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Archive page of articles originally posted on Posterous.

Distinct events

Added by Anna Myers, Former Communications and Project Manager, 15 October 2012

While Distinct has come to a formal end, we continue to share the project findings through a variety of ways.

Events featuring the Distinct project

We share the Distinct Framework with the higher education sector by presenting at external conferences as and when opportunities arise. For example, we are presenting a session at the NSA conference on 16th October 2012 which, whilst not connected to the Distinct project, may draw an audience who would be interested in our work.

If you would like to invite the Distinct project to speak at a higher education event, please email:

Bespoke support: developing distinctiveness for your institution

The Distinct project has developed The Distinct Framework for senior professionals in the sector, to support them in understanding how distinctiveness can be achieved in their institutions. This provides further guidance on:

  • Exactly how it works within an institution
  • What stage a university might already be at within it, and
  • Whether they are ready to pursue the journey required to achieve distinctiveness for their institution

There are Distinct Framework workshops available. These half day seminars enable senior professionals from within an institution to come together to learn more about the framework, and spend time together to consider their institution's strategic direction as a whole.

The Distinct Framework workshops will take place over the next 18 months. To register expressions of interest for your institution, please email:

Shared learning

The Distinct Framework will also be included in the Top Management Programme in the future, and the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education are working with us to consider how else the learning from the Distinct project might be incorporated into their programmes.

Collection of resources

Attendees of the conference will already have received their own Distinct book - containing a comprehensive summary of "The Distinct Framework", along with case studies and project findings. To request a complimentary copy for yourself or a colleague, please email

The Distinct website

Live for another 18 months, this provides further information on all of the above. Along with resources and case studies, the website hosts a short two-minute video about distinctiveness, ideal for starting conversations with colleagues, at


Added by Anna Myers, Communications and Project Manager, 13 June 2012

It's now the day after our sell-out 2012 CASE/Distinct conference. As the dust settles and we try to assimilate the insights gained on the day, it's interesting to reflect on how during the afternoon sessions - where we heard from a diverse range of speakers from Wally Olins to John Rhys of Brains Brewery - there was a common theme: that of selecting and committing to a core idea with longevity.

Wally Olins, Chairman of Saffron Brand Consultants (and not to mention the world's leading practitioner of branding and identity, according to The FT), warned us from the off that his presentation was peppered throughout out with one particularly obscene word: branding. Wally put forward that brand was really just another way of describing the need to belong - and that this need to belong, and to project our belonging visually, is visceral. Whatever you choose to call it, it is, and has, been there for all of human history.

We heard next about a key ingredient for committing to an idea and direction for a significant period of time - leadership. For some of the audience, Sir Nick Montagu, Chair of the Committee of University Chairs, invited a fascinating and candid discussion of what it was to be a leader. For others, three senior professionals from Loughborough - Ian Cairns, Director of Marketing and Communications, Ron Gray, Director of Development and Alumni Relations, and Fidelma Hannah, Director of Planning - shared their experience of supporting and working with an inspirational Vice-Chancellor - Professor Shirley Pearce.

An excellent example of building a brand from a core idea was given when we heard from John Rhys, Chairman of Brains Brewery. John described the process Brains had taken in searching out an idea behind the brand, and how this led them down the path of tying themselves into the overarching 'brand' of Wales. Brains tapped into an increasing national sense of optimism and positivity, carving out their distinctiveness and owning an identity in the market so strongly that others could not replicate their identity (and therefore dilute their distinctiveness).

A panel discussion followed, with Sue Kershaw of the University of Bradford pointing out that while many might not see the relevance of a brewery to HE, it was interesting that the process Bradford has recently undertaken to understand how they are perceived echoed that of Brains.

Finally, to close the day, Susie Baker, Richard Gillingwater and I shared the practical tools behind The Distinct Framework that the Distinct project has prepared to support universities in implementing the insights from today's speakers at a practical level within an institution. These are available to all at

Thank you to everyone who attended - your presence and your questions added to what was an insightful day, thanks to our excellent speakers. For those unable to join us, we'll shortly be posting presentations from our speakers, along with contact details to request a copy of the Distinct publication.

Presentation slides:

Download the presentation slides from the day from the Distinct Events area.

Cascade and align

Added by Jennifer Gunthardt, Digital Media Officer, 12 June 2012

After a short break for tea, we heard from Professor John Vinney, Vice-Chancellor Bournemouth University, Simon Donoghue, Lead Consultant SUMS, and Richard Taylor, Director of Corporate Affairs and Planning University of Leicester on the process of implementation.

