Saddle Up for Tarnished Marketing

I’m no expert on book marketing, though I did receive some attention when I ventured some opinions a while ago – maybe the spectator sees more of the game. I have recently observed an interesting marketing phenomenon in the book world and feel moved to write on the subject again, as I think there are lessons for us all, out there on the prairie…

The western is a niche genre, at least in book form, with limited opportunities for exposure to the public. Few bookshops actually stock them for instance. In the UK, long-established publisher Robert Hale is pretty much the only game in town, publishing several Black Horse Westerns (BHWs) a month in hardback form, the vast majority of which go to public libraries. Like academic books, these are priced highly and built to last. Libraries treat them as a generic commodity, not bothering to shelve them in alpha order. Taking all this into account – no high-street distribution, high prices, many titles produced, publisher with a tiny marketing budget, indifferent distribution network – it is difficult for an individual title to stand out and start notching up retail sales.

The Tarnished Star, as by Jack Martin is an exception. As I write it is at the top of Amazon’s western chart, having also topped their pre-order list. According to the publisher, ‘More than one thousand copies of Gary’s title were pre-ordered while five other BHWs scheduled for simultaneous June publication were virtually ignored.’ The book has been bought, reviewed, and talked about on both sides of the Atlantic. Why has this happened? I suggest that diligent and creative use of the internet, particularly its social media side, has made the difference.

The author, real name Gary Dobbs, is active on a number of forums and mailing lists where the specialist interest in western fiction is pursued. His blog, The Tainted Archive, is updated every day and has an extensive following. Gary initiated ‘Wild West Monday’, a bit of consumer activism involving fans of this particular form or escapist fiction questioning bookshops and libraries about their failure to deliver the goods. This in turn has created publicity in the traditional print and broadcast media…

It is a good case study of how online media in themselves don’t have magic powers – it’s not enough just to have, say, web pages and Facebook presence, you need to work them continuously, like a poacher baiting his traps. This is what Gary has done. The man himself (being typically generous with his time) emailed a comment for this post:

I started the Tainted Archive, thinking it would help me publicise my book and I make no excuse for that – I’m a writer and want people to read my work. An unread book is merely wasted paper. But I didn’t expect it to do so well – I think that I have a level of self belief that is above the average and that comes across when I talk about my work. When Tarnished Star was accepted I had achieved a life long ambition and I got excited and somehow, I’m not sure how, I transferred that excitement into my blog. I’m still excited – don’t forget Arkansas Smith next March. [Note deftly inserted plug! – R.] First and foremost though I work bloody hard on the blog and the books.

Some of this ‘bloody hard’ work generates a cluster of communication surrounding the book itself. In effect the ‘product’ of the book is enhanced by an expanding cloud of online messages, including for example this blog post. This creates interest, goodwill, and (pardon the overused term) viral marketing, like word of mouth but with keyboards and pixels instead of mouths.

Of course, the book itself has to be good or else the ‘cloud’ would be nothing more than vapour. It is good, and, importantly from a marketing perspective, has what Gary calls a ‘major selling point’,1 that it ‘could have come from the 50’s and 60’s
That simple idea is ideally suited to the meme-fuelled world of online social marketing; when the idea encounters people with a latent desire (ie folks who think ‘hmm yes, it would be nice to read a good old fashioned western’) it latches on to them like a benign virus and hey presto, Gary gets another Amazon sale. A bit of an oversimplification, but you see what I mean…

Although this won’t make Gary into the next J.K.Rowling, there are parallels between the mini-phenomenon of The Tarnished Star and the macro-franchise-superstorm of Harry Potter. Marketing thinker John Grant elaborates a ‘brand molecule’ of Harry Potter, which as well as the books and films includes things like the J.K. Rowling ‘rags to riches’ story, stunts like the midnight releases, and the press stories about the Potter books getting kids to read. One could construct a similar molecule around Gary’s book, with things like the Wild West Mondays campaign, Gary’s personal story (he’s an actor who has been in Doctor Who and Larkrise; he drives a cab), his websites, the wider world of westerns and so on.

