Your future starts meh: Education marketing is failing to keep up with the times

As AI, automation and algorithms begin to cement their place in our future, Andrew O’Keeffe takes a look at the marketing methods of the institutions currently educating the robot's fellow workers.

Everywhere you look, you’ll read about how the robots are coming to take our jobs. AI. Automation. Algorithms. Machine learning.

At the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Jack Ma, CEO of Alibaba said that everything we teach our kids must change to prepare them for a future where they are not competing with machines for jobs, but using our innately human skills – independent thinking, values, teamwork, creativity, empathy – to create new careers.

Selling the dream

If we don’t know what the future of education and work looks like, where does that leave brand agencies and marketing teams? How do we sell ‘the dream’? What do we promise?

All this uncertainty about what jobs will be ‘in or out’ in the future makes it hard for education or ‘learning brands’ to market. Apart from a handful of examples, many traditional education providers find themselves in a messaging limbo – hedging their bets and broadcasting generic messages to their prospective clientele.

So, how are higher education providers talking to their audiences in 2018? We thought we’d find out.

We conducted a survey into the brand positioning statements and campaign marketing messages of 115 higher education providers – universities and vocational education and training (VET) providers – across Australia and New Zealand.

We found that the top three brand positioning or campaign messaging themes making up almost two thirds of all messages were:


Messaging that puts employability first – careers, work, jobs, gaining experience, preparation, practical hands-on skills, work or ‘the real world’.


Messaging that inspires students to do or feel something – to aspire for more, to follow their dreams.


Messaging that is specifically ‘future’ focussed, being prepared for the uncertainty of ‘new world’ at the institutions of ‘tomorrow’.

The survey found that, unsurprisingly, a good proportion of providers are playing it safe and focusing on selling jobs for today, or subtly sewing seeds of doubt about tomorrow and encouraging students to be prepared for an uncertain future.

So far, so obvious.

The third leading trend common to both university and VET providers was a bucket labelled inspiration – institutional cheerleading with motivational poster-ishinstagram-esque inspirational slogans to be the best you that you can be, whatever that may be. A sort of ‘aspirational generalism’. 

The game has changed

In a more customercentric era, large institutions can’t rest on reputation or proximity alone anymore. Learning is no longer monopolised by sandstone institutions, it’s easily accessible to anyone, anywhere, at anytime. MOOCS like edXLyndaKhan Academy, and platforms like LinkedIn Learning present a vast number of learning paths to choose from, and some free, to train, re-train, skill-up, change career, start-up etc. You can even do a swearing cooking masterclass with Gordon Ramsey. How f*cking good is that?

In a more competitive marketplace, the vague promise of a ‘better tomorrow if you enrol today’ isn’t enough. Students of tomorrow need more compelling reasons to believe the hype.

Why? The reasons are piling up, but here’s a few:

So what does this mean?

With so much choice available the balance of power has moved from the educators to the educated, and competition is fierce for the minds of learners. Location, reputation and ‘aspirational generalism’ just won’t cut it anymore.

Higher education providers – learning brands – can’t be everything to everyone, and must differentiate by finding an authentic and truthful voice. They need to look for richer, unique and more innovative ways to attract, engage and retain students – not for just for a few years, but over a lifetime of learning.

The future starts here.

Andrew O’Keeffe is creative director and founder of Studio Alto.

Selling the Dream: Messaging trends in higher education will be available soon. Register your interest for a copy here. This article is an amended version of the original from Alto.


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