Implementation: Guiding your internal decisions

Simon Donoghue emphasised the need to first be clear as to why change is needed before talking about specific changes: stressing the importance of securing the buy-in of leaders within the organisation. We heard a strong case from Simon for the use of roadmaps as a clear and concise way of communicating internally both the main threads of a strategy along with specific initiatives.

Richard Taylor highlighted the need to move beyond one-dimensional assertions and instead develop complete narratives around distinctiveness. Emphasising that if you try to be 'all things to all people', your message simply won't stand out from amongst a plethora of similar communications. Equally, if you stake out a clear position, it is important to ensure that you can prove your proposition has deep roots within the organisation. Ensuring that it is integrated throughout the institution: for example, within teaching and learning strategies. In addition, it is vital that institutions help students articulate that they do in fact have the skills their HEI is purporting to equip it's students with; truly enabling them to act as advocates. Only in taking this approach, Richard argued, will a proposition become about more than a strapline or specific campaign.

Afternoon sessions:

After lunch we will hear from Wally Olins, Chairman Saffron Brand Consultants, on: Communicating your distinctiveness.

There will then be a breakout session on: Leadership, split into two groups:

  • Management Team: view from the top - chaired by Professor Mark Clearly, Vice-Chancellor, University of Bradford with Sir Nick Montagu, Chair of the Committee of University Chairs; and
  • Senior professionals supporting leadership - chaired by Ewart Wooldridge, Chief Executive Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, with presentations by Ian Cairns, Director of Marketing and Communications, Loughborough University, Ron Gray, Director of Development and Alumni Relations, Loughborough University, and Fidelma Hannah, Director of Planning also from Loughborough University.

In the final afternoon session we tackle: Putting it all into practice. Where we'll draw on experiences from both beyond the sector with a presentation by John Rhys, Chairman of Brains Brewery and Managing Partner at Heavenly Group, and through a panel discussion exploring experiences from within the sector. On the panel: Professor Graham Henderson, Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive Teesside University, Richard Taylor, Director of Corporate Affairs and Planning University of Leicester, Sue Kershaw, Deputy Vice-Chancellor Bournemouth University, David Willey, Deputy Vice-Chancellor Bournemouth University.

There will also be an optional session to round off the day at 4 o'clock: The Distinct workshop for your institution. Led by Susannah Baker, Communications Director Oxford Brookes University, Richard Gillingwater, Managing Director Accrue Brand Value, and Anna Myers, Communications and Project Manager The Distinct Project.

Presentation slides:

Download the presentation slides from the day from the Distinct Events area.

Distinctiveness in HE Conference 2012

Added by Jennifer Gunthardt, Digital Media Officer, 12 June 2012

Today is the day of our much anticipated Distinct 2012 conference, where we are sharing the results of our research in the sector addressing the need for distinctiveness between institutions.

To keep track on the day as it unfolds, and for links to relevant resources, please do visit our conference newsfeed at The Twitter hashtag we are using for the conference is #distinct12.

Opening plenary: The case for change

Professor Janet Beer, Vice-Chancellor Oxford Brookes University, opened the conference by asserting that students are in fact so much more than simple 'customers'; rather they are 'co-creators'. Highlighting the need to move beyond rhetoric, and ensure that the promises we make match the actual experiences of students with the aim of ensuring that students make the choice that suits them best as this, ultimately, is what leads to success on all sides.

Dr Anne Gwinnett, Director of Corporate Affairs at Brookes, then went on to describe what we mean when we use the word 'distinctiveness'. Making the point that it is not about being unique; it is about being identifiable. And critical to this is finding an expression of distinctiveness that works not only externally but also internally.

Sussanah Baker, Communications Director at Brookes then introduced attendees to the 'Distinct Framework' - a tool for structuring thinking on this iterative process. (NB: This resource will be available very shortly via To receive updates as new resources are released, sign up here.)

Establishing your distinctiveness

During this session Professor Graham Henderson, Vice-Chancellor Teesside University, and Professor Sir Robert Burgess, Vice-Chancellor University of Leicester, led us through the journeys that each of their organisations had made in establishing their distinctiveness.

Professor Henderson talked us through how Teesside have created distinctiveness by listening and responding to the needs of their region in a timely manner. Something he described as 'responsive repositioning'. When asked by an attendee how in practice you get everyone on board and get everyone to 'point in the right direction' - especially on something like engaging with business - Professor Henderson said it all started with HR and the recruitment process: the key is to attract people empathetic to the vision. With all messaging - internal and external - united in describing the ethos of the organisation.

