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What are student accommodation marketing’s latest trends?

13 December 2022

What appeals to students? What’s on trend for young people right now? And how is that being used to market student accommodation right now? Find out all the answers, and more, from this insightful masterclass.

Accommodation Matters brings together sector experts to discuss the Higher Education sector’s key issues through the lens of student accommodation – and this month, we’re exploring all things student marketing. Our expert panel are considering current data trends in student accommodation marketing, as well as the importance of brand, the impact of cost of living on both students and brands, and the use of social media.

This month’s panel includes:

  • Josephine Hansom, Vice President and Youth Practice Lead at Savanta
  • Shelley Wilde, Head of Brand at Unite Students

You can subscribe and listen to the episode now on SpotifyGoogleAmazonApple Podcasts, or below through Podbean. If you enjoy the podcast, please don’t hesitate to leave a 5* review – we’d love to hear from you!


Transcript: What are student accommodation marketing’s latest trends?

Jenny Shaw: Hello and welcome to Accommodation Matters, your monthly look into the big issues in student accommodation. I’m Jenny Shaw and today I’m asking the ultimate question: what do students want? Not so long ago, university marketing involved sending out thousands of prospectuses to schools and colleges. As for student accommodation, it was halls or a shared house and not always much choice within that – but, of course, all that’s changed now.

Marketing is a fast-moving world and social media offers new and rapidly changing opportunities to engage with target audiences. Now, it’s not so much a matter of “This is what we offer,” but about understanding what appeals to students and what they want from their time at university. This understanding reaches back into product and service design improving the experience itself.

Today, we’re taking a deep dive into all things brand and marketing. As well as talking about student accommodation, we’re going to tap into wider understandings of youth marketing, brand and PR, in our quest to find out what students really want. As usual, I’ve got some expert guests in the studio with me today. Josephine Hansom is Vice President and Youth Practice Leader at Savanta. Josephine, welcome to the show. Could you start by painting us a picture of today’s students? What is it they’re all about?

Josephine: Probably, the main issue is that not all students are the same. It’s a bit of a cliche, but we often talk about the atomisation of tribes at Savanta, which is really a way of expressing the impact social media has had on young people today. If we think back to when we were young, there were groups of people who liked rock music and people that liked dance music and people that really liked fashion, and everybody seemed to stay in their lane.

Well, now young people are very much a little bit of everything. They can pick and choose how they want to express their identity. There are really no limits. I guess one of the issues that we’re seeing a lot in our work with students is how they are resilient, how they manage and navigate their student experiences, given everything that they’ve been through. We work with HEPI in the student experience work that they publish every year.

One in four students said that they were lonely all or most of the time. There was an increase in the number of young people saying that they are concerned about their mental health. Is it that young people have more mental health issues or is it that we’re talking about it more? The answer’s both. Growing up in 2022 is difficult and social media is a big contributor to that. I call that ‘the social experiment of social media’, because we don’t really know how that’s going to pan out.

Jenny: I was quite struck by that idea of first of all there’s not one single thing that students want, but I’d like to bring Shelley in now. Shelley Wilde, you’re the head of brand for Unite Students and a marketing professional with international experience. I’m really interested in this idea of the different things that students might want from their time at university and from their accommodation. I know you’ve done some recent detailed segmentation work on what students are looking for. Was there anything that ran across all students? I’m thinking particularly in terms of their accommodation, but maybe other things.

Shelley Wilde: I’d say that generally, student accommodation is very much viewed as a commodity purchase. Actually, basic needs are really quite straightforward. I’d say that search tends to revolve around location, around price, around safety, security. When you start to dig a little bit deeper into that, you find that students ultimately want to belong and find a sense of community within their accommodation.

It’s fair to say they want to be themselves or sometimes find themselves and be accepted for who they are. I’d say year of study certainly plays part in what students want at a point in time. I think generally, first years want a higher level of wraparound support, simply because it’s likely to be their first time living away from home. Whereas undergraduates and postgraduates, they want much more independence. The work that we did with Josephine was to identify some student segments that transcend that year of study.

