How to win friends and influence people: Your marketing department

(No. 41 of an occasional series).

I’ve lost count of the number of irritations which prompted me to vent my spleen on the subject of university marketing in this week’s Times Higher Education. There was, of course, the tagline poem and the Russell Group rap to which I refer in the piece. There’s also the excruciating “Dean of Eureka Moments” nonsense, similarly highlighted in the article.

But, somewhat more seriously, there’s this:

And this:

[Update June 02 2018 — My apologies for the links to a long-defunct Twitter account.]

That’s right. Software used for undergraduate “recruitment” describes students as “business objects”.

In a particularly galling coincidence, on the day the THE article was published I received an e-mail referring to applicants to degree courses as being dealt with by the “undergraduate sales team”.

As I say in the tweet above, this language is insidious. How often do we find ourselves talking about the “student market”, as if it were the most natural thing in the world to couch higher education in terms of the marketplace and marketing?

The THE piece was, of course, very deliberately provocative. Too often, marketing departments and central management, with no knowledge or understanding of the culture or “unique selling point” (to use the somewhat venal vernacular) of a particular discipline, rule the roost in universities. I received a number of e-mails following the publication of the THE piece from colleagues in a variety of universities who share my deep frustration with this nonsensical state of affairs. As you might expect, those who contacted me weren’t based in marketing departments.

I was very pleased, however, to see that Alan Charlesworth, a Senior Lecturer in Marketing replied to my provocation at the THE website with an impassioned defence of marketing as a discipline and industry. Alan’s carefully-considered and eloquently expressed points deserve a detailed response. Here it is.

 I’ll start by being very clear here: it was an act of God when I got a Maths O level back in the early 70s. I can’t add two fractions together, let alone do anything remotely associated with quantum mechanics or its like. I do not even know what ‘nanoscale science’ is. And I doff my cap to those who have mastered that – or any – science. 

You might be surprised to hear this, Alan, but I am not for one second suggesting that mathematical ability (and/or an aptitude for physics) is somehow better than natural ability/aptitude in other disciplines. I’ve written about this at length previously. Many physicists/mathematicians can do complicated maths until the (spherical) cows come home, but ask some of those accomplished scientists and mathematicians to write 500 words which are even semi-engaging/interesting (let alone gripping) and it’s a different story altogether.

I show the final year physics undergraduates at Nottingham the following slide at the start of a module I teach (which kicks off this year at 9 am tomorrow morning). It pithily makes the point about the importance of engaging writing.


Note that the second quote is from Leon Lederman in The God Particle.

[Your profile] is widely available on the Internet via Google – I hope you can appreciate the irony of your ability in self-promotion.

My profile is indeed widely available on the internet. I’m a publicly-funded academic and therefore am obligated, as I see it, to make that information available to the public which funds my work! Moreover, and as you allude to elsewhere in your comments, I have little time for internet anonymity.

But the rather interesting aspect of the “self-promotion” to which you refer — the stock-in-trade of virtually all academics in this impact-driven world (!) — is that I have no formal training in marketing. (I failed that marketing module due to a distinct lack of interest and engagement — see this post). Far from being ironic, your comment about effective self-promotion would seem to bolster my point about the “Emperor’s New Clothes” aspects of much of marketing. No?

The rather superior tone of your ‘lecture’ seems to be that Applied Physics is in some way superior to the discipline of the bleedin’ obvious that is Marketing. And – by definition – those who practice or teach Applied Physics are superior beings to those who practice or teach Marketing.

The superior tone was quite deliberate — I was aiming to make the article as provocative as possible. (A rather superior tone is also not infrequently present in missives from marketing managers).  Do I think that physics (of any particular breed) is superior to marketing, however? Well, I don’t see physics as “superior” to any other discipline. (I’ll again refer you to this post). But when it comes to marketing, it is clear that there is a great deal of unnecessary obfuscation and hyperbole.

So … if marketing is easy. No, scratch that. If EFFECTIVE marketing is so easy, how come so many people cannot master it?