Theorist of online culture Nicholas Negroponte suggested back in 1998 that ‘All things digital get bigger and smaller at the same time…We’ll see a rise in huge corporations, airplanes, hotels and newspaper chains in parallel with growth in mom-and-pop companies, private planes, homespun inns, and newsletters written about interests most of did not even know humans have’. I guess the Tarnished Star marketing story shows how, at the ‘small is beautiful’ end of the spectrum, possibilities exist for individuals and small companies to carve out niches for themselves, if they are skilful in operating in social media world.

Does this have any relevance to the wider world of marketing, or is it just an interesting occurrence in the margins (and another one of Roy’s unexpected hobbies)? I’d argue that it does, as any organisation that markets itself can usefully pay attention to
– vigorously using all channels to communicate
– being interesting and having a personality
– communicating simple propositions that are easy to remember and pass on
– communicating what it stands for.

Much more importantly, organisations are made up of individuals, each of whom can be empowered to do ‘Dobbsian’ marketing, even if only for self-interested promotion of themselves or their own patch. For instance, my team’s job is marketing our university, and we do what we can. But if a handful of people in departments across the University were willing and able to undertake the kind of vigorous, relentless micromarketing that The Tarnished Star has had – playing all the angles on a daily basis, taking opportunities for guerilla marketing as they occur – we would be doing even better than we are.

Perhaps the secret is not so much having theories and policies about social marketing (like the 20-page Twitter policy produced recently by a Government department) as simply having a go, and getting our hands dirty – ‘tarnished marketing’ on the new frontier.


In a draft of this piece, I lazily referred to this as a ‘unique selling point’,
making thoughtless use of an overused marketing term. Respected Western author Chap O’Keefe rightly pulled me up on this, pointing out that Black Horse ‘titles now run into thousands and with few exceptions most of them have had this same allegedly “unique selling point”‘, which is absolutely correct. I think this illustrates my point – Tarnished Star has achieved disproportionate attention despite not being unique. Back to Post
  • Ideals in Industry

    The first suit I ever bought, back in 1986 as I prepared for my first suit-wearing job, was from a branch of Burtons. It took me 23 years to buy another one. My repeat purchase came about because I happened to watch an episode of British Style Genius on BBC2, in which there was talk of a new ‘heritage’ range of Burton suits based on old 1960s designs, using English cloth. These sounded like fun, and I looked in the Ormskirk shop a few times hoping to see them – but all they had were the usual young lager-drinkers’ leisure outfits and first-time-offender-court-appearance suits. (No offence intended to anyone who shops there 😉 ) Eventually I cracked and looked on the website, which did indeed have the ‘heritage’ stuff, but only as end-of-lines being sold off for small heritage-style amounts of money, £20 for a jacket and £10 for trousers. I took the risk of buying one, and luckily it fits reasonably well – a least as well as the suit sported by the patriarch of the PG Tips chimp family, in their Wall Street inspired yuppie-themed period in the 80s. It is a nice suit and I can’t imagine why they failed to sell them for the original price. It’s a curious hybrid of new and old, with handy extra iPhone size pockets, and an array of buttons inside the trousers to which braces might be attached, such as would have been familiar to men being demobbed from either World War.

    Having become a Burton fan, I couldn’t not buy Ideals in Industry: being the impressions of social students and visitors to the Montague Burton workshops (3rd ed, 1936) when I found it in a secondhand bookshop in Halesowen. The book, published by Burton themselves, is a highly self-congratulatory corporate history. This particular volume, number 20068, was presented to one P.B. Jenkins, a salesman at ‘branch 339’, as an ‘efficiency award’ in 1948.

