What can uni’s learn from McDonald’s?

Louie Sumpter


What do universities and McDonald’s have in common? Not a lot you’d imagine. Well apart from the well-worn cliché about students living away from home for the first time surviving on a diet of Big Macs, french fries and chicken McNuggets. But given how health conscious young people are today, I’m not even sure how true this is anymore.

But consider this, with the average cost of a 3-year course in the UK now nearly £28,000 the relationship between universities and prospective students has changed. It’s now a buyer’s market with students and their families becoming more demanding in their expectations, and discerning in their choices. Critically, parents are playing a much bigger role in the decision making process than ever before. And who can blame them, given that they’re invariably the ones financing it all.

But with parents come a different set of expectations. While we know that undergraduates at a superficial level claim that academic factors matter, there are other issues at play. More often than not it’s the promise of a ‘university experience’ – of a new city, of independent living, of making new friends – that really holds traction for them. For parents on the other hand, it’s the still the factors like academic reputation, university rankings and future employability that count.

Now consider how the lifting of the cap on student numbers has further opened up the lucrative international market for UK universities looking to offset the impact of funding cuts. Over 30% of full time students now come from outside the UK, and they present a different set of challenges from UK students.

At £30,000 a year, most overseas students have been planning and saving for this moment for years in advance. It’s little wonder then that prospective choices come under an even greater degree of scrutiny.  Their concerns differ too and are more likely to revolve around issues like moving to a new country or living far away from home. They also possess different cultural references and associations, meaning tales of ‘Madchester’ don’t resonate in quite the same way for a student from Abidjan as they do for a student from Abingdon.

And then we come to post graduate students, who are considerably more hard-nosed in their outlook than their undergraduates peers. This cohort is primarily motivated by factors like research reputation, study methodologies and funding options. They’re there to enhance research  reputations and further careers first and foremost, so extra-curricular activities and societies come pretty low down on their list.

This all adds up to the fact that in the competitive world of higher education, universities need to simultaneously appeal to multiple different groups on multiple different levels.  As a result universities need brand and campaign ideas that can flex and present different facets to prospective students and their families. And this is where McDonalds comes in.

McDonald’s near ubiquitous nature, accessible price point and fact that its doors remain open throughout the day means it serves a broad swathe of society. From late night clubbers, to early morning delivery drivers. From gangs of lads, to gaggles of girls. From fresh faced families on a big day out, to weary commuters making their way home. Everyone has at some point passed beneath the golden arches, each one drawn by the promise of something different.

What’s interesting is how McDonald’s handles this patchwork of different and often competing interests. Their brand is neither static nor monolithic, they’re not afraid to present different faces to market. Parents are targeted with ads reassuring them about the levels of salt and fat in their kids’ Happy Meals. Meanwhile their children are presented with ads promoting the latest Despicable Me 3 promo. At the other end of the spectrum value seekers get their own series of humorous Saver Meal spots, and rejecters are invited to revisit their food quality perceptions through the ‘Good to know’ campaign.

McDonald’s expertly picks off each consumer segment, identifying what makes them tick and then ruthlessly pushes their buttons. But what really stands out is the way they manage to do this in a coherent way without appearing erratic or contradictory. That’s because every effort is underpinned by the same upbeat optimism that characterises the McDonald’s brand, ensuring that everything comes from the same place.

Higher education and fast food are without doubt vastly different sectors. University education is a choice that shapes the rest of your life, while fast food is here and gone in a second. But in this instance, emulating the McDonald’s approach could offer universities a model for appealing to multiple different prospective audiences – and the more effectively they’re able to do this the more successful their brands and campaigns will be.