We’ve all seen negative marketing, the comparison adverts, the schools that put up league tables of GCSE results in order to attract students from a neighbouring competitor. Indeed, some colleges even do this. And there is research out there that says that a negative message stays in the mind longer than a positive message. However, there are also drawbacks. The simple issue with negative marketing is that league tables are easily reversed and for some organisations memories are long and revenge is sweet.
When I used to chair the FE Reputation Strategy Group we carried out some in depth work with employers about the reputation of the sector. One of the strongest messages that came back was the fact that employers were frustrated and irritated by colleges playing ‘tit for tat’ in their marketing. What employers really wanted was efficient and high quality customer service from whichever organisation they contacted. And if one college did not offer the service, they wanted them to signpost to a provider that did, even if it was a competitor. Simple as that.
The apprenticeship levy has intensified the competitive element in contracting with employers. Local businesses we have worked with and supported for some time are now reporting being bombarded with emails and telephone calls from other providers claiming to do something better and cheaper than us. Apart from the fact they haven’t got the track record, they haven’t worked through the Levy implications with that business, and they haven’t spent years building the relationship. It’s no wonder employers are expressing annoyance with this behaviour and it doesn’t do the reputation of the sector any good at all. They are comparing it to the phone calls and texts received by us all from companies wanting to profit from the PPI mis-selling scandal.
There is another impact too that can be the result of negative marketing – if a product or service is so great then it shouldn’t need to be critical of its competitors. People should draw that conclusion anyway. Further, when a strong brand starts using negative marketing messages, it can often be perceived as a sign of desperation. Think about it, the most powerful, respected brands never use negative marketing messages.
And that I think is the issue for the FE sector. Instead of speaking as one voice about how fantastic colleges are, we are too obsessed with the difficulties in the sector. We are too focused on Ofsted grades, financial failure, which college is in trouble now. In other words we are doing the negative marketing and damaging the reputation of the very sector we are part of. Instead we should be turning it all on its head.
We should be praising and congratulating the colleges that are doing well, we should be telling the stories about the work that every college does, wherever it is. We should remember: the reputation of the sector is only as strong as that of its weakest member.