The impudent breed

While doing some groundwork for our next Marketing and Communications Strategy, I came across this quote from Gilles Deleuze: ‘Marketing has become the centre or the “soul” of the corporation’ (in Du Gay, P. (2000), “Markets and meanings: re-imagining organisational life”, in Schultz, M., Hatch, M.J., Larsen, M.H. (Eds),The Expressive Organization, OUP – itself an interesting article about the role of ‘disciplines of symbolic expertise’ in modern organisations).

Deleuze isn’t implying that a marketing-ensoulled organisation is a good thing, as a broader quoting of the passage indicates: ‘Corruption thereby gains a new power. Marketing has become the centre or the “soul” of the corporation. We are taught that corporations have a soul, which is the most terrifying news in the world.’

He goes on to say that ‘The operation of markets is now the instrument of social control and forms the impudent breed of our masters‘ (italics mine). I like the phrase ‘the impudent breed’ – like a sequel to This Happy Breed, perhaps, based on a group of cheeky (yet evil and omnipotent) marketing folks; or a departmental strapline; or perhaps a title for yet another blog. I’m by no means sure that I follow what is meant (perhaps it’s a hard to translate passage – I can’t quite following what is forming who and where the impudence comes from).

Difficulties with translation aside, I’ve found my first conscious dip into Deleuze quite exhilarating. For a piece published in 1990 it seem remarkably prescient in its description of a ‘control society’ where the computer is the defining technology, continuous monitoring places everyone in a universal system, where one is ‘undulatory, in orbit, in a continuous network’ and ‘Everywhere surfing has already replaced the older sports’.

By empathising with a piece that situates ‘marketing’ within a dystopian vision, am I adopting a position which would logically lead me to seek a different line of work? Possibly, though I would make a case for social marketing as being somewhat more benevolent than the control-force of late capitalism, and point out that marketing for a university is an enabling structure for exploration of radical thought to take place, Deleuze’ ideas being just one example.

The whole article can be read here.

Truly Madly Broadly

Widening participation sounds like a good thing – but wouldn’t deepening participation be even better? Maybe so, if ‘deepening’ means getting through to the hardest-to-reach groups; reaching further and benefiting folks who would otherwise miss out on HE, rather than just expanding numbers.

However, John Hayes, Shadow Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education, uses ‘deepening’ in a pejorative sense, in his speech From social engineering to social aspiration: Strategies to broaden access to higher education. He criticises the Government for ‘its narrow focus…resulting in deeper rather than wider participation; deeply drawing on the shrinking pool of students from the same social class as generations of graduates before them’ and indicates that ‘In place of this failed strategy of deepening participation for the few’ he wants to ‘broaden access for the many’. So, in Hayes language, ‘widening’ (which may have sounded good) has been a trojan horse for ‘deepening’ (bad); what we really want is ‘broadening’.

The specialist language may take a while to settle down. Meanwhile, whatever it’s called, work is going on to get more people to join in the university experience. So what can marketing bring to the party? Pondering the problem of getting new people into HE, classic marketers may turn to the Ansoff matrix:


This shows new and existing products being offered with new and existing audiences, offering a menu of strategic approaches. What Hayes refers to as ‘deepening’, ie getting more of the same kind of people, forms the top of the matrix. You can do this by ‘market penetration’, simply getting more of them interested in the same old stuff, say by better advertising to your historical customer base. Or, you can field some new products – so your existing customers can buy groovy new stuff from you (like when supermarkets started offering financial services.)

These are considered to be the safer options. Down at the bottom, Ansoff offers two ways to access new markets (so pay attention, WP-sters – this is where marketing proves it can do more than design your leaflets). You can develop your market, by making your existing products appeal to some fab new people. (Those Playstations for pensioners, for instance.) Or, in the really high-risk quadrant, you can offer brand new things to brand new people: diversification. (There are some examples from Edge Hill – Foundation Degrees for Early Years professionals for instance – a new qualification for a new group of students.)

Of course, marketing isn’t about putting people in boxes. No-one wants to be objectified by marketers, social theorists or anyone else – you may recall, or be able to imagine, Hannibal Lecter’s reaction to being quizzed by a census-taker – extreme, perhaps, but understandable. But such things can be useful as a thought experiment. If we want to widen, deepen, broaden, or simply invigorate the process of people joining the HE party, then we might consider which quadrant we’re in. Are we enhancing the appeal of what we already do? Or developing altogether new things ? Both approaches require considerable resource and creativity, though maybe different kinds of resource and creativity.

The Web: a Powerful Recruitment and Communication Tool

This was the title of a one-day CASE seminar earlier this week, which brought together HE marketing and web people. I think this has been a community waiting to exist, judging by the level of interest. Alison Wildish was introduced as being the ‘presiding mind’ for the day, and the sessions she had pulled together, and her introductory overview, were excellent. It could have been called ‘beyond the website’ as so much of the interesting stuff has little to do with static web pages – social networks, social bookmarking, tagged content, channels of user-generated stuff. I came away with a lot to digest having had rewarding chats with contacts old and new – so a very worthwhile day.