Professor Sir Robert Burgess shared with us the story behind Leicester's decision to describe their academic culture as 'Elite without being elitist'. Initially starting with the questions "What kind of university are we, what does the university stand for?" - to which the reply often came back 'well, we're a friendly university' - and how he, and his team, explored this further using various methods, to find the substance behind this intangible, albeit strongly shared, feeling. Professor Burgess then described how this ethos is now explicitly embodied in everything from strategic decision-making at senior management level to the physical space the university inhabits.

Coming up after the morning break: Implementation - guiding your internal decisions.

Presentation slides:

Download the presentation slides from the day from the Distinct Events area.

Establishing your distinctiveness

Added by Jenifer Gunthardt, Digital Media Officer, 16 May 2012

The art of being distinctive requires strategy, market research and positioning - it is not just a final phase of communications. In our latest briefing note, Louise Simpson of The Knowledge Partnership considers the advantages for those universities which have a truly unique proposition and discusses other keys to effective distinctiveness.

To read the full article, visit:

Using distinctiveness to achieve your strategic goals

Added by Jennifer Gunthardt, Digital Media Officer, 3 May 2012

It's now just six weeks until our end of project conference, on 12 June 2012, focussing on using distinctiveness to achieve your strategic goals and in this fortnight's e-bulletin we turn our focus to the second topic on the programme: 'establishing your distinctiveness'. Discover the three essential criteria on which a distinctive attribute must be assessed in our latest e-bulletin.

To have the Distinct e-bulletin delivered to your inbox, sign up today.

View past copies in the Distinct e-bulletin archive.

Countdown to distinctiveness

Added by Jennifer Gunthardt, Digital Media Officer, 26 April 2012

There are only 8 weeks left until our end-of-project conference on 12 June, focussing on using distinctiveness to achieve your strategic goals.

To whet your appetite during the run up, we're offering fortnightly resource highlights, grouped by the conference themes. The first issue in our e-bulletin mini-series: Countdown to distinctiveness is now available to download here.

To have the Distinct e-bulletin delivered to your inbox, sign up today.

View past copies in the Distinct e-bulletin archive.

League tables and distinctiveness

Added by Helen Carasso, Researcher, 15 March 2012

Love them or hate them, it would be unrealistic to deny the influence that league tables have on our sector; regardless of any technical criticisms of their methodology, we all look at them from time to time. What's more important is that we know many of our key external audiences consult them, perhaps because they don't know very much about the full range of a university's scope and activities. Furthermore, we can be sure Vice-Chancellors read them, even if they do it discreetly! Hence the many examples of one of the strategic objectives for an institution being set in terms of achieving a particular ranking in one of the major league tables.

It's not that there's anything wrong with members of the sector being accountable through quantitative measures like those used in these tables; but the problem is that the criteria they use are based on a particular type of institution. To be successful in their rankings, a university will follow a very traditional pattern that is research-intensive and highly academically selective of its students - it is also less likely to be a specialist institution. So, the most commonly-consulted comparisons of universities inadvertently serve to discourage distinctiveness.

But we know that the sector offers much more than just this single model of institution and, as we aim to reach a wider group of people through our courses and services, other types of university or college are meeting their needs. At the same time, there is an increasing political expectation that institutions will compete for students, research funding and other contracts, something which can be done most effectively by establishing a clear and distinct position.

So, it seems to me that the Distinct project has come at the right time to encourage those making key decisions within higher education to identify what makes their institution different and special, and to offer practical advice on ways to make the most of those characteristics.

Helen joined the Distinct team as researcher and writer in February 2012. She draws on her substantial experience in communications - including in senior roles at the Universities of Brighton and then Oxford - and her recently-completed doctoral study of higher education policy and management, to contribute to the development of resources for Distinct.

Conversations with Vice-Chancellors

Added by Anna Myers, Communications Manager, 22 February 2012

On a drizzly day in Leeds not long ago, I found myself in an arts centre with a colleague, a film production company, and a Vice-Chancellor. I was there to observe the filming of one of our case studies - that of Teesside University, and so the VC that I had the pleasure of meeting was Prof Graham Henderson. (I know, Teesside isn't in Leeds. But that's due to a story that is not as interesting as this one.)

Distinct has written case studies about HE institutions, and non-HE organisations. Of our five HE institutions - City, Leicester, Loughborough, Teesside and Warwick - we are now adding to the written pieces by commissioning three short videos. We'll be filming at Leicester and Loughborough in the next couple of weeks, and these three videos will be ready in a couple of months.

