Adam Knight, Co-Founder of TONG, discusses what Higher Education may have to learn from Consumer Brands on getting closer to their audience and devising a localised strategy that delivers results. This is brought to life with shared experience from Runting Lin 林润婷 on why she came to study in the UK and the research process she undertook.
Whilst brand identity and values need to evolve to meet the consumer, the pace of change in Higher Education has lit a fire under this notion. The concept becomes even more acute within the international market where we have witnessed seismic shifts in demand and perception across the last few years. In this article we explore what can be learnt from Consumer Brands who have faced similar challenges and actions you can take to thrive in this context. Whilst we look at the picture through a Chinese lens, the strategies we recommend can be applied across all markets, particularly where third parties are prominent.
The changing makeup of the international cohort is perhaps best underlined by the fact that nearly as many Chinese nationals now apply to study in the UK as all EU nationals combined. Adam sheds light on some of the reasons the number of applications from China has continued along a positive trajectory despite the pandemic.
“The UK is benefiting from geopolitical tensions elsewhere in the world. The leading markets of US and Australia have seen their appeal wane in the wake of concern about technology transfer, espionage, and increased political scrutiny that has, at times, bordered on a new Red Scare. As a result the UK was named in a recent survey (New Oriental Education, 2020) as the number one choice of overseas study destination amongst Chinese students, indicating strong potential for the coming years.”
With bountiful demand and a favorable global context, it is easy to become complacent but Adam offers a word of warning that uncertainty may lie ahead.
“The UK is not immune from the same geopolitical challenges that face American and Australian institutions, as our current government and opposition parties take an increasingly hawkish stance towards China and pressure builds to diverge from an over reliance on Chinese students. Simmering tension on campus between mainland Chinese students and others on issues like Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet has left mainland Chinese students feeling victimised but also empowered to have their voices heard on account of their combined buying power.”
Whilst it is too early to anticipate how tension may unfold, ensuring that your institutional infrastructure is adapted to cater for your international audiences and your brand strategy is driven by cultural fluency, empathy and coherent communication, will certainly help mitigate risk.To explore this further we can gain inspiration from consumer brands who have already faced the challenge. Adam shares the story of Burberry who were disconnected from their audience and struggling to find a voice in the space dominated by French and Italian luxury.
“While investing into surface level marketing and general awareness building they missed how Chinese consumers were experiencing their brand, as this was outsourced within the franchise model. We can draw parallels to higher education here, as the moment a potential student comes into contact with your brand is usually through an education agent and rarely through your own content. For Burberry, detachment led to an overall loss of brand control and relevance to key audiences who would drive their business forward. They took radical action and overhauled their positioning to focus on the Gen Z consumers shaping the future of retail. They invested heavily in a direct to consumer approach that directly led them to incredible profitability in the Chinese market.”
There is a lot that Higher Education can learn from the approach of localisation and building a direct to consumer model to get closer to the audience and remove reliance on third parties. This starts with understanding China literacy, as Adam explains.
“The term China literacy is the idea that a responsible business leader should understand who the Chinese audience is and how it functions. There is space for many businesses to improve in this area, as the audience becomes ever more important. Universities have a captive audience of Chinese nationals on campus and should engage with them on a regular basis to understand their journey and what they gain from going to a third party. With this information in hand you can then build models to mitigate that. It’s often an information issue, with agents privileged to more information than you can find elsewhere on the Chinese internet. Universities should diversify their channel and marketing strategy to make sure that they are beating these agents at their own game.”
When considering your localised channel and marketing strategy, Adam advocates avoiding the cookie cutter approach adopted by many institutions and instead turning attention to lower hanging fruit.
“Whilst a well designed, properly hosted Chinese website that’s updated on a regular basis can have a role in recruitment, this must sit at the heart of a broader digital strategy that reflects the behaviour of the target demographic. Whilst many British higher education institutions that have a digital presence in China, are typically present across Weibo and WeChat, the younger demographic is now getting content from platforms like Douyin, Bilibili and Red. The differences with these platforms is that they’re much more content driven. They are less about forming communities, and more about leveraging the audience that others have already built up.”
At The Brand Education we practice what we preach. So to better understand how content is being consumed in China and the shifting research journey, we spoke to Runting Lin 林润婷, a graduate of Durham University and a successful education & lifestyle blogger. She shared with us how she came to study in the UK and the challenges she faced.