clearly articulated marketing communications policies and strategies and this article proffers a way forward in rectifying this situation.

What do university marketing communications teams do?

In a review of 27 leading universities spanning the Russell Group, the Ivy League, Imperial Universities, the Australian Group of Eight universities, as well as the University of Cape Town and the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, I discovered that the most common nomenclature for university marketing communications is ‘Communications and Marketing’. There were other names like ‘Communications Unit or Division’, ‘Office of Communications’, ‘Public Relations’ and ’Marketing and Communications’.

I propose that African universities that want to systematically compete by building globally relevant brands should seek to establish a marketing and communications unit or directorate or department and anchor the remit of that office within the university’s strategic plan.

The University of Ghana example

As an example on how marketing communications fit into a university’s strategic priorities, the University of Ghana’s marketing and communications unit has the mandate to deliver on specific priorities of a 10-year (2014-24) plan of the university, while overseeing the implementation of the university’s Marketing Communications Policy.

The University of Ghana Marketing Communications Office is specifically tasked to achieve the following priorities in the strategic plan:

  • Develop a clear strategic marketing and communications plan and policy with an overt focus on properly managing all University of Ghana brand assets (priority 9);
  • Develop and implement a comprehensive plan of fundraising programmes at unit and central levels. (priority 6);
  • Develop an active database of prospects at individual, corporate and foundation levels (priority 6);
  • Create a world-class mindset across the university (priority 3);
  • Create platforms for shared educational and social experiences in the university (priority 3);
  • Formalise arrangements for student engagement with the community (priority 3);
  • Establish university-industry partnerships to promote research in areas of industrial or national interest (priority 1);
  • Competitively promote the use and hire of all university facilities within a regulatory framework (priority 6).

These eight marketing communications deliverables in the plan not only all speak to different components of the university’s strategic plan, but the sheer breadth of activities covered above demonstrates the strong integrative role of marketing communications and its contribution to a university’s strategic success.

How marketing communications offices should develop

African university marketing communications teams should focus on recommending, planning and delivering integrated marketing communications strategies that enhance their university brand equities and assist them in achieving their sales and revenue objectives. Marketing communications teams should also plan, develop, implement and measure external and internal university marketing communications activities, and deliver measurable projects and campaigns on time, within budget, and to a consistently high quality.

University marketing communications teams should also develop and implement specific collateral to support sales, marketing, brand development, communications and public relations activities. Finally, African university marketing communications teams should coordinate activities at both a strategic and tactical level within all departments and units of universities in order to ensure that marketing and communications ideas and opportunities are maximised.

To conclude, Africa is a heterogeneous continent with private, public, local and international university brands. The first step in establishing solid marketing and communications structures is the conduct of a university marketing communications audit.

In the context of the type of university (for-profit or non-profit), a marketing communications audit could take various forms, but the basic questions to answer still remain the following:

  • What is our university vision and mission?
  • What is our university’s strategic plan?
  • What are our marketing priorities in the context of our strategic plan?
  • What is our industry structure and market positioning?
  • Who are our target audiences?
  • What are our marketing communications objectives?
  • What cost-effective marketing communications tools should we be using to reach our target audiences ?
  • What are we talking to our audience about? – What do they already know? What do they not know? What will tug at their heartstrings the most?

Why are we talking to our audience? – Is it relevant, compelling or interesting? Why should they believe us?

The outputs of the marketing communications audit should lead to the development of a university marketing communications policy, marketing communications directorate, and a marketing communications strategy.

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