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By The Drum, Editorial

June 13, 2024 | 7 min read

Taking Design/Brand Gold at The Drum Awards for Marketing EMEA 2024 is Must Be Napier Edinburgh Napier University. Here is the award-winning case study.


As the bells rang in 2023 across Princes Street, Napier’s outlook for the year ahead wasn’t so happy:

  • The macro climate of Brexit, cost of living, population fluctuations, and the lifting of the student cap were taking their toll on applications. Both Napier and the sector as a whole were seeing undergraduate applications decline by around 10%.

  • The declining efficiency of tactical student recruitment campaigns in a ‘cookie-less’ world. Their existing methods of outperforming this decline weren’t going to work.

  • A worrying perception as a ‘safety school’. Founded as a polytechnic in 1964, and despite having been a fully-fledged university since 1993, Napier still suffered from the misconception of being a backup choice. This was reflected in the rankings and numbers of applications through clearing, as opposed to being in the top consideration set for students.

Faced with this perfect storm of pressures, it would have been easy to retrench. To seek to find efficiency at every point and eke out another year of performance in line with the declining market. But that wouldn’t be a very Napier thing to do.

Tired of being the ‘other’ university in town, determined to be first on a nation’s UCAS forms, and confident in its ability to continue to punch above its weight; Napier set out to change its brand and tell its story.

As we embarked on this task, we sought to begin a chain reaction. A marketing flywheel that did not rely purely on spend and the kind of targeted communication that is impossible in a cookie-less world:

  1. We would earn our awareness by punching above our weight. Napier is outspent at every level by ‘the big’ university and several others in the nation. We could only compete if our brand was magnetic enough to drive media value over and above investment.

  2. This awareness would drive positive sentiment towards Napier - beginning to overcome some of the perception challenges that it faced.

  3. In turn, this would drive consideration - and we knew that once we got prospective students to find out more, or even better attend an open day, we had a very good chance of an application.

  4. Ultimately, this would drive greater applications (and in turn higher awareness and perception over the long term).

Strategic Approach

Of course, all of this relied on answering a big question: just what is the story of Napier? And at first, all we knew is what it wasn’t:

It couldn’t be a story of privilege or heritage. For a start, there isn’t a quadrangle to shoot laughing students bonding over their alleged shared passion for the works of Immanuel Kant. Nor was there some historic design asset to charmingly modernise.

But what was it?

We set about conducting dozens of focus groups, analysing terabytes of accumulated data, talking to multiple audiences (parents, teachers, university staff and alumni, as well as under and post graduates) and a lot of stakeholders.

This gave us three key building blocks to work with:

  • Napier is a practical place, filled with practical people, that delivers practical outcomes. Napier graduates feel equipped to make a real impact on Scotland and the world, and Napier alumni have been out there doing just that since its inception.

  • Napier graduates have a unique combination of humility and tenacity which really sets them apart.

  • Napier delivers a great experience - consistently delivering over 80% student satisfaction - in stark contrast to many of its competitors.

All of this led to our core strategic territory. We were going to give those people who had so far been too humble to shout about their achievements a platform to do so. We would hero the immense impact that Napier and its graduates have on keeping Edinburgh, Scotland and the world moving forward.

This was a different kind of heritage. A history of impact rather than a history of naval gazing.

Creative Approach

The idea hinges on the fact that alumni are delivering the city’s babies, constructing their buildings and building their websites. The locals know Napier’s people already, the campaign served to remind them we’ve been here the whole time, quietly getting on with the job at hand.

The sheer range of courses Napier offers, and the number of accomplishments and awards they proudly proffer about their alumni made one thing very clear: Napier people are everywhere. They don’t go on about it, but they are the power of Scotland.

Wherever something good is happening. Whenever meaningful impact is being made. Must be Napier.

Our new design gave us a stand-out and highly modern way of delivering this message. Using the bold red triangle from the brand logo, and the fact that Edinburgh Napier powers most of the city, the campaign idea and design shift of ‘Must be Napier’ was born.

The triangle spotlight was used to highlight people, places, inventions and anything else Napier could lay a claim to; giving them a stage to show their remarkable actions. The mixed media approach combined bold graphic design with premium photography to create a distinctive look and feel for Napier in the HE space.

That stand-out design system was primarily delivered in digitally led media - a 30-second film with 10-second cutdowns for YouTube, bolstered by support on Napier’s owned channels including the website and TikTok, as well as out of home throughout Edinburgh and Glasgow.


Changing perceptions and performance of a University is a marathon, not a sprint, but early signs show that our flywheel is starting to spin:

Step 1: We set out to earn our awareness by punching above our weight, and we certainly achieved that. The campaign exceeded its impression target by 79% - effectively free media value. Similarly, all activity drove a CPM 45% lower than planned at £5.16. We were delivering awareness incredibly efficiently.

Step 2: This awareness would only be valuable if it drove positive sentiment towards Napier. Not only was the campaign extraordinarily well received by staff and current students (a key advocates audience), but YouTube sentiment analysis identified an absolute lift of 11.1% in brand perception vs. a benchmark of 4.3%. A separate Blis study also showed a 59% uplift in consideration to apply to Napier alongside a strong increase in affiliation between Napier and “inclusivity”, “innovation” and “practicality”.

Step 3: We also successfully translated this positive sentiment into consideration. Though this wasn’t part of the brand lift survey, we can see increased consideration through search analysis - the premise being that only those considering Napier would directly search for it. During the campaign period search traffic for Napier increased 813% YoY, reaching 4x the volume recorded for Edinburgh University.

So, our flywheel was well and truly spinning. Unfortunately, though, it is too early to assess stage 4's impact on applications as the window is not yet open. We are all aware that this can only be realised once the recruitment cycle has run its course. We are confident that, given the incredible results above, this will follow a similar trajectory, though.

So huge ambition, a massive shift, stand-out creative, and results beyond even the stretchiest goal…Must be Napier.

Ready to get your work recognized on a global stage? Enter The Drum Awards today. Need more inspiration, read our Award Winning Case Studies.

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