I was billed as talking about ‘the modern approach’, and various other sessions were about ‘traditional’ versus ‘modern’, so I riffed on the idea of postmodern being a better way of thinking about these things, as
– The web can be seen as a postmodern phenomenon (eclectic, virtual, centre-less, ephemeral, interconnected, non-hierarchical etc.)
– therefore if (to some extent) we live in a postmodern world then the web is highly fit for purpose in engaging with it.

Other stuff I touched on included
– The iGeneration (digital natives) have new expectations that we should meet, such as easy access to information, interactivity, access to information through their channel and device of choice, but
– at the same time we have traditional audiences to satisfy.
– Building relationships with potential students through genuine interactivity is a good thing to focus on.

To illustrate this last point I talked about our Hi site which excited a lot of interest. Dolt that I am, I forgot to mention that it has won an award (of which more later…)

Alison has created a Ning community for the event, where the discussions continue:

‘Weave a web so magnificent’

There aren’t many songs inspired by university publicity materials – in fact ‘The Birmingham School of Business School’ by the Fall (1992) could be the only one. Perhaps everything in the world comes in for withering poetic scorn at the hands of Mark E. Smith at some point. For instance, he has a go at my home town in his new book. The sometimes cliche-ridden products of HE marketing had to take their turn…

The lyrics include some painfully familiar terms, such as ‘the big heart of England’ – painful at least to someone like me who used to work promoting HE in the West Midlands and reached for such phrases on a regular basis. Other fragments are just the kind of thing that seem to form part of the stock register of this type of discourse: ‘exciting developments’, ‘its main theme’… However being a Fall song it’s full of inexplicable, tangential references – whippoorwills, Lee Coopers, ‘disguise in the art of conceit’ and ‘prisoner robotics’.

I’m looking at some draft Business School material now so I’ll try not to be too influenced by the Manchester Prole Art Threat.


Folks may have seen the new-look website, new Prospectus, and maybe the new stands and literature used at careers fairs. This stuff is just the beginning of an integrated student recruitment campaign for 2009, which will eventually include promotional activities in the summer and autumn, and applicant communication leading up to enrolment. Significant increases in enquiry levels suggest our instincts and research have been right and that we’re developing work that expresses the desirable reality of Edge Hill in a compelling way.

We’ll be blogging more about the ethos of the campaign on an internal-only site – as revealing the dark secrets and inner workings could blast the minds of mere mortals, and we have to be mindful of health and safety… but I’ll just say that our approach to branding is a direction and style rather than a set of templates or a cheesy slogan. The work will evolve over the coming months, spawning fresh and interesting manifestations.

This could of course mean retirement for Jez, the animated character who has appeared in our TV commercials for the past three years. Hopefully axing the little chap won’t be too unpopular; it’s not as if we’re sacking the ducks…

Doing the (university) business

A while ago I was interviewed by University Business magazine, and the results appeared this month. It’s a nice piece, though it’s always odd to see one’s words in stark print. (Did I really call a prospectus a ‘paper brick’? Surely I said ‘medium’, not ‘median’.)

I like the picture, an avuncular version of myself about to be swallowed by a black hole…


Thieving attention

I’ve spent Easter at Orbital, a science fiction convention in London. It’s largely literature-based, so listening to authors talk about their work and related stuff is one of the main pastimes. Charles Stross is one of the top guests, a highly perceptive author whose extrapolations on the social implications of technological trends make for a scary and exhilarating roller-coaster ride. (This article gives a flavour of his thinking.)

Stross’ talk was of the futuregazing, science-fact type and was interesting in many ways – not least for a demonisation of advertising which struck a chord with the audience. Spam, as we all know, is a pernicious side-effect of the IT driven communications with which we increasingly work and play. Imagine, then, giant artificial intelligences, faster and smarter than human minds, dedicated to the task of… selling us ‘enlargement pills’. An alarming extrapolation. Stross characterised advertising as attention theft, and described and speculated about various ways this does and might happen: from the mundane, it-happened-to-you-today database-driven delivery of unwanted mail, to the possibility of beguiling virtual environments that lure one in and then, in a hyper version of product placement ‘sell stuff’ to us, poor rube objects that we are. In this dystopian vision, where privacy has become a commodity precious enough to interest the Mafia, malign entities mine the clickstream and target humanity, with dodgy commerce rather than quaint ol’ death rays. Underpinning this is a society where the luxury of IT becomes compulsory as, for instance, the optional convenience of interacting with the state and its agencies online becomes a non-negotiable requirement. (I note that this has already happened with the university application system; company registration, tax and so on could easily follow as Stross points out).

Phew. Concealing my Chartered Marketer badge behind a battered H P Lovecraft paperback I edged towards the door, fearful that I might be outed and pelted with trilogies…

So am I an evil genius, plotting the downfall of humankind? Quite possibly – but I believe that marketing doesn’t have to involve aggressive, spammy techniques. The ‘new marketing’ approach is more about doing cool stuff that people will want to find and tell others about. Experiences, events and relationships with genuine value form a sort of cloud around actual products and commercial transactions. The SF convention is a good example – I’ve paid to be here, the authors etc invest time in being here, everyone has a good time, books get bought – everyone’s a winner. I’m not arguing against Stross’ points, merely saying there are positive possibilities too.