What the case studies offer is an insight into how some of the more conceptual elements of distinctiveness can actually happen in an institution. And what the videos offer is an anecdotal view of what it was like to go through at the time. It was a privilege to hear Graham talking so persuasively about what Teeside stands for. I hope you'll enjoy all three when they're published.

For an alert when this content goes live, sign up to our e-bulletin. Subscription is free, only takes a minute and gives you access to a broad selection of practical briefing notes, presentations, interviews and case studies.

Successes and challenges, past and future...

Added by Anne Gwinnett, Chair of Distinct steering group, 14 February 2012

As Spring approaches it is a good time to take stock, celebrate, and ponder the challenges ahead. With that in mind, I've given some thought to what successes we've had and challenges we've faced at Distinct so far, and what's coming up in 2012.

Our research is now well on the way to completion. Our case studies of both HE institutions and organisations outside the HE sector are on track for publication in early 2012. Outputs from our research on communications and stakeholder engagement with the three partner institutions (Oxford Brookes, Bournemouth and Bradford) will be ready soon after, and our research on leadership, and the work that we are doing to create more bespoke tools for the sector, will continue over the next few months.

We've engaged in debate around distinctiveness across the sector, and this has been both positive and a cause for reflection. Our session at CASE's annual conference was very well attended, and provoked a lot of interesting debate about the nature of distinctiveness, and the challenges of arriving at a distinctive identity within a crowded sector. The questions and comments since, through blog discussions and articles published, have shown that there is further debate needed around what 'brand' and 'marketing' do and don't mean. We welcome this at Distinct; we recognise that for some in HE these concepts can represent an unwelcome marketisation or commercialisation of the sector. In our view, in the increasingly challenging HE context, HEIs ignore these concepts at their peril: in these times of increasing competition, we believe that utilising these concepts effectively is essential for an institution's survival.

As Professor Sir David Watson pointed out in his presidential address at the SRHE conference in December, universities are being asked to be more business-like. That said, we don't want to lose the characteristics that constitute academic institutions' strengths, and we believe that the culture of collegiality, with all the benefits that this brings, can exist alongside a more managerial approach - and that it is possible to have the best of both worlds.

In our session at SRHE we focused on the nature of distinctiveness. Being distinctive is not about being unique, it is about being identifiable. It is about the combination of characteristics that enables people to readily identify what you stand for and what makes your institution one with which they want to associate. We reflected on the fact that a critical success factor is finding an expression of identity that works both internally and externally - one that communicates the nature of the organisation well and encourages a sense of pride in being associated with it; and of course we talked about what might be seen as essential elements of a successful distinctiveness strategy.

In 2012, we're looking forward to further opportunities to engage in debate on these topics. In March we will be hosting a plenary at the CIM HE annual conference, focused on a debate around how distinctiveness can really work in an institution. On 12 June, as the project approaches its formal end point, we will be hosting a high profile conference, jointly with CASE. We will also be publishing our final resources for the sector.

We hope you will be able to join us at one or more of our events, and we look forward to working with you in 2012.

To sign up to Distinct's e-bulletin, in order to receive further information on the project and its conference, please visit or email

Save the date - Distinct conference

Added by Anna Myers, Communications Manager, 7 February 2012

Save the date - 12 June 2012 - London

The Distinct project and CASE are jointly hosting a senior level conference to share research outcomes and resources on distinctiveness.

Inspiring speakers from both within and beyond the sector will be announced shortly, as will registration details. For now, please make a note of the date - we hope you will be able to join us.

To sign up to Distinct's e-bulletin, in order to receive further information on the project and its conference, please visit or email

Marketing effectiveness

Added by Anna Myers, Communications Manager, 20 January 2012

There have been some interesting signs recently of marketing's changing role in HE. The online comment spaces on published articles on marketing and brand have been more balanced; those looking for interesting marketing roles in the UK have been tipped to look for opportunities in the HE sector in the coming years. It's early days, but I hope that these are signs of better things to come - such as a better understanding of what an institution has to offer, who its competitors are, and how it can best respond to the changing environment all universities are now operating in.

There are plenty of opportunities in this changing environment. University marketing is likely to be better received by internal stakeholders if you can prove return on investment, as lots of institutions I've spoken to have already proved. And the more you prove ROI, the better and more genuine your marketing will be. Interestingly, a recent piece in the Guardian on marketing effectiveness highlighted the importance of working hard on " alignment with the corporate strategy." That's an area I'd particularly like to see produce results over the next few years; collaborative working between Strategic Planning and Marketing departments, which will enable universities to holistically establish and communicate their distinctive identity.