Actually, the principal difference between student segments is on the one end, how sociable they are and how much time they want to spend with others, versus actually how much time they want to spend alone. These student segments have different needs when it comes to student accommodation. From one extreme, really valuing social spaces to meet new people, experience different cultures, perhaps. Then at the other extreme, their room is much more important and quieter areas to actually study in.

Understanding the differences of these different segments really helps us move away from a one-size-fits all type message and product offer.

Jenny: How easy do you think it is for students to find those different offers and different products in the market at the moment?

Shelley: I don’t think we’re very developed in that area, generally. As a market, I think we do tend to focus entirely on year of study and much more of a one-size-fits-all approach. We’re really tackling that at the moment to make sure it’s much more bespoke. It’s more about the experience and speaking to their needs and their wants, rather than generalising so much. Trying to personalise a lot more.

Josephine: I agree with everything that Shelley said and I think taking that concept of personalisation a little step further is something that we’re really seeing as a differentiator from young people today to maybe 5, 10, 15 years ago. Expectations for brands to understand their customers and what they want or what they need is there. The data and the information and the level of sharing also there, to be able to offer that level of personalisation.

This is the generation that looks forward to their Spotify Unwrapped. For those of you who don’t know what that is, it’s where Spotify look at, look at all of the songs that you’ve been listening to all year and then they present them back to you and it helps you reflect on who you are and just adds to the enjoyment of using the platform. It’s just a marketing masterpiece, really. It allows users to feel a close connection to the brand. That use of data and understanding is what young people are expecting now from the brands that they connect with.

Jenny: I think that’s a really interesting example, because it goes beyond personalisation to reflecting back insights into yourself. I wonder if that’s a direction that some brands are looking to go in now.

Josephine: I definitely think that they are – it would be silly not to. The future of personalisation, that reflection back is the extent to which brands and research agencies, we are an intermediary on this, are able to collect and synthesise and apply those learnings in the marketing world. We’re in a GDPR world now, so sometimes it’s a bit harder than it used to be, but I think that young people, if they connect with a brand, they’re willing to have a bit of give and take if they know that what they get back is worthwhile.

Jenny: In general terms, what is this generation’s attitude towards brand?

Josephine: That they are really positive towards brands. That’s because I think brands are sort of multifaceted. They have many more layers than maybe they used to have in the past. At Savanta, we ask young people what their favourite brands are. Every couple of months we do a little webinar for our clients to keep them plugged into youth culture. I look back over the last six months of webinars that we would’ve been doing and asking what’s your favourite brand? Interestingly, the top three don’t change massively. It’s Apple, it’s Nike and then it flips between a different fast fashion brand.

I think that says a lot about young people today. Apple and Nike, you probably would’ve expected, but they’re masters at marketing. Apple representing maybe that more aspirational premium. Nike being more relevant to youth culture and being part of the lives of young people.

The fact that there’s a rotation of either H&M or Zara or whatever it is in terms of fast fashion brand, also speaks to the utility of brands and how young people, they do have many problematic feelings about these brands but they do also recognise that they do facilitate the lifestyle that they have. For students in particular, price is always top. A bargain is always going to be a winning offer, but quality is second for students, followed by being an ethical brand.

I compared students with young people in general and students are more likely to say that a reasonable price is more important than the average young person. They’re also more likely to say that an ethical brand is more important than the average young person. It’s changed quite a lot since 2019. That ethical point, it was really not that important back then. Being ethical and being say on trend or fashionable were the same back in 2019.

Since then, they’ve just split. For students, 19%, say being an ethical brand is the most important thing, while only 1% say being on trend is the most important thing. If you think back to 2019, they were neck and neck at about 5% each. It shows you the growth of brands doing the right thing and thinking a bit broader than that transactional relationship they might have with their customer.

Jenny: I know you’ve done some work on trust among young people, brand trust and brand authenticity, and I wonder how much that plays into that idea of an ethical brand. I’m interested in what makes for an ethical brand for young people.

Josephine: Yes, it’s a super interesting area that we’re looking into at the moment. I guess the headline is that young people do recognise that the world is not perfect. I say that first rather than answering your question directly, because there’s a lot of talk about cancel culture and young people boycotting brands and ‘cancelling’ them because of whatever reason. Our work is highlighting that yes, a brand might be cancelled for whatever reason, but it doesn’t mean that they are cancelled forever.