However, few organisations exist by ‘new marketing’ alone. Organisations (including, say, charities and education) have to be visible to people, and this does require getting attention in some way – which is increasingly difficult, given media fragmentation, technology and legislation that enable avoidance of advertising. But before we fire up the Mafia-owned AI spambots, we might think about marketing communications that earn attention rather than steal it, civil forms of marcomms interaction that give value and don’t outstay their welcome.

Chunks, hours, mirrors

Day Two of the HE Summit. Some moments of good dialogue, amidst periods when we seemed to be witnesses to a platform for posturing and platitudes. Not really a problem with the speakers, more the rather general topics and reliance on questions from the floor.

An afternoon on ‘Students as Aggressive Consumers’ provided some interest. Lots of focus on students as co-creators of knowledge, rather than consumers of the core HE experience, but an acknowledgement that they are increasingly demanding customers of services such as 24/7 libraries and IT, childcare and accommodation. I was particularly impressed with a point made by a V-C from Washington U, to the effect that any debate about the quantity of contact hours (as in, I’ve paid x for this course so why did I only get y hours in class) misses the point, as what university provides is opportunities to learn – which come from many activities, including for instance work with other students and engagement with the SU… so if we start dickering over ‘how many hours’ we’ve already lost the real argument.

Guardian online
picked up on some points made by Shadow Universities Secretary David Willetts, who seemed unaware that Unistats is offering much of the information he feels people need. Information clarity is obviously a good thing, though people’s selection processes may not be as rational as we think.

I ran a session with Philip Pothen from JISC, which seemed to go well (though as Iggy Pop once said, ‘It’s difficult to judge yourself in a mirror made of people.’) Philip gave an excellent overview of young people’s online behaviour, based on research which I’ll try and link to when I get home. I explored marketing aspects of digital technologies, in a presentation I can provide if anyone’s interested. One point I’d like to explore with colleagues at Edge Hill concerned the convergence of course delivery and marketing that will occur if the expansion of smaller-chunked lifelong learning develops as desired by the Government. In a scenario where we have large learner populations enrolled on modules, distributed across linked HE, FE and employer settings, ‘marketing’ will become as much a matter of encouraging progression as of recruitment to the start of a programme. Data and digital comms will become even more central to marketing in this scenario.

Valentine (highly qualified)

Ah, Valentines Day – a marketer’s dream – a season when people will by anything as long as it’s pink and padded – another mass feeding frenzy co-opting most of the population.

However one online retailer is obviously aiming for a more restricted market, judging by this email:

‘If your loved one enjoys exquisite luxury, has a passion for historical and artistic beauty and appreciates true quality, we have the perfect Valentines gifts for you’

So many qualifiers! This is a hard ad to live up to. Presumably if your significant other doesn’t live up to all of these characteristics you may as well go to Kwik Save.

Marketing Excommunication

An article in today’s (24 Jan 08) THE reopens the ‘are students customers?’ debate with some interesting points:

The notion of students as “customers” has been banned at Liverpool Hope University as it and other church-based institutions lead a fightback in favour of a more rounded approach to higher education.
Gerald Pillay, the vice-chancellor, said: “Students should not be treated as customers but as part of scholarly communities.”
The phrase “customer service” implied that universities were caring for students for financial reasons rather than out of a moral duty to do so, he added. “We place distinctive emphasis on the individual.”

I admire the brio of the ‘church-based institutions’ in staking a claim to this particular piece of moral high ground, deftly implying that institutions without an explicit Christian basis are less likely to recognise moral duties, value individuals, or endeavour to foster scholarly community. The ‘customer’ argument is a good platform for this as it is such a reliable hackle-raiser. This semantic issue was discussed here at length last year. It’s a debate that does need to be reopened (even in a non-Church-based university.)

For what it’s worth, I’ve come to the view that the primary message should be about students as partners in their learning, and members of an academic community. However it has to be acknowledged that higher education needs to demonstrably meet the needs of students (and their funders), and that these are free agents who can choose not to engage. It is therefore necessary to positively influence the experience they have, in a managed way, including communicating the benefits of participating in the academic community. The relationship resembles the customer role in some limited but important ways, so banning the notion (if indeed notions can be banned) and launching a ‘fightback’ is not useful.

Back to the article. Professor Pillay also makes an interesting point about marketing: “The Christian tradition is something that is part of the fabric of an institution and should be obvious in its graduates. Collective memory is the best form of marketing” (italics mine.) This must be true (though it’s a bit like saying ‘results are the best form of experiment’). It is actually quite exciting to consider the kind of collective memory (or impact, or perception) that is being created by the graduates of the mass higher education system as it has evolved over the past decade or so – as unprecedented as a never-before-dreamed dream. Whatever that emerging memory is, it guess it’s as diverse and fluid as the HE system we now inhabit.