How KPU Advertises Itself on a Budget

Post-secondary institutions wage a marketing war to win over students, and Surrey is their battleground

Advertisements for KPU can be found in Guildford mall, on the sides of buses and at various Skytrain stations. (Braden Klassen)

KPU students who take transit to get around might notice that their university has stepped up its advertising efforts lately, with ads appearing on dozens of buses and SkyTrains across Metro Vancouver.

“We’ve never operated with a big bank account. We’ve always operated with a small bank account. What has now happened is we’ve grown. We’re no longer a small operation,” says Wayne Tebb, Dean of KPU’s School of Business.

The recent marketing push has resulted in a significant increase in the KPU brand’s presence in Metro Vancouver, but the university has its work cut out for it. It’s up against other post-secondary institutions with much larger warchests.

“What we have to do is recognize that the biggest portion of our home turf is in the most sought after territory in the country for prospective students,” says Tebb. “That means that we have to make sure we keep our brand in front of people’s faces.”

According to Tebb, Surrey is unique in Metro Vancouver and in Canada because—unlike almost every other municipality in the country—the number of students graduating from high school every year is not significantly dropping. This is a mixed blessing for the university, as it means that KPU is on the doorstep Canada’s most sought after demographic, but every other university wants to have their brand front and centre as well.

This creates a saturated marketing landscape, and it can be challenging for KPU to cut through the noise.

“This is where the population of potential students is,” says Tebb. “If we are not in the marketplace we are going to get run over, so we have to run hard given that everyone else is coming here trying to attract students.”

Other universities are making a point to place their brands in the view of KPU students. The University of Victoria ad on the bus stop on 72nd Avenue right outside of the KPU Surrey campus is no accident. Neither are the UVic ads on buses running to and from Scottsdale. Tebb says that UVic has made a strategic decision to focus their ads on KPU students, hoping to lure a few away and into UVic’s waiting arms.

A University of Victoria ad on the bus stop on 72nd Avenue right outside of the KPU Surrey campus. (Braden Klassen)

KPU is already part of a crowded marketplace for universities here in Metro Vancouver. Just a few decades ago UBC and SFU were the only public universities in the area, with the latter being the new kid on the block.

Since then, there has been an explosion of post-secondary institutions in the area, with nearly a dozen public colleges and universities such as BCIT, Capilano, Langara, and Douglas competing for students. Almost all of them have bigger advertising budgets than KPU.

The SkyTrain route in particular represents a battleground for post-secondary institutions in Metro Vancouver. It brings in potential students from north of the Fraser but also allows Surrey students the option to head into Vancouver to get an education. Meanwhile, the KPU Langley and Cloverdale campuses face competition from the University of the Fraser Valley and Trinity Western University.

“So what you’ve got is, how do you get your message across in an environment that has that many messages coming at you?” says Tebb. “Are we more visible than we were? Yes, because our actual marketing budget has actually increased believe it or not. It used to be a whole lot worse.”

KPU is at a major funding disadvantage because, as one of the newest public institutions created by the province, the university still has one of the smallest per-capita grants in B.C. While KPU has increased its advertising budget, it still includes only slightly more than one per cent of the total institutional budget. Tebb says that a reasonable and normal advertising budget should represent about two and a half to three per cent of the institution’s available funds.

The university’s advertising department knows that it needs to be strategic with its modest warchest. Its employees know that fewer people are watching television, listening to the radio, and reading newspapers than they have in the past, so only a small percentage of the budget is used on advertising through these mediums. The prime advertising real estate for KPU is on public transit.

According to Tebb, data shows that young people in Metro Vancouver are not getting drivers licences as fast as they used to, and are taking transit more. He believes that the KPU marketing department has done a great job by putting ads in locations where they’ll be visible and effective for the people who need to see them.

The university has also painstakingly negotiated discounts on their ad buys, saving at least 25 per cent, according to Tebb. It also made the cost-saving choice to focus its advertising dollars on promoting the singular KPU brand rather than specific program offerings.

“When you have a limited amount of money you can’t do a lot of specialised stuff and you can’t do a lot of stuff that makes the Music department happy or the Science department happy or the School of Business happy,” Tebb explains. “What you have to focus on is, ‘What’s the broad, general brand?’”

Another challenge for KPU comes from the ghost of its past: Kwantlen College. KPU has been a full-fledged degree-granting university since 2008 and hasn’t been a community college since 1996, but the institution is still frequently referred to as Kwantlen College by people who are not aware that KPU is a polytechnic university.

“In the minds of a great many people in our local market area, Kwantlen College did a great job of marketing. It imprinted on people’s brain so strongly,” says Tebb. “It’s almost like a backfire.”

The remedy for the Kwantlen College problem is to keep KPU’s modern brand front and centre and in the faces of Surrey residents until it’s burned into their brains, which, according to Tebb, takes “a “massive amount of horsepower.”

Despite these challenges, Tebb says that the university is making headway in becoming more and more present in the minds of Canadians and international audiences.

“Kwantlen is seen by many people around the province as a place that is going somewhere. They sense that there is something happening here,” says Tebb. “And I think we have a unique opportunity here.”