It is a very Gen Z thing to cancel a brand, but it is recoverable and because of the multi-layered element of a brand, nowadays, a brand can be forgiven, redemption is permitted in this space as long as you do the right thing.

I’ll start with that, but then in terms of what makes an ethical brand, I think young people are learning a lot about the world at the moment and figuring out what they think is right or wrong.

We ask about why you might boycott a brand, which I guess does answer this question. It is about climate change, of course, it is about workers’ rights, it’s about human rights, and it’s about doing something that doesn’t harm something else. That’s, I think, the rule of thumb that young people are using, but they don’t necessarily know everything that goes on in business. They don’t understand how things work. They are learning as they are creating these rules, I guess, is a way to put it.

Social media plays a massive part in this. This is where they’re learning, this is how they’re finding out about businesses. This is how things get circulated amongst the generation. They’re a generation that really care about the future, climate change, and they just want everybody else to care about that too, which I guess is what infuriates them when they find out that it’s not happening.

Jenny: I’m picking up something there about trust as well. Is there something there about being upfront about those things, so that there’s not something to discover?

Josephine: Yes, a hundred percent. They just want brands to tell the truth and they want brands to get better. They’re the simple rules, I guess, with Gen Z. For Gen Z, their starting point is going to be distrust, and that is because it’s so hard online – which is where young people get all their information – to know what is real and what’s not. Fake news is everywhere.

Their starting point is distrust, which then puts a really big imperative on marketers to think about how they evidence and back up their claims, because if you just make a claim without anything backing up, young people will not believe you. We have to start doing things differently and being in control of our evidence to then be able to convince young people that we’re doing the right thing.

Jenny: Shelley, I can see you nodding along there. I just wanted to ask you how much that idea of building trust affects the way you approach brand, particularly given that accommodation is usually a one-off purchase, you’ve got that one chance to get it right and put the brand out there and help students make the right decision about their accommodation and what will suit them. How does all this kind background knowledge affect the way you approach brand?

Shelley: I couldn’t agree more with what is Josephine was just saying, actually. I think long gone are the times where you could just pay lip service. With key terms that people are looking out for and students are looking out for, they want some depth to it, and they want some proof points that you are actually delivering on what you’re saying.

From Unite Students’ perspective, we’re really focused on creating experiences for our students. We really want to move away from being that commodity, just a room, to putting the emphasis on the experience that a student will have whilst living with us.

If you think about it, they can live with us for up to a year or sometimes they might stay for multiple years. It’s really their home. For us, that’s building our brand around our brand story, which is providing students with the room to thrive. That can be whatever they make of it, whatever they want it to be but, ultimately, if that is to find friends whilst at university, or to succeed academically or find themselves, whatever it is, we provide them with the environment that they can do that.

Jenny: I think that mirrors some of the trends that we’ve seen across the student accommodation sector as it’s matured as a sector over the last five or 10 years – that it has gone from being a commodity to being primarily a service offering and an experience.

Josephine: Yes. I just wanted to add to that, that our data completely backs up the idea of an experience there. We ask young people if you’d rather have an experience or a physical thing, and the majority say they want an experience. That’s what they’re wanting, and the experiential economy is driving youth marketing at the moment. It’s really encouraging to hear that’s the direction that you’re going in.

Jenny: I think it has to be quite a malleable experience, quite customisable because you can leave home for the first time, go to university with one set of thoughts and one set of ideas, and when you’ve been there for a while, you might have some other ideas and different things that you want to experience. Shelley, the way you were describing the brand offer was quite broad. Is that deliberately the case so that people can discover themselves and find new ways?

Shelley: Exactly that. We don’t want to define it too tightly so that they feel like they can’t achieve that or maybe it doesn’t fit with what they want and aspire to. It is what they make of it. I said earlier that actually, one thing that unites the students and their thinking, the commonality is so often about that need to belong and to find people to connect with and build on that confidence, so that they can really embrace their independence.