    He would have read about the triumphs of his company, capitalism at its most benign: the ‘20,000 employees on payroll’ mentioned on the letterhead seem to have enjoyed light and airy canteens, social programmes and support provided by a company that believed ‘that a great business may have a heart as well as a counting house’.

    One of the ‘social students’ mentioned in the title, ‘Martha Steinitz, an eminent Student of Political Economy, a well known Labour Leader and Social Reformer’, observed that

    Everything seemed to work so smoothly that one almost imagines the whole place is swinging fluently to the perfect rhythm of some popular tune: a picture of the most varied activity, a serious and yet bright spectacle, rhymthically arranged like a swaying dance, at the same time. ingenious and creating wealth like nature…

    I’m not sure whether ‘wealth like nature’ flows into the counting house of the modern Burtons. I would however seuggest that, if they provided the kind of service they did back when Ideals in Industry was produced, they could be on to a winner. The formula used to be that fittings for tailor-made suits were taken in the branches, and the actual suits made in the ‘swinging’ environment of their giant workshops. This could appeal to a number of modern marketing concerns:
    – customisation (everyone gets an individualised product)
    – ease and speed of purchase (compared with going to real tailors)
    – reduced miles (if they carried on making clothes in England from English cloth)
    – concern for worker’s welfare; a Fair Trade vibe (if the factories and shops were paragons of health as depicted in Ideals, with ‘a course of sun-ray treatment for two shillings’)
    I’d be first in line anyway – hoping for a loyalty bonus for buying three things from them in a quarter of a century, and as a downside becoming (even more) one of the people who, in the words of Joe Strummer, ‘wear Burton suits/turning rebellion into money’.

    As a piece of corporate communication, the Ideals book seems naive and old-fashioned on the surface. But it has a lot of the same ingredients as its modern equivalents, such as Annual Reports: claims to a higher purpose and appeals to ethical and moral values (‘Less than forty years ago the old traditions prevailed and tailoring was a ‘sweated’ industry. Our satisfaction is to have broken with these traditions. The night has passed and the morning has come’); peacock-like showcasing of buildings and facilities; endorsements from third parties (in this case, visting royals and those ‘social students’); heritage (‘founded 1900’); scale of resources (‘£11000,000 CAPITAL’); claims to uniqueness; and an air of optimism in endless progress.

    Maybe our next publication will remind readers that ‘efficiency may wear a smile and not a frown’.

    Customise your chest

    A lot is written about the way online/social media enable people to create identities for themselves. However some of the oldest, most analog and physical media also offer possibilities for individuals to tailor the ways they present themselves to the world.

    Promotional clothing such as t-shirts and hoodies is an example. Digital printing and embroidering techniques mean personalised kit is easy to come by. One effect of this is to make apparently official gear, eg with university logos, accessible to anyone who wants it, and therefore effectively outside the control of the logo police. (In other words don’t complain to me – they could have come from anywhere!)

    Customised clothes have become the norm, eg gear with crests and logos on the chest, and things like teams, dorm names, and nicknames on the back. At Edge Hill there is a fashion for adding a name directly underneath an embroidered logo. This area was planned to be where, say, a Faculty or campus would be mentioned – for instance I have one with ‘Corporate Marketing’ embroidered beneath the logo. So far, so corporate. However I’ve seen all kinds of things: ‘Foxy Chick‘ has a certain postfeminist panache, but wasn’t what we had in mind when we wrote the visual identity handbook…

    Hockey Slags’ – as a team name proudly emblazoned on the back of some hoodies – seems to be of a different order. ‘Cool – it reclaims an offensive term and thereby robs it of its power!’ cries my inner media boffin, enthused by the layers of irony. Nevertheless I doubt that Miss Hale (the first Principal, whose stern picture adorns Sages Restaurant) would have approved. Maybe I shouldn’t either.

