Mind your language

The strategic importance of good marketing and communication cannot be underestimated. However, cultural differences require a tailored approach to the sector. Here, Tricia King highlights the importance of using language that unpacks the ideas in words that excite and engage rather than alienate.


Contributed by Tricia King, June 2012.

Nearly two decades ago, armed with a new Chartered Institute of Marketing Diploma, I moved into my first job in HE and made a presentation to the senior team.  I was up to speed on current marketing thinking and energetically called on the room to ‘police the brand’ better.  What followed was an hour long, angry debate where my new colleagues couldn’t work out what they objected to most: the word ‘brand’ or ‘policing’.  It was an initiation of fire, a bewildering, memorable day and the first in a series of important lesson on how to operate effectively in our complex, political world.

As an experienced marketing and communications professional I had always worked hard to ensure that the language I used was compelling, persuasive and achieved the outcomes I was looking for.  If I discovered that any of the words I selected undermined my work or created barriers, I would rapidly change them.  So I should have known better.  I should have spent time exploring how to persuade my new community of the importance of marketing and communication.  What I learned slowly (and a little painfully) was that my colleagues didn’t really object to the concept of ‘brand’ or even the need for its careful management.  What discomforted them was what they considered to be the inappropriate use of business language.  “Universities are so much more than businesses” said the Dean of Arts. 

Much has changed in HE since my challenging initiation 19 years ago; not least the sector’s growing need and desire to understand strategic marketing and communication better.  But to this day I still pay very close attention to using language that is culturally specific and unpacks ideas in words that excite, encourage and engage rather than alienate.   In the four universities I have worked in I used words like ‘brand’, ‘product’ and ‘customer’ if they resonated but not if they met with resistance.  I have learned that it is better to focus on communicating the concept rather than getting hung up on particular words.  In my experience you will get further faster if you find neutral language that explains without creating dissonance.  ‘Reputation’, ‘distinctiveness’, ‘positioning’ or simply ‘what we do well’ may be helpful places to start.  However important good marketing and communication is in the current HE sector (and it is very important), it’s unlikely and probably undesirable that the academic community will ever see the world in the same way as their professional service colleagues.  The quality and reputation of every university is bound up in the talent of its academic community.  The skill of the professionals is to capture and present this effectively to a range of important external groups in ways that the institution recognises as authentic.

I have been Pro-Vice-Master for Student Experience at Birkbeck for four years and have headed up the External Relations department for seven.  I now believe you can pour into the word ‘student’ and indeed ‘student experience’ everything that the loaded concepts of ‘customer’ and ‘customer life cycle’ carry.  As fees increase threefold students will, rightly, expect the very best student experience.  Thinking of them as customers or consumers can undoubtedly help create the right relationship but I will continue to use the language of ‘student’.

Paying real attention to every stage of the student experience from first point of contact to graduation and alumni membership could not be more important right now, and it’s about so much more than NSS or KIS.  Marketers talk about ‘moments of truth’ and students will experience many telling moments when they work out if a university can actually deliver on what it has promised or if it has over-promised about what it can deliver.  That moment can happen anywhere on the student journey from first point of contact to alumni membership and might reveal unanticipated aspects of your university that you have no control over.  Your reputation can be built or undone in the smallest of these encounters.  In a ‘moment of truth’ a student may become your biggest advocate or your loudest detractor (rapidly and powerfully with the immediacy of social media).  Every aspect of student experience matters as you invite students into what you hope will become a lifelong relationship with your community of learning.

As the 2012 year of change unfolds and reaches its conclusion, the strategic importance of good marketing and communication cannot be underestimated.  At a moment of turbulence, it may be the very thing that builds your strategic future and allows your institution to clearly differentiate itself from close competitors, and recruit the number and quality of students you want.  The task of building internal buy-in to support this important work may just be the toughest part of the job.  However, in our large, complex, diverse communities, where ‘moments of truth’ can happen anywhere and everywhere, it is certainly worth the effort.  The work of professional services is so much easier if the whole community understands and supports its purpose.  ‘Moments of truth’ happen inside the organisation too when colleagues choose whether to engage in or resist the work of their professional colleagues.   Learning to mind your language won’t work miracles but it may just be one small building block in gaining permission to operate successfully in our fascinating, lively world. 

Featured contributor


Tricia King, Pro-Vice-Master Student Experience & Director External Relations Birkbeck, University of London.

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Topics: Guiding your internal decisions.