From education to employment

The answer to FE problems is “Why?”

Most FE providers have strategies, objectives, a business plan and a mission statement. They also focus on getting good Ofsted reports.

Most FE providers also struggle with decreasing course income and have high costs. Is there another way?

Despite the protestations of some, FE providers are businesses just like any other. So how have they prospered since the 2008 recession? Are there similarities with High St names?

It has to be said that many failed high street names are no longer with us. They failed to adapt to change or failed to answer the question “Why?”
Businesses like John Lewis, Waitrose, Aldi, etc, bucked the trend and prospered during these trying times. Why was this?

Well the answer seems to lie in the question. Whereas most businesses continued to do what they had always done and made every attempt to beat their competitors by cutting prices, claiming superior quality and similar tactics; businesses like those above did something far simpler. They realised that customers needed to buy into their ethos if they were to remain customers. They also understood that if they could get the customer onside, then profits would follow.

Companies like John Lewis had been doing this for years and had an ethos that demonstrated that they wanted to provide customers with quality products at affordable prices and provide great customer service at the same time. They encapsulated this in the “never knowingly undersold” caption which, for their customers, spoke about more than price. People knew why John Lewis existed.

Their competitors were always high profile with news of the latest share price and people knew why they existed.

It takes more than share price

When marketing themselves, the retailers with a high profile for their share price promoted the fact that they had the latest styles, competitive prices, etc. But the newspaper headline was that the board was appointing yet another CEO to manage share price revival. We all knew this meant cost cutting and a poorer customer experience, and when the advert said “buy” we knew they only wanted our money to build share value. We knew we were not important to them.

The marketing of companies like John Lewis was in the context of positive news stories, everyone knew their success was built on great values and when the advert said “buy” we flocked to the stores.

“Why” in the FE context

Most, though not all, FE providers know why they exist. The problem is that their customers and prospects don’t.

Most FE providers have websites that talk about courses, advertising that proclaims excellence and they send out media releases about college trips, pass rates and visits by politicians. So the public know they run courses but they don’t know why they run courses. A lot of them think it is because the government fund them to run courses. In their turn these providers promote HE courses that are £2,000 cheaper than the local university. They focus on price rather than why they run the courses.

Of course price and ministerial visits are important, but have you ever spoken to a student or employer that signed up because a politician visited?
Rather than promote cheaper courses a better approach might be the Apple Approach. Apple knows why it exists and so do their customers. It is about their belief that everyone deserves access to the best technology. Steve Jobs said “we believe that people with passion can change the world”.

They exhibit their belief in this by producing products that people want to own and sell them by providing shops where prospects can go and try the product. They create an environment where people feel they deserve to own an Apple product. Their products aren’t cheap, but they have produced an entry level product, the iPhone, which is more affordable. Own this and most people then want the next product and the next.

The FE solution

Most of us in FE believe in FE. We believe that people, and businesses, have the right to access high quality training and education. So why do we not tell them?

Why do we use our marketing to just “sell” courses and hide our beliefs in unintelligible mission statements?

Why do we hide the “why”?

How to market FE

To market FE effectively we have to get our prospective customers to buy into our beliefs. It might be as simple as: “We believe everyone is entitled to a chance in life.”

Whatever your core belief, you need to tell people about it. It is more important than a huge portfolio of courses that are cheaper than your competitors.

Marketing consultant Stefan Drew was previously director of marketing at two FHE colleges and now works with providers throughout the UK, Europe and the US – visit:

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