    Android II: converging identities, proliferating channels

    Having expended a post talking mainly about the venue for ‘Digital Landscapes…’, here are some thoughts on the actual subject matter (using online media to recruit students) – harvested from the event itself, a meeting afterwards (with Suraj from Chameleon) and a meeting before the event that I didn’t realise I was having…

    Reaching people
    We are beginning to get solid figures on some of the ways young people use devices and media channels. I was particularly interested in the demographics of mobile usage, as put across by the Blyk guys. This is a step forward, as until recently it often seemed that we were winding up some new toys and letting them run off randomly in a darkened nursery.

    Where we’re at as marketing people
    Judging by the reactions of assorted Marketing Directors, Managers and Officers, we’re still at different stages with all this crazy online Web 2.0 stuff. (By the way, why is it assumed that it will progress from Web 2.0 to Web 3.0? When do we get Web 2.1, Web 2.2.5 etc., and who decides?) One person might say something like ‘Twitter is b********’, while another is choosing between marketing apps to develop for iPhones. We’re not all in the same place. Does that mean the switched-on places are more competitive?

    Who does the actual work?
    New channels proliferate, but our teams don’t get any bigger. Whose job is it to load pictures on to Flickr, or to engage students with Twitter? When are they going to do it? Stuff that didn’t exist three years ago is unlikely to be in anyone’s job description. It’s a real problem for small teams – not just a matter of capacity (how many hours in a day) but of culture, roles, professional identities. Both marketing and web people are content-creators and channel-managers, and there’s no set formula for configuring roles for best effect. Making effective use of online/social media is a necessary development, but lots of other stuff (analog, embodied, physical) has to happen too. I suppose that’s why partners, agencies and suppliers have an important role, if they can demonstrate that they add value.
    I have heard a tale told about a university sacking its boring traditional marketing department and hiring a shiny new digitally-led team. (I imagine the Cylons marching across Caprica.) This could be seen as a brave move, but surely also as a failure of management and development. There are plenty of ways to use the strengths of people whose professional starting-point isn’t digital, as marketing becomes more online.

    Fit for purpose
    I have a new Android phone that does many things. It is particularly good at being on the internet all the time. But I also have a PDA (better at documents), older phone (simpler for calls), iPod (better for music), camera (better at taking pictures), notebook and pen (better for making notes) and so on. (Coming soon – executive wheelbarrow to shunt it all around.) There is convergence – devices doing more things – but it hasn’t happened to the extent that any kind of communication can be seen on any device, or through any channel.

    Boundaries blur…
    Boundaries between professional roles, technologies, and media are all dissolving. For instance, where does ‘marketing’ stop and ‘web’ begin? I think boundaries between individual roles and identities are becoming more fluid too. (There has been some interesting discussion about learner and teacher identies on Edge Hill blogs recently, eg here and here.) This is exciting but the ride can be bumpy. For instance, last week, I became seriously peeved when what I saw as ‘work stuff’ was being communicated via my Facebook page, late one evening. I suppose I felt that I didn’t want to boot up my ‘work’ identity, all problem-solving and accountability, when I was in ‘play’ mode looking for random banter on Facebook. However, while I was writing passive-aggressive status updates, one colleague had simply resolved the issue by logging on from home and fixing it, and another had tried to do the same but was too late…. so each of us had different views, at that moment, of what was appropriate.
    From a marketing point of view, we need to consider the identities that our audiences will bring with them as they move towards our institutions. What is going to work for them, what will feel dissonant…

    Digital landscape gardening
    The metaphor of a ‘digital landscape’ is interesting. In a way it means a landscape made of numbers or, surreally, fingers. But it’s a metaphor I like. If we’re thinking about marketing online, it might make more sense to think of all of us exploring and inhabiting a landscape than, say, marketers using a set of ‘tools’ to communicate with audiences.

    So the night before I went to a pub…
    Introverted misanthrope that I am, I didn’t actually talk to anyone – at least anyone who was physically there – but I did mention it on Twitter (which led to some online discussion on Facebook). And the next day, I had a message from a guy who had also been physically there at the same time, and had also twittered about it… So, retrospectively, it was quite a convivial evening, in the digital landscape at least. This made me think – where exactly are our potential students? They live and study in real places that we try to ‘target’, and at the same time they play, communicate and seek information digital places too.