I fully agree that there we are swamped by awful marketing, particularly that generated by universities (as the THE article spells out). But that’s not because marketing is conceptually challenging. Good marketing requires creativity and imagination. It’s somewhat like song-writing. Good songs aren’t created by signing up to Song-Writing 101 and slavishly following a methodology. Good songs arise exactly when the four very simple principles I outlined in the THE article are followed:

“Be different. Be distinctive. Be daring. Oh, and be honest. Above all, be honest”

I too have little time for ‘creatives’ and cringe more than you ever could at examples of bad practice in marketing – including all of those W1A-esque phrases. 

I’m very pleased we agree on this!

 But … the next time you buy anything – and I mean anything – give some thought to your buying process [sorry, that phrase is a bit trite – but then aren’t all of ‘our’ phrases? I should have said ‘buyer behaviour’ because at least that’s from a science of sorts].

Why did you buy that particular product, from that particular seller, at that particular location, for that particular price? Think it is your superior mental ability that helps you make that decision? ‘Fraid not, it is good old marketing practiced by good marketers which dictates what product you will buy, where you will buy it, when you will buy it – oh, and how much you will pay for it.

Marketing is just one aspect. Reviews, word of mouth, previous good/bad experience with products from the same supplier, cost,and functionality are all others. My decision to buy a particular product doesn’t depend exclusively on the marketing. There are a wide variety of factors.

On the question of “buyer behaviour” as a science, let’s just say that I’m unconvinced. Psychology plays a major role in any type of social behaviour and the reproducibility of studies in that field, as shown recently, is hardly at the “gold standard” level.

Don’t believe me? You think it is you that makes those buying decisions? Think again. How do you find out the attributes of products to make your buying decision? Where do you go to buy it – or order it for home delivery? Presumably you will seek best value for money so you may look for the lowest price. All of that information will be delivered to you by marketers – not rocket scientists – in a space, time and manner that is attractive to you. 

No. Some of that information will be delivered to me by marketeers (see above). Moreover, you’re assuming that I uncritically accept what the marketeers have to say. This is precisely the point I was making in the THE article. Universities universally claim that they teach their students “critical thinking” skills. And then they use cliched marketing taglines, assuming that students can’t see through the guff. It’s hubristic in the extreme to think that it’s only marketing that’s responsible for the success of a product. (And university degrees are not products in the sense understood by marketing — this is at the core of the problem).

Still think it is so easy. OK – when you have decided to buy a certain product from a certain seller it means that seller’s marketing is better than that of their competitors. If it was so easy, all marketing would be equally good – or bad – wouldn’t it?

So the marketing is always more important than the quality of the product? Hmmm. There are certainly examples of where a poorer quality product has achieved market dominance via canny marketing. But that’s exactly the point – it’s been through canny and inventive marketing, not the cliched #CorporateUniBollox peddled by universities.

 At the same time as you look down on my discipline, you also quote two marketing academics who are critical of some practitioners of ‘their’ discipline. You see, we too recognise bad marketing. Maybe ‘good’ marketing is like football referees: you do not even notice the good ones, bad ones spoil the game.

I agree entirely. Some marketing out there is inventive and compelling. But an awful lot of it — I would claim the overriding majority, and particularly that related to universities — is sub-W1A  boilerplate.

 If your students go to work in the private sector their salary will depend – primarily – on how many customers buy the product on which they work. Hmmm, I wonder whether they would rather work for a business with good, bad or indifferent marketers? 

My point is not that there aren’t examples of good marketing. Of course there are. Many of us still have deeply irritating jingles from adverts back in the 70s burned into our neural pathways to this day. (“Do the shake’n’ vac and put the freshness back..“). My point, however, is that universities are not household cleaning products and there is a subtle and delicate balance between advertising/marketing a course and damaging the perception/prestige of the university.

 Marketers tend not to do ‘anonymous’, so: my name is Alan Charlesworth. Although in a previous life I did actually work for a living, I am now a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at a UK university – which I will not name as these views are mine and not necessarily those of my employers.

Kudos to you for commenting openly, unlike others in that thread (and in so many other threads). I have lots of issues with online anonymity and it’s always refreshing to exchange comments with someone who doesn’t hide behind a pseudonym.