See also:

Is it worth going to university?

Added by Anna Myers, Communications Manager, 7 December 2011

This week an interesting blog post has proposed that it is probably no longer worth going to university, and that much can be learnt instead from Youtube and Google - and in a far more tailored, cheap, and flexible way.

While there is clearly plenty that you can't learn from Youtube, I think this point raises something really key - that the delivery models that universities currently offer will in many cases have to be reviewed, if prospective students are to be persuaded that a degree is worth their while.

I believe that for the vast majority of prospective students, the new fees structure will mean that they give a lot more thought to whether a university degree will be worth their time and money. I'd hope that in many cases, they will still conclude that it is. But it seems probable that some will hesitate, and I believe that the more savvy institutions (who recognise that this demographic of student is in their target audience) will step up to the challenge by offering different delivery models. Distance learning, partnerships with companies for sponsored places, part-time options and compressed degrees are some of the opportunities available to institutions.

I'm looking forward to seeing what innovative solutions universities come up with, partly because I'd like to see what it would look like for them to demonstrate a commitment to the values and identity of their institution in this way. And partly because I believe this will enable as many people as possible to feel able and motivated to get a higher education qualification.


In 'The need for differentiation and distinctiveness in HE', Mike Boxall of PA Consulting puts forward a strong case for distinctiveness strategies that look to the future - not to historical legacies. New opportunities for growth beyond current horizons are mapped out in this audio-slideshow:

Competition, competition, competition...

Added by Anna Myers, Communications Manager, 25 November 2011

New on the Distinct website this week: a great new piece by Aaron Porter.

"Institutions must work with and embrace the new environment of competition if they are to survive. But just because there is more competition in the market, it doesn't follow that a simplistic 'consumer sovereignty' model is the most useful way of placing students at the heart of the system."

To read the full article, visit

Influencing conversations on positioning

Added by Anna Myers, Communications Manager, 10 November 2011

Justin Shaw, Education Practice Director at Communications Management PR, shares his views on how communication directors can persuade their senior management teams that distinctiveness strategies offer more than a superficial facelift.

Universities have, over the years, picked up on umbrella themes (such as "enterprise" or "employer engagement" or "applied learning") but these have generally been cosmetic approaches to positioning rather than all-encompassing strategic intentions.

However, in today's more competitive conditions (driven by higher fees) I've noticed that many more institutions are hotly debating the need to devote their energies to parts of their portfolio that are their true strengths, or where there is an emerging social and/or economic opportunity.

Both in my in-house university communications experience and as a consultant, I have heard repeated debates about how to make an institution stand out from the crowd, what to emphasise and whether stressing one particular aspect was a highly risky (and in internal politics, dangerous) approach. So what do communications leaders do to help this process along?

The key for me is in undertaking perceptions research with 360 degree constituencies, that both identifies the current state of play - with regard to knowledge, awareness and reputation issues - and tests out potential positioning. Having undertaken this kind of work for many universities, I've found that having this kind of evidence-base is vital for getting the attention of the Vice-Chancellor's office (and the board) and for influencing discussions on distinctiveness and future direction.

The time is right for communications directors to take the lead in driving the need for distinctiveness - and my advice is: use evidence to establish your leadership role.

Link to full article »

See also our series of practical briefing notes:

Justin Shaw is the Education Practice Director at Communications Management PR. He has worked with more than 130 education clients (including more than half of the UK's universities).

'Publics' not 'Markets'

Added by Anna Myers, Communications Manager, 27 October 2011

How to make friends and influence people is the Holy Grail not just of the business world, but increasingly, the public sector. Whether you are a charity, corporation or yes, even a university, winning hearts and minds has never been so crucial. But how can HEIs - who instinctively recognise that their constituents are 'publics,' not 'markets,' - best harness public relations tools and models?

Selecting PR techniques based on two-way communication and community-building, rather than those geared towards market-oriented advocacy, is the key. In our latest Briefing Note - by Di Burton of Cicada Communications - learn how advanced constituent analysis can act a basis for developing appropriate and effective communication models of your own:

Briefing note: Developing strong communication models -

Di Burton has for the past 14 years been directing the MA in Public Communication programme for the Government Communication Network at Leeds Trinity University College and as Managing Director of Cicada Communications, advises at board level on leadership issues and stakeholder management for a range of blue chip organisations.