    I have an inkling that understanding virtual environments and identities on their own isn’t enough – that the interplay of the digital with real-world places, activities and behaviour are where it’s at. But that’s enough typing into the aether – an Open Day is happening and I have 1,100 real-time embodied people to encounter…

    Android in the Athenaeum

    Yesterday I was in London, chairing the Digital Landscape for Student Recruitment in 2009 event and playing with my new Android phone.

    One of the Android’s features is its Googlemapping, GPS and compass features, which proved useful in finding the venue. The Athenauem is sign-free on the outside, apart from some Greek letters set into the doorstep – a bit like the fraternity houses I’ve seen in American films. Inside, any resemblance to such things ceases, as one is confronted by statues, wood panelling and the magnificent sweeping staircase where (as I learned) Dickens once had a famous reconciliation with Thackeray.

    I had stressed about the dress code, checking repeatedly that I had a tie with me with the paranoia of someone about to emigrate checking their passport. Judging by the assorted jeans, open-necked shirts and jacket-free torsos around the place I needn’t have worried – shorts and the ‘Vive l’anarchie’ t-shirt I had slept in would have done at a pinch…

    Our morning exploring the digital landscape was very fruitful. From a mixture of agency presentations and university case studies I learned useful stuff about mobile marketing, the relationship between search and online display ads, uses of student ambassadors in forums… all practical things to take away. I am glad sessions like this have progressed beyond the ‘here’s what social networking is – we need to think about whether to engage with it’ stage.

    And I recommend the club claret.

    Premium crafted punk beer

    I tried a new beer at the Liverpool Twestival a couple of weeks ago: Punk IPA by Brewdog. Without reading glasses in a dark venue, I couldn’t read the label (in fact at first I wondered why ‘Pink IPA’ was packaged with a blue label). Yesterday I bought another bottle from Tesco (hardly the 100 Club or CBGBs of retail, but apparently the nation’s punk ale stockist) and now, in the controlled surroundings of home with artificial viewing aids aplenty, I have been able to give the packaging some proper attention.

    This is not a lowest common denominator beer.
    This is an aggressive beer.
    We don’t care if you don’t like it.

    says the copywriter working for Brewdog, maker of ‘Beer for Punks’, a company that is ‘about breaking rules, taking risks, upsetting trends and unsettling institutions but first and foremost great tasting beer’ including this ‘post modern classic pale ale’.

    And it is very nice. But is it punk?

    Back in 1977, cans of Holsten Pils were the drink of choice of the pogoing set as I recall. In the days of Party Fours and Watneys Red Barrel, Pils seemed fresh and new, with a strength capable of inducing ‘total derangement of all the senses’ in a short space of time. As with Punk IPA, the no-nonsense ingredients had a kind of three-chord purity to them.

    However, in the punk era things that actually advertised themselves as ‘punk’ were usually some kind of commentary or cheap cash-in. All the good people disavowed the label or moved on to other things. I think people wandering around with bottles of ‘punk beer’ would have come across as the kind of ‘Part-Time Punks’ lampooned in the song by The Television Personalities, the ones who buy coloured vinyl and ‘pogo in the bedroom/In front of the mirror/But only when their mum’s gone out’.

    But it isn’t 1977. It isn’t even 2007 – it’s 2009 and ‘punk’ has some other meanings. Golf Punk magazine, for instance, isn’t aimed at the few golfers with Vaseline-spiked hair and bondage trousers. In this context, ‘punk’ is drafted in to bring resonances of rawness and independent subversive spirit. I guess this is what Brewdog want to channel into their packaging – which really stands out among the traditional liveries of most brands.