If any VC was so daft as to give me the responsibility for the marketing of his/her university, you would actually like to work there.

You know what, Alan? I believe you. As I said above, there are good examples of marketing, and good examples of marketers, amidst the ocean of trite, tedious, cliched guff. The very fact that you wrote a lengthy response on university marketing without mentioning “excellence” once is a clear demonstration that you’re a cut above the rest!

Thanks again for commenting and all the very best,


Author: Philip Moriarty

Physicist. Rush fan. Father of three. (Not Rush fans. Yet.) Rants not restricted to the key of E minor...

2 thoughts on “How to win friends and influence people: Your marketing department”

  1. Over at the Times Higher website, Ian has left this comment:

    Unfortunately, the THE has changed the layout/font for its comments sections recently with the unfortunate upshot that formatting has gone awry. This means that paragraph breaks/newline characters seem to be suppressed so that all comments appear as one long paragraph. This does not help readability.

    So I’m responding to Ian here. Here’s Ian’s comment:

    “Thanks Philips. There are some interesting videos at those links. They do a great job of explaining the various phenomena they want to cover, but they do not market an institution. In fact, in many cases it is difficult to determine which institution/s these videos and the speakers are actually linked to. I understand the power of YouTube and other social media for individuals to disseminate their research, their work fields, themselves and even the silly activities of their pets, but I am interested in examples of how organisations/institutions promote themselves using the easy ‘non-rocket science’ criteria you outline. That’s one of the key arguments in your article. Cheers, Ian”

    Ian, I find it very encouraging indeed that Sixty Symbols’ “marketing” of physics at Nottingham is so different and distinctive that you don’t recognise it as marketing! We see increasing numbers of A-level students refer to Sixty Symbols in their UCAS personal statements, and, as I say in that Physics World article to which I linked in my previous comment, we receive e-mails from across the world from those who say that their interest in/love of physics has been rekindled/ignited by Sixty Symbols.

    As a key example, Filipe describes the importance of Sixty Symbols in his decision to take a PhD at the University of Nottingham:

    Sixty Symbols has played a major role in highlighting and raising the profile of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Nottingham. How much more effective are those videos in promoting not only our school, but physics in general, than some treacly soft-focus promo video made by a university marketing department which has little or no understanding of physics as a discipline?

    Of course we didn’t set out with a grand scheme that Sixty Symbols would be our marketing, ahem, “creative”. We’re not that devious. Sixty Symbols works precisely because we don’t shove the University of Nottingham logo (or some trite tagline) down viewers’ throats at every available opportunity.

    I am therefore rather pleased that you say it is difficult to discern at first glance which university is involved in Sixty Symbols. Those half a million subscribers who signed up for the Sixty Symbols channel know that what they’ll get is a raw and honest discussion of physics from academics without all the marketing nonsense. But my e-mail inbox, and those of my colleagues, fill up every day with messages from students (and non-students) who have watched Sixty Symbols videos. And we all have University of Nottingham e-mail addresses…

    Physics students, in my experience, are rather intelligent and discerning folk. They generally baulk at the type of fluffy marketing guff that university marketing departments churn out. Sixty Symbols “markets” (if we must use that term) Physics and Astronomy at Nottingham in the simplest, most direct, and best possible way: it shows students the science that inspires, excites, enthuses academics in the school. And it is clear that despite the absence of the type of overt and cliched marketing that is de rigueur for so many universities, Sixty Symbols viewers easily determine the origin of the videos.

    As I said in the article: Be different. Be distinctive. Be daring.

    Oh, and be honest. Above all, be honest.



  2. Dear Prof Moriarty,
    thank you for your “rant” in THE. I am successively getting exasperated by all the marketing lingo that is being thrown at us (staff) or innocent students. One of my most hated words has become “experience”, and its gruesome combinations: “student experience” (well, yes..whatever that means), a “reverse proxy experience” (IT access). a “search experience” (catalogue), a l”earning experience “(really??) etc. — and we have to cope with it!


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