When influencing and collaborative working go hand in hand

Added by Anna Myers, Communications Manager, 19 October 2011

Note to the audience - I'm writing this with Marketing and Communications professionals out there in mind. That's not to say that people in other roles aren't welcome to read this too!

On Monday I attended an excellent Strategy Master class, run by the Higher Education group of the Chartered Institute of Marketing. I went there with the challenges of my previous blog post very much in mind; the problems that can arise when talking about marketing and branding within the sector. Some key lessons emerged for me from the expertise in the room, which I think partly answer my questions on how to get around any prejudice against marketing in the sector. Get (and keep engaged) your senior buy-in, and be proactive in your working relationships to achieve your organisations' goals.

First up, we learnt about the impressive VC awards at the University of Hertfordshire. Amongst other things, this showed a great way of embedding values and a distinctive identity - the awards are for employees' achievements in line with the institution's goals. What was most important for me, though, was the involvement of leadership; there is a PVC who takes the ownership of the awards very seriously, and the commitment of the VC to write personal letters to all nominees is clearly a key part of the recognition that this programme prioritises. Engaging leadership with this process is, I would guess, non-negotiable for its success.

The University of Leicester's work to implement a new CRM system also impressed me. On the face of it, it's not a particularly rock 'n' roll subject; but I've heard from so many people who are frustrated by not being able to get this working in their institution, that I know it is relatively rare (but very valuable) to get this right. I asked what the secret was, and was told that in addition to a central marketing function, what influenced buy-in to get this new system was the team's ability to prove that they could do CRM activity better and easier than what was happening before. It seems that it pays to proactively demonstrate what you can deliver to support others - and influence the change you want to see in your institution.

Lastly, I heard from one speaker who outlined their experience of creating award-winning university strategies. Her advice to those in the room who had a new Corporate Plan coming up in their institution was really interesting to me: "get in touch with your planners and offer to proof-read early drafts." This enables marketing and communications professionals to share their expertise early, support their colleagues in other functions, and build important bridges.

Often, when thinking about influencing, I worry that it's a topic that crosses over into the dark side of how we interact in the organisations we work in. But from the cases above, it seems to me that it is entirely possible to have a vision for your institution, demonstrate that coherently to get the buy-in you need, and do all of this in a way that collaborates with your colleagues efficiently, influences others appropriately, and ultimately enables you to deliver more for your institution.

Allegories, language and truth

Added by Anna Myers, Communications Manager, 14 October 2011

I've been reflecting recently on the allegories and language that do and don't work for HE. There seem to be words and comparisons that produce a negative response for people in HE - enough to negate any value that allegories and language might have in conveying a message, which is the point, after all.

At the Distinct project I've always been cautious about using the b-word and the m-word. Branding and marketing in their 'pure forms' are a big part of what distinctiveness is all about - an institution's identity, its values and priorities, and demonstrating these in a coherent way. But common misconceptions about branding and marketing, such as assumptions that distinctiveness might then just be about a logo change, a nice tagline, or some work on the prospectus, mean that they are two words that are not always helpful vehicles for the complex messages that the project has to share with the sector.

I'm also aware that the power of allegories is directly affected by the perceptions of the sector. As someone commented in the Guardian on line debate recently ('Should HE regard students as consumers?'),

"One potential problem is where higher education draws its marketing expertise from. Often we look outwards towards sectors that have customers, and then we try and work that into universities with metaphors and analogies (like the shop ones)."

This interests me, because I believe there are some key lessons for being part of a successful and distinctive organisation that are common to all sectors. And if the lessons from business or retail, regardless of how strong they are, do not always hold weight in the sector, I want to find out what does.

I'm attending a CIM strategy master class on Monday, with speakers from institutions who were winners in this year's HEIST awards, and I'm keen to find out their views on language and lessons that work at their institutions. As ever, comments on this post to or to our twitter home (@Distinct_in_HE) very welcome.

Perception is reality

Added by Tricia Scott, Research Analyst, 29 September 2011

A key tenet for anyone seeking to understand their institution is that other people's views matter - 'perception is reality'. People who don't know an institution well, but who may be making decisions about whether they want to engage with it, will act on their perceptions of what it is. No matter how 'wrong' their perceptions may be, their actions will reflect those perceptions.

In our latest briefing note: Understanding your institution - we round up qualitative tools and techniques to help you develop a broader and deeper perspective on your HEI.

Many of these tools are not only useful for eliciting information, but also for communicating information to other stakeholders in your organisation.