    The confrontational rhetoric of the label struck me as being the inverse of the cutesy stuff written on the cartons and bottles of Innocent drinks. Whereas Innocent try and be unfeasibly friendly, with their invitations to ‘Just pop in To Fruit Towers’ and ‘join the family at’, Brewdog are comically unfriendly, insulting the purchaser of their ‘rebellious little beer’ as being unlikely to have ‘the taste or sophistication to appreciate the quality of this premium craft brewed’ beverage.

    It will be interesting to see if this approach catches on. Innocent-speak has become quite widepread, not just in the drinks market: some prospectuses, for instance, ape the amiable, immaculately quirky nouveau-hippy tone of the smoothie-millionaires. Maybe more of us will go down the Brewdog route and start metaphorically gobbing at our audiences, with some ‘rebellious’, ‘aggressive’ copy showing our authentic individualism…

    But hang on a sec. Reading the Punk IPA label again, it’s actually quite elitist. ‘Not a lowest common denominator beer’, ‘premium crafted’, the opposite of ‘cheaply made watered down lager’ – maybe it’s more about Emerson Lake and Palmer-style virtuosity than DIY punkiness. Perhaps there’s some ‘post modern’ irony in there alongside the ‘barley, hops, yeast, water’.

    Whatever – let me say again how nice the beer was – I hope to try their others sometime…

    The Digital Landscape for Student Recruitment in 2009

    In March I’ll be chairing this event:

    The Digital Landscape for Student Recruitment in 2009

    Thursday 26th March 2009
    9.30am-1.00pm (lunch included)
    The Athenaeum, 116 Piccadilly, London W1

    Interested? Then ponder these things in your heart: “Are you responsible for directing your institution’s student recruitment strategy? Are you looking to make the most of web 2.0 to boost your admissions?”

    Have you answered yes? The next step is obvious: “join us in London for this FREE half-day seminar.”

    Here’s what will happen if you do:

    “Delegates will learn from HEIs and experts on the following topics:

    * effective mobile campaigns;
    * beyond the banner—examples on how to fully engage with potential students on UGC sites;
    * tips on successful SEO;
    * the latest 2009 research from The Student Room’s users (including the users’ insights on what sort of online campaigns work!); and
    * a Q&A panel including representatives from HEIs, Blyk and The Student Room.”

    No doubt you’re sold on it by now and will immediately want to ‘book online here‘.

    I look forward to seeing you there.

    It sounds great and I would probably have gone even if I wasn’t chairing it. I got quite excited about The Athenaeum as a venue – thinking it was the club in Pall Mall, and that I’d be rubbing shoulders with the shades of Ormskirk statue-man D’Israeli and other luminaries, as well as those of clubland heroes from the works of Sapper, Dornford Yates and John Buchan (assuming that fictional characters can have shades.) However this Athenaeum is a hotel in Piccadilly – which looks perfectly acceptable. (Update – it is in fact in the club – early information was misleading. I’m sure participants will get full instructions but do please niote it ISN’T in the hotel.)

    A colleague Twittered that he looked forward to ‘seeing me in action’ – and I’m trying to think how action-packed my chairing can possibly be. Thinking back to my clubland fantasy, John Buchan’s Richard Hannay was certainly a man of action. Perhaps I should model my performance on his improvised political speech in The 39 Steps, depicted here (7’13” onwards).

    I’ll buy a tweed suit with a hint of digital about it forthwith.

    ‘and you have to have a fly’s eye to see it…’

    The expanding range of student blogs is giving the world a multifaceted and sometimes surprising view of Edge Hill University. It is particularly interesting to get a sense of what arriving at Edge Hill feels like. Some of the bloggers on the Hi applicant website are describing their experiences of returning to the University and passing on their wisdom to the freshers. Subjects like houses, housemates, summer jobs, making the most of Freshers’ Week and dressing up in silly costumes (before Freshers’ Week has even started?) are explored along with insights into nearby places, sport, arts and culture.

