A good job of marketing

As more graduates than ever are unleashed in an increasingly crowded market, Hannah Booth finds out how companies are enticing the brightest recruits

Tomorrow’s high-flying, high-earning directors are today’s unworldly, indifferent graduates. And despite a recessionary economic climate, students remain the lifeblood of blue-chip companies, which, each autumn, compete to attract the best and brightest.

But the graduate recruitment process is changing. Companies can no longer woo students with glossy brochures showing smiling workers and pension plans. It’s a crowded market and graduates are ever more cynical, so it’s in companies’ interests to up the stakes in how they differentiate themselves and communicate with graduates.

Last week, Ernst & Young launched a revamped graduate marketing programme by SAS, designed to challenge the cynicism with which graduates eye potential employers (DW 2 October). SAS managing director Jeremy Sice says part of the problem is that students struggle to tell the difference between companies and understand little about the business world. He claims it’s a particularly pertinent problem for companies in the ‘services’ sector, such as Ernst & Young, that have no recognisable consumer brands attached to them.

Writer Tim Rich, who worked with SAS on the project, agrees. ‘The challenge for services companies is to get across exactly what they do, without resorting to generic, dull or pretentious marketing. “Services” is an abstract concept for many students,’ he explains.

SAS and Rich persuaded Ernst & Young that it had to overcome confused or, worse, non-existent perceptions of the company.

‘Companies are in fierce competition with each other for graduates, even within different sectors. They need something different to help them stand out,’ Sice adds.

Cynicism of marketing and branding campaigns may be harder to shift than uninformed views, says Sice. ‘Students dislike spin. One told us in research that he didn’t expect what he read [about any company] to be true.’

This, he says, is where straight talking comes in. The Ernst & Young literature offered ‘a true and fair reflection of what it would be like to work for the company’, says Ernst & Young director of resourcing Stevan Rolls.

There is a move towards being straighter with final-year students, agrees Carl Gilleard, chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters. ‘Companies must talk to students on equal terms,’ he says.

Students ‘want integrity and are often more conservative than companies think,’ Gilleard claims. ‘Students don’t usually like wacky. Gimmicks can backfire and being patronising is the worst thing a company can do.’

But companies need to attract attention, so marketing material must be eye-catching, he says. Drinks giant Diageo, for example, was a winner at the annual AGR awards in July for its graduate recruitment literature, designed by ad agency Bernard Hodes Group.

Diageo published a bright pink cocktail menu-style brochure, entitled The Right Mix, which highlighted the range of drinks brands within the company’s portfolio. It worked well, says Gilleard, because it was fun, but also informative.

Focusing on identifiable brands is exactly the right approach, says Rich. Organisations with recognisable personalities, such as those with consumer brands, find it easier to attract graduates. He worked with SAS on a recruitment campaign for Bass (now Six Continents), which included drinks brands such as Carling.

‘Instead of focusing on the company and what it offered, we picked up on Bass’s brands. A lot of graduates need targeting in a middle-ground between the everyday that they’re familiar with and the company itself,’ Rich believes. ‘Launching into pension plans and HR is often a leap too far for students.’

Conversely, organisations with a less public image can play on that to attract graduates, says Gilleard. Government intelligence service GCHQ turned the fact it can’t discuss its work to its advantage, with a highly branded recruitment campaign that positioned the organisation as shadowy and glamorous. Designed by TMP Worldwide, it won AGR’s integrated marketing campaign award in July.

But although employers want to attract applicants, the last thing they’re looking for is thousands of applications that are time-consuming to process. Employers want quality, not quantity in graduate recruits, says Rich. Research carried out by SAS for Ernst & Young showed lack of differentiation is a huge issue, explains Sice. ‘One graduate told us he saw no difference between companies, and said he thought he’d apply to each one. Careers advisors backed his point up, too.’

Gilleard agrees ‘self de-selection’ is vital, and companies must encourage it. ‘Big players aren’t interested in quantity,’ says Gilleard. ‘Brochures and campaigns must be more strategic. Companies must spell out clearly what’s involved so students can make more informed decisions.’

One solution is to encourage students to ‘self-select’ on-line, before applying in full. Corus discovered that the quantity of applications was a problem, says graduate recruitment manager Louisa Porter. Now, it encourages students to think twice before applying, with an on-line ‘five-minute application’.

‘The right students aren’t necessarily the best [academically],’ says Porter. ‘We need a range of graduates, from future managing directors to lower-level recruits who will be satisfied with a certain job for a while.’

It’s a tough market out there. Jobs are harder to come by at present, and there are more graduates than ever before. Marketing literature and tone of voice are therefore growing in importance, but so is a mutual respect between potential employers and new recruits.

As Gilleard says, ‘recruitment is a two-way process. Companies must never forget that.’

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