You can download this free resource from

Reframing the HE sector

Added by Anna Myers, Communications Manager, 19 September 2011

HEPI's independent review of the HE White Paper, published 18 August 2011, expresses concerns about the new fees regime and the government's bid to "marketise" the higher education system. Is there a risk that the new HE 'market' will threaten the viability of some institutions simply because they misjudge how to 'play' the new game? Amidst this uncertainty, many universities are now questioning how they can stand out and make their offerings more distinctive.

In our latest audio thought piece you can hear from Alison Johns, Head of Leadership, Governance and Management at HEFCE, as she shares her thoughts on the White Paper and argues for HEIs not only to listen sincerely to their stakeholders, but also to reframe ideas about distinctiveness at a university.

Distinct at CASE Europe Annual Conference 2011

Added by Tricia Scott, Research Analyst, 5 September 2011

The Distinct project had a great reception at CASE on Thursday (1 September). Scheduled on the last day of this four-day conference, in the 9 o'clock slot, the Developing and Communicating Distinctiveness seminar attracted an audience of around hundred participants. All of who joined in enthusiastically with the warm-up exercises. Looking at their responses to what makes them distinctive as individuals and as institutions, there was some commonality - experiences make both people and organisations into the entities that they become.

In spite of forgetting to take my watch to the lectern, I managed to finish with just under 10 minutes to spare for questions and it was good to hear that the presentation had got people thinking about their own distinctiveness.

I was having a bit of difficulty, though, in fielding THE's David Matthew's question about markets with as many providers as HE, although retail and drinks would both seem to fit the bill, reaching for a consumer goods analogy may not be the most helpful way of framing the issue. Whilst it is true that with institutions seeking to offer better quality services for lower levels of public investment, those working in HE today are increasingly looking beyond the sector towards commercial business models, the 'transaction' in HE is actually a mutual investment, not simply an exchange of money for services.

In retail/FMCG markets, the weak get weeded out, leaving a small number of dominant brands. Should we see that as a forecast for the HE sector? I suspect not.

Thanks again to everyone that attended the session for making it such a lively and thought provoking morning for the team. Just a reminder of what I said at the conference - if you have an event that you would like a representative from the Distinct project to speak at, please do get in touch.

What your job ads say about you

Added by Tricia Scott, Research Analyst, 25 August 2011

Travelling down to one of our project partners the other day, I took some copies of the THE to catch up on my reading. Having started at the back with the Poppletonian, I flicked through the pages of adverts and something interesting struck me. There was something missing in the job ads.

Over a career of more than 20 years I have looked at many job adverts and I don't think I have ever seen such a lack of information about the employers advertising their vacancies. It's common to see an opening paragraph that sets out what kind of employer the company is or aspires to be, and what it sees as its purpose and role in the world. Among these job ads for HE positions, I could count on the fingers of one hand those that took this approach.

Is it because HEIs don't have a concise, compelling description of themselves that they could use in this situation? Or because they assume that everyone who might apply either knows or will find out what kind of employer they are? Or do they think that potential candidates don't care what type of institution they might be joining? Maybe it's because HEIs don't recognise the importance of 'setting out their stall' in order to attract the most appropriate candidates? Perhaps this doesn't matter; but an institution would do well to be sure that it doesn't, as being clear about what you have to offer anyone at the moment, not just staff, is crucial for survival.

From organisations to institutions

Added by Tricia Scott, Research Analyst, 18 August 2011

This week we have been reflecting on the inherent differences between organisations and institutions and considering what this means.

Have you got any learning to share in this area? If you have, we would be really interested in getting in contact. Please email the project team:

Ten rules for using 'outside-in' distinctiveness strategies

Added by Anna Myers, Communications Manager, 11 August 2011

The marketisation of HE is now an inexorable and undeniable fact of life. Universities, whether they like it or not, are in competition for the business and the investment decisions of students, and other groups, as customers. This is the argument put forth by Mike Boxall, who leads PA Consulting Group's work in higher education, in the latest Distinct thought piece:

Visit: to view an audio slideshow where Mike shares ten rules for using 'outside-in' distinctiveness strategies.

Data that delivers for your institution

Added by Anna Myers, Communications Manager, 29 July 2011

At the HESA International Benchmarking conference last week, I got a bit hooked on data. Or more specifically, the benefits that a decent piece of benchmarking can do for an institution. The fact that apparently 50 UK universities claim to be in the top 20 was one of many quirky facts that showed me that the HE sector has more work to do to consistently benchmark intelligently and meaningfully.