    Another blog I’ve been enjoying is The Adventures of Abby and Catie: Two Friends, One Year Abroad, One Adventure of A Lifetime, which has so far described the planning, anticipation, journey to and arrival at the start of a year at Edge Hill for two US students. It’s really interesting to get a sense of what the University and its surroundings feel like to people for whom England itself is a ‘novelty’ – the sense of estrangement caused by all the minor differences (‘from the brands and foods sold in the stores, to the WAY things are sold (meat at a real, live butcher’s shop to eggs not being refridgerated) is just…fascinating. Even the keyboards are set up slightly differently…’) within the broad US/UK similarities. Things we all get used to and which don’t seem special can take on an allure when seen by fresh eyes:

    Ormskirk is amazing. We arrived on a market day, so the entire town, it seemed, was out to greet us. There are stalls with everything you could possibly imagine, from fruit to dog beds.

    (‘From fruit to dogbeds’ will now become the official term for ‘a surprisingly large range of disparate objects’ in our household, replacing ‘suits of armour and wool’.)

    I suppose markets should be exciting*. Any crossroads with a few stalls selling things is a node in a vast network of interactions, a sort of provisional axis mundi for those who are there. What could be more exciting than that? The marketing metaphor applied to HE hypothesises universities as places that meet needs (like markets, but not by any means only markets) but this meeting-of-needs can’t just be a mechanical transaction. The process needs to include excitement and emotion, at least at certain points. Some of these just happen, and some need managing. (For instance, I’m writing this on ‘Welcome Sunday’, looking out of my office window at students arriving with parents – there is a palpable excitement in the air, like a nervous carnival, coming-of-age with lots of queuing – and a mass of processes and meticulous planning behind it all.)

    Anyway. The point I set out to make is that those of us who work in HE marketing can learn a lot from the the rich and diverse range of viewpoints out there in the blogosphere. Alongside the statistics and focus-group results, blogs give us access to real-life viewpoints that deserve attention. But one needs a way to give that attention to a profusion of blogs happening simultaneously (hence the Captain Beefheart quote that titles this post) – if a fly’s eye proves impractical, a direct-to-cortex RSS feed would be handy…

    *Coincidentally, when I finish this I’m heading off to Liverpool for the annual Hope Street Market, which this year includes a ‘Market of Optimism‘ – that could be a nice metaphor to live in for a while.

    CASE 2008: Brighton Beach Memories

    Having read Mike Nolan’s series of posts on the 2008 CASE Conference, I thought I would set down some thoughts of my own, before the memories fade like abandoned flip-flops carried away by the tide.

    As a marketer, I’m defaulting to the classic ‘four Ps’ structure. Normally these are Product, Price, Place and Promotion but in this case I’ve let them undergo a kind of Brightonian candy-floss mutation into Professional Insight, Pub Time, Psychogeography and Personal Grooming…

    Professional Insight
    I won’t attempt to summarise all 150 sessions, or even the dozen or so I attended. However a few nuggets have stayed with me from some of the talks, workshops and roundtables…

    The plenary of the Marketing Track (which I had programmed alongside Emma Leech of MMU) was a firework display of ideas from trends researcher Sean Pillot de Chenecey – a rapid-fire, blink-and-you’ll-miss-five-ideas overview of emerging brands and communication trends. One thing I took away from it was the idea that older people are cool (‘Iggy Pop is 60!’) – having lived with youth culture since 1954, an exemplar mature person could be someone like Mick Jones (former Clash member, half of Carbon/Silicon and Libertines collaborator) rather than, say, Terry Scott – so no need to design materials for ‘returners to study’ to look like The People’s Friend or an Ovaltine advert.

    Lorraine Westwood from Foundation Degree Forward challenged our thinking on working with employers and work-based learning, with real examples of fruitful engagement in this challenging area.