I think giving students the right conditions to thrive in and dictate what that is, and as you say, it will evolve throughout their study. At the beginning it’s building those connections, but once you’ve got your friends, then your focus changes a little bit. As you work through the years of university, undoubtedly, it’s going to be about study, a little bit at some point and achieving that successful outcome at the end. I think your wants and needs, they change.

Jenny: I want to talk about social media because young people famously live online and are avid users of social media, but it’s very rapidly changing, isn’t it, Josephine? What’s in vogue now?

Josephine: There are some new ones. Definitely, things like BeReal where you take photos of yourself at certain times in the day, and the same time as your friends, where you take a picture looking outward, using your normal camera and of yourself, so two pictures at the same time. The idea there is to be real. It’s like in the moment you’re not staging it. It’s not that filtered Instagram moment. It’s a really interesting concept that it’s popular and it is going against the currently, it’s still the most popular social media app, which is Instagram.

Young people today are definitely the TikTok generation. It’s really interesting to see the purpose that young people say they have behind using these different social media platforms. Where back in the day – Facebook, Twitter – it might have been properly social, seeing your friends, interacting with them, speaking to them, knowing what’s going on in their life; but now we’re moving towards TikTok, which is much more of an entertainment platform, to be honest.

You’re watching many programmes from creators that you connect with and it’s, according to our data, definitely stealing from Instagram – quite directly. Instagram’s going down and TikTok has obviously had a meteoric rise. In this space, what might be an interesting stat to share is some recent research from Google – they found that 40% of Gen Z are using Instagram and TikTok as their first place to search for things instead of Google.

Now that, I think, is really interesting because, Instagram and TikTok are not search engines as traditionally branded, but they’re looking for information within the context of their life and the people that they know, rather than as we might use the internet just to find information, like we might have done when we were using an encyclopaedia in the library.

Young people are much more likely to say that they would prefer to learn about something by watching a video than reading about it. According to our data, 60% agree with that statement. They’d rather watch something than read about it, so we’re in an interesting phase where these new platforms are trying to contextualise information for young people to understand if it’s good or not. Back to that trust point, Jenny, that you mentioned earlier – seeing it in your world is much more believable than just seeing it in black and white on page. Social media’s changing.

I’m curious to see how it will evolve in terms of the more social side of connecting with friends. At the moment, it’s a little bit dark. You’d be doing that in a messaging app, you’d be doing it in the DMs. What we had at the beginning of social media seems to have disappeared and we’re going to come out with something different in the not too distant future.

Jenny: I think it’s absolutely fascinating, the idea that you get your friends and wider groups of people to curate your searches for you and to create your content. Shelley, I’m wondering how that changes things for student accommodation, because it is no longer just a case of just having bland information out there about the features and the details. It’s got to be something else, hasn’t it? How does this work for student accommodation?

Shelley: Yes. Gen Z are increasingly sceptical about any messages that organisations put out about themselves. As Josephine’s just said, they turn to their peers as trusted sources. Certainly, in the work that we do in the brand team at Unite Students, we actually ask students to tell their own stories. We don’t want to put words in their mouths, we want their truth, we want that honesty. That’s really important to us and we know that it’s valued by the students themselves. They want to hear from their peers. They want to look at reviews, word of mouth, recommendations, testimonials, all of that.

We have to make sure that we can meet those requirements, but do it authentically. Yes, we spend a lot of time speaking to students and actually asking for their thoughts and their feedback, both positive and negative, because we can only improve what we do by learning the bad stuff as well as the good stuff. Yes, that’s incredibly important.

Jenny: That’s great news for students, isn’t it? Because, actually, to market effectively, you have to make students really happy and really want to tell their story and want to share that.

Shelley: It’s fascinating to hear their stories, actually. They often have really interesting stories to tell about their time. It’s such an influential part of their lives leaving home, gaining their independence, finding their own two feet. It’s an incredible time, actually.

Jenny: I’m going to come to the cost of living now, because it’s almost certainly going to dominate the next year at least. How are we going to see that reflected in marketing campaigns?

Josephine: Cost of living is so interesting right now, because we’ve been tracking it at Savanta since 2015. We’ve been asking young people what’s the most important issue for them at the moment. Cost of living wasn’t featuring really in the top three until quite recently. It had been climate change that became number one in 2019 and even all the way through the pandemic, climate change was the most important issue for young people.