The following are some of the key points that I took from the day.

Koen Lamberts reported that the problem with many existing rankings is that institutions with very different profiles can find themselves ranked very closely together. The ideal in selecting who to compare yourself with is not just about the rankings, but about the character of the institutions who are your closest competitors.

Prof Jeroen Huisman argued that to get value from benchmarking, it is important to establish who owns the strategic agenda for the institution. This led me to reflect that it is also essential to ask who owns the benchmarking process in your HEI. Is this done at a relatively hidden level in your institution, or is benchmarking recognised as important by key decision-makers?

Alan Jenkins spoke of how Kaplan uses the 'mystery shopper' approach to enable evidence-based discussions on service standards. This got me thinking about how that could be applied to different aspects across HEIs...

Mike Boxall gave a helpful analogy to demonstrate how collaboration and competition needn't be mutually exclusive. Take the example of airlines: they have to collaborate and yet they are fiercely competitive for customers. This reassured me that collaboration needn't be abandoned as we move towards a market economy.

For further information on the conference, you can find presentation slides here:

Is it time to panic?

Added by Anna Myers, 1 July 2011.

At the Guardian / LFHE conference on distinctiveness this week, among the many interesting topics, I picked out a theme that currently resonates for me on the issue of distinctiveness. There is a sense of dramatic change in Higher Education at the moment, and there seem to be varying perceptions of the danger we face as a sector. But while it might be time to feel how much things are changing, an emotive response is unlikely to help. It is a measured approach that will get us through, not panic - reflecting on what it is that your institution has to offer in the new HE environment, to establish and communicate a distinctive identity that makes your institution stand out and attract the students, staff and partner organisations that it needs to thrive.

There was much discussion of the threat posed by private providers; reports of venture capitalists who want to come and take the UK HEIs head-on, and the UK HE sector was described as a sitting duck. The White Paper's proposals on private providers must add to the sector's sense of new threats on the horizon. It was interesting, however, to hear from those in the room associated with private providers, who had a different take on their role in the sector.

There was also a dramatic representation of the options open to HEIs at the moment. Clearly there's a danger in doing nothing on distinctiveness: it's time to evolve and develop a strong positioning for your HEI. And yet there are inherent dangers in what this entails, in sticking your head above the parapet. Tuesday's second speaker made the case that for a distinctive positioning to work, it must be genuine, and you have to be able to back it up with some solid market research. You then need to ensure you align all internal strategies before you go public on this; your staff and students will be the first to critique the direction you've chosen.

The point for me was that a strategy of distinctiveness absolutely can work for your institution; but what will determine whether it does or not, is a measured and informed approach based on robust market research, and a vision that embodies your genuine identity. There's plenty of drama around, but I believe HEIs can and should respond without getting caught up in it.

Another perspective on identifying distinctiveness in Higher Education

Added by Tricia Scott, 27 June 2011.

Another interesting day on the Distinct project. I was running the second of the pilot distinctiveness workshops at another institution and it was quite a different experience - challenging, interesting, and very informative for the pilot process.

This time around there were several heads of academic departments in the group that convened and - unsurprisingly, really - they were keen to engage in a critical appraisal of the process. This has been really interesting and given me some food for thought: not only about how to structure the sessions and the mechanism I use to initiate debate, but also about the composition of the group. Even so, six of the eight who completed and returned an evaluation form would recommend the workshop to other institutions. If anything, there was a feeling that this group wanted to pursue some aspects in more detail and get to an action plan, not just scope out where to focus their own efforts.

So I am still confident that the tool will be of benefit to the sector - and now I have more input to tell me where it needs further development. I'm keener than ever to get more institutions to take part in the pilot! To find out more about how your institution can get involved, email

Insights from beyond the sector

Added by Anna Myers, Communications Manager

This is a special edition longer blog post, in order to share the outcomes of a very interesting day for the Distinct project.

Yesterday the Distinct project and colleagues had the opportunity to spend a day listening to, questioning and debating the experiences of professionals from beyond the sector. Two consultants, one advising HE and one working across a range of other sectors, and one Chairman of a successful company, shared insights, theories, and examples on distinctiveness and organisational success.

In addition to the project team, the project steering group were present, and were joined by senior Communications and Business Planning colleagues from Oxford Brookes University, Bournemouth University and the University of Bradford.

The opening session was a thought-provoking presentation from PA Consulting's leading HE consultant. Enlarging on points raised in their recent reports and on the results of their latest research, he challenged us to consider that much of