Open University and Channel 4 join forces to 'inject colour and passion' into the education sector

The Open University (OU) and Channel 4, two institutions with a social mission at their core, are partnering in an extensive six month campaign that aims to show further education is not a privilege for the few but accessible to the masses.

The campaign includes a series of 30-second spots that will air during Channel 4’s primetime shows, including the Last Leg and Crystal Maze, until November this year.

The spots, created by content agency The Outfit, follow the accounts of three OU students. They have been filmed in a ‘fixed rig style’ typical to Channel 4 shows including Gogglebox and 24 Hours in A&E, a style that “captures the real people”, said Ella Hall, head of acquisition and brand at OU.

“That is what TV is about these days: capturing the reality of things,” she added.

One student proclaims “I’m not meant to be here”, a statement which evokes the often inaccessible, unadaptable and elitist nature of higher education.

This is immediately juxtaposed with the mission of OU, which provides a flexible degree plan that allows people from all backgrounds to study and work at the same time - dubbed ‘earn and learn’ - while providing a lower point of entry than most higher education institutions.

This theme of “empowering people through education” is a thread that has remained constant in the university’s marketing communications through the years, with 2015’s ‘Life-changing learning’ ad showing different characters from parents to young students earning a degree, and 2016’s ‘Dream to succeed’ which traces the real story of Victoria who studied a degree in physics and space and proved her critics wrong.

“'Dream to succeed' was about realising the mission that Harold Wilson had when he set up the Open University in the 1960s, which was about empowering people through education,” said Hall.

Where Hall believes this year’s campaign stands out is through its authentic, passionate portrayal of real-life OU students and their journey through education.

“We believe this makes us more personal – we are moving towards becoming a much more personalised environment,” she said.

The mission of OU to make education more accessible to a wider pool of people “marries perfectly” with the social mission of Channel 4, which as a public service broadcaster has a remit to champion diversity in the industry.

As such, the partnership between the two brands extends well beyond a series of TV spots. For the first time, Channel 4’s 'falling blocks' sting will be changed to OU colours. Channel 4 talent will also be supporting the campaign on social media.

This integration of design and talent, as well as the similar visual style of the video spots to Channel 4 programming, means the partnership looks “more like an editorial communication” than a marketing communication, believes Hall.

“To us in media we all know that it is a media partnership and therefore that a financial transaction that has gone on," said Hall. "However the consumer, because we are using the falling blocks and a very similar visual styles, and using the production unit who are part of the Channel 4 portfolio.... hopefully they will feel it is integrated into the channel," she said.

While Hall affirmed that the commercial partnership complies to advertising standards of signposting paid-for content, she believes that there is a difference between the OU and a consumer product brand, such that it “supersedes” the editorial/commercial divide in many ways “because you can’t lie about the educational journey”.

“It has been created to give that feel so people can engage with the content and hear what the students are saying without feeling they are being sold to, because they are not,” she said. “It’s a really nice way of marrying up two original missions in one piece of content.”

The 30-second spots will be broken down into 10-second spots to run on social media and extend to 60-second spots on the Channel 4 website. The initial campaign will deliver an estimated 100m plus impacts over a 14 week period, according to ratings.

As part of the partnership, the two brands will be conducting research to track the success of the campaign, how the metrics shift, and how viewers perceive the brand.

As well as the creation of ad content, a joint panel event will take place later in the year.

The collaboration represents “much more than an advertising campaign”, says Hall, who believes it will “shake up the education sector’s approach to marketing”. Hall, who has a background in online gaming, said the sector needs some "passion and colour" injected into it.

“When we talk about shaking up the education sector it is really around using vibrancy and passion and emotion, those are things if you look at historical education sector comms that is missing. Our strategy is student first, it puts the consumer at the heart of the journey. We couldn’t let those concepts live in the very dry, traditional way of advertising,” said Hall.

“There was a need for the category to move forward. From a commercial point of view, people are putting down their hard earned money so it is up to us to tell them what it was about – to sell the emotional and passionate angle.”

Hall believes that the industry has become too focused on immediate ROI and the “silver bullet of direct response” over the last few years, often at the sacrifice of brand. This latest campaign is a response to OU reviewing its brand stock with the help of Mediacom, to find that the more it talks about what the brand represents, the more brand affinity its marketing will drive.

“We aren’t a Coca-Cola, education is an commitment in the same way a family car is,” she said. “Channel 4 have got the metal to help us deliver that - the credibility, the social mission and the broadcast quality.”

Jessica Goodfellow

The Drum's media reporter covering everything from publishing, TV, social media, radio and technology.

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