The pandemic did not take over climate change until this summer. That’s when the cost of living has overtaken climate change for the first time in years. That happened in the summer. Before all the changes in government and all of the things that happened, they were already concerned about the cost of living and what was coming, which I was really impressed by.

I didn’t necessarily think that young people were feeling it, that it was on their mind at this moment, but it is. It’s more important to them than climate change and we are due to re-ask the question again this month, and I’m sure it’s going to be even more important to them. It was 40% of people who were saying that it was the most important issue to them at the moment and I’m sure that’s going to be closer to 50% when we ask again this month.

Jenny: Shelley, what’s that going to mean for marketing campaigns, do you think?

Shelley: I think consumers will really be looking to brands for stability and reassurance and that they can rely on their trusted brands to provide a great service or a great product. I think that reduces the perceived risk to them and increases the perceived value.

I believe that we’re seeing much more brands marketing as a result, as opposed to performance-driven marketing. The flip side is, I think this will really help brands weather the storm long term as they keep building their equity because they’re focused on that and communicating the right messaging to their audiences.

Josephine: There is that famous study, isn’t there, about going into a recession. Those brands that continue to spend on branding and marketing, they come out of the recession with obviously the most amount of growth. Then those who have cut their marketing and branding come out with far less growth from a recession. It’s one of those principles, isn’t it? It’s always a bit of a scary one, I would imagine, being in that position in an organisation to be like, “Well, we’re entering a recession. I think we should spend more on branding and marketing.”

Shelley: Particularly brand, because brand is a long game. You don’t get instant results from building your brand and you do get more instant results from performance marketing. You can see the appeal because you can say, within a set period, you’ve generated X amount of sales, or whatever marketing KPIs you might have. Whereas brands it’s investment in the long term, but ultimately the payoff over a long period of time, a couple of years for instance, or a couple of years plus, is much greater because of that trust that we’ve talked about repeatedly in this session, you’re building trust.

Jenny: We’re coming towards the end of the show now, but before we finish, I’d like to ask each of you across all brands, across all media, what is your favourite all time marketing campaign?

Shelley: For me, I absolutely love the Cadburys advert, the Dairy Milk advert with the drum-playing gorilla and the Phil Collins music. That’s just stuck in my mind. Two things – there’s definitely longevity, because that was quite a long time ago, and stickiness.

What I love when I actually read up about the advert is that they put it out at a time where they’d had quite a lot of negative brand perception, because they’d had a big product recall and they took a gamble, in a way, because they don’t even show the product in the advert. That was kind of unknown for them at the time.

Yet, as a result, I know there was some data published soon after the release of the advert that said they got something like a 10% increase in sales, but more importantly, they got a 20% increase in brand perception, which is incredible. Just by creating a sticky advert that was really well conceived and just different, I just love it. It just always sticks in my head now.

Jenny: I have to admit, I can still sing catchy songs from adverts that I knew as a child. Something that just sticks in the mind and is a bit quirky really stays with you, doesn’t it?

Josephine: I guess one that sticks with me, that I think has got lots of different elements that I admire, is the Heineken advert from a few years ago where they brought lots of strangers together to build some flat pack furniture and obviously strangers don’t know each other. They were put in the room, just get on with it. At the end they were rewarded with a Heineken beer and then have a chat to get to know each other a little bit more.

The idea behind it was bringing people who, outside of that room, probably would never have met and probably wouldn’t like each other for whatever reasons they might have. It’s very heart-warming watching the advert because they get on with the task, they achieve something together without judgment. At the end when they do start talking, the conversation just seems a little bit more open, maybe, than you were expecting, given the pre-roll where they’re talking to camera about their personal feelings.

For me, that speaks to my interest in people. That’s what I do. That’s my job, but also it’s quite hopeful. It also speaks to the brand being part of that doing good. I guess it brings us all the way back to the beginning of the podcast where Heineken’s not necessarily saying, “Drink lots of beer and we’ve got load of beer for you.” They’re saying, “Look how we can be part of something quite magical.”

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