    The next day, a Breakfast Roundtable on Marketing the Multi-Site Institution, led by Martin Wright from the University of the Highlands and Islands (which is about as multi-site as you can get, operating from the Shetlands to Argyll) provided a thought-provoking start to the day. Being physically distributed is just one of the inherent complexities of HE, and internal communication with staff is a key aspect of holding together a coherent brand.

    Claire Brown and Matt Smith from Liverpool University delivered a fascinating session on Consumer Buying behaviour and the HE Decision Making Process, showing how academic research had informed successful recruitment initiatives. It would be interesting to see if the model described works similarly with different groups of students (thinking in particular about Paul Greenbank and Sue Hepworth’s research into working class students and the career decision-making process ).

    Using Research to Develop a Market-based Portfolio, by Helen Clapham and Abigail Harrison-Moore from Leeds University again showed marketing thinking turned into real outcomes. It was particularly good to see a collaboration between an academic department and the professional marketing team producing demonstrable good practice. Academics and marketers don’t always understand each other, and there are unfortunate examples of each diabolising the other as the source of all problems, so an example of positive collaboration was very welcome.

    Another day, another Breakfast Roundtable – this time lead by Alison Wildish: Web + Marketing = the Future. There was a lot of Web 2.0 discussion at the Conference, to the point of overlap, but this session added some useful points to the ongoing convresation.

    Marketing Success through Diversity, Nicola Dandridge (Chief Executive of the Equality Challenge University) contributed to another ongoing conversation – the relationship between the equality agenda and the marketing communications that emanate from HE. All of us want to move beyond compliance and avoid tokenism, and Nicola’s presentation and the discussion it led to were helpful in thinking through how to achieve this. A topic that needs to be revisited.

    Pub time!
    Conferences aren’t just about the formal sessions. The aura of enthusiasm from nearly 1,000* colleagues being in the same place at the same time would give the most jaded professional a transfusion of jouissance. And there was networking a plenty, like a superaccelerated Brownian motion. I can already attest to the fact that the camaraderie of fellow professionals lives on beyond the event. Thinking about it, I didn’t actually get to any pubs after the mini-tour of Sussex real ale I contrived with Mike on Bank Holiday Monday, but the social programme (in the Pavilion, Dome, and (endlessly) in the hotel itself) was good and ‘very Brighton’.

    At least one reader of University blogs likes to be given a proper sense of place, so here goes. The conference was based at the Brighton Hilton Metropole @50.822130, -0.149340 in the zone where the central retail district hits the sea and transforms into the tourism, entertainment and business accommodation band of the coastal margin. Having been born in Brighton and lived there for 25 years, coming back as a business tourist was weird – like revisiting my own life from the outside. The Metropole is next door to the Grand, where (as the tourist guide reminded us) an IRA detonated a bomb in 1984. I used to walk to work along the seafront and remember that day, the beach transformed into a crime scene and an odd sense of carnival as routine was broken and we all had to walk to work a different way.

    Personal grooming
    I was due to pick up the certificate for our Gold Award from the CASE Circle of Excellence during the gala dinner on the last night. By then my normal suit was like a limp rag, and as I didn’t want to shamble across the stage to collect an international award looking as if I’d slept under the pier, I dashed out to Mod clothes shop Jump the Gun in the North Laine and got reclothed from neck to toe, including the narrowest trousers I’ve worn since 1978. (I resisted the temptation to ride across the stage on a Vespa, even though to do so would have been technically possible given the proximity of a loading bay hidden just behind the stage.) Crossing the platform amidst swelling applause was quite a thrill, so much so that, in a moment of introvert flamboyance, I made a two-handed ‘fists of rock’ gesture… which amused my team but, given its vast array of meanings, may have confused delegates from around the world. But I’ll always be welcome at Satanist groups and Texas Longhorns games…

    * Statistics show that, out of this number of visitors to the town, 10 will now remain on a permanent basis: eight to work in bars and restaurants; one to open a bar of their own; and one to make a living as a street performer.