How to Simplify the HE Marketing Message

Simplify the HE marketing message

‘Must have experience of working in a complex organisation’

This innocent sentence appears in many job ads for HE marketing roles. You’ll find it in most of the job descriptions I’ve written. But I admit, I got it wrong. What it should have said is:

‘Must have experience of making the complex simple’


Let me use a real-life example of complexity in marketing. A while ago I stumbled across a half-page advert in my local free ads paper. It was announcing a new local retail business. It said:

“With a huge range of greeting cards and related gifts, a wide range of newspapers, stationery and a huge range of gifts for all occasions, why go anywhere else?”

Ok, whilst  personally I would have avoided using the word ‘range’ three times – my mental filter tells me that this is a newsagent with some gift ideas. Perfect. But the ad goes on…

“We have the largest wool and haberdashery stock in the area.”

Erm…a newsagent with gifts and loads of wool? Not so sure.

And there’s more:

“In addition, we have a range of wedding dresses, bridal wear, prom dresses, handbags, shoes, evening wear and accessories.”

What kind of shop was it? And if I was in the market for a wedding dress (which I’m not, but am open to offers – simply complete my enquiry form), would I want to try on my dream dress next to the newspapers and knitting needles?

Sadly, this shop closed after just two years in business. The image in the ‘For Sale’ advert showed their new range of inflatable pool toys.

Now, I’m sure their products were great, their welcome friendly, and with bags of energy poured into their business dream. But there was just no clarity of offer.

Why Simplicity Matters

We humans don’t like to feel confusion. It makes us uncomfortable. Even if we don’t know it, we’re applying filters to help us make decisions, all day every day. We use a short-hand mental diagnosis tool to help us make quick assessments about people, politicians, products… you name it, we’ve diagnosed it. We don’t have the time or the energy to do any robust mental rationalisations, especially when we are faced with a row of similar offerings. If a company doesn’t make its offering extremely simple to grasp, its customers will simply move on. In the words of Donald Miller in ‘Building a Story Brand’ (2017):

‘If you confuse, you lose’

Sometimes the biggest threat to a business is the business’s own ability to communicate its offer. In their quest to tell their customers everything about themselves, the vitally important message is missed. I find it extremely sad.

University Complexity

Let’s turn back to the ‘complex’ organisations that are universities. Universities are home to multiple stakeholders, multiple definitions of ‘success’, largely egalitarian principles and a range of personas from the civic to the employer brand. Add in a melange of metrics that force all universities to operate with one eye firmly on next year’s league table position. The outcome is a queue of people maintaining that their ‘bit’ of the university is the priority whilst league tables drive the university firmly down a homogenous path.

Where does that leave the typical HE marketer? Confused. Overworked. Demoralised.

This issue manifests itself in many ways to the HE marketer. How many of you have found yourself trying to sort out a website with 10,000+ pages? Have you tried to decipher the difference between many similarly-titled courses? Have you felt physically pained when receiving prospectus copy that ignores any word limit and has sapped you of all energy and excitement? Do you desperately want to make sense of it all for the benefit of the recipient of those marketing messages?

We know that our job is to define the university’s distinctive proposition in the most clutter-free way possible. But it somehow seems impossible. My advice? Plan, influence and JUST DO IT.

How to de-clutter in a world of competing priorities and noise.

1. You need a plan.

I get it. You’re creative and like to work with instincts, not spreadsheets and templates. But unless you tie your colleagues down to a single plan with robust metrics, you will always find yourself pandering to ad-hoc requests rather than dealing with the important strategic objectives. Anything that does not serve the core ‘plot line’ of the university must be questioned. Your agreed plan is your tool to frame those questions.

2. You need to influence.

A plan alone will not be sufficient. You need to employ your best influencing skills to ensure you are heard. More on this in a future blog.

3. You need to just do it.

So many marketers in HE are waiting to be given permission to do what they KNOW is right. Here’s a thought… what’s stopping you? What are the consequences of you and your marketing colleagues just pushing through a simplification ethos?

And if you really need help – get in touch with a good HE marketing consultant.

Sometimes the most difficult task is to make sense of the complex. But we owe it to our sector, to the discipline of marketing and to our own job satisfaction to do something about it. The sector is now full of competent, qualified and knowledgeable marketers. We have the skills. Let’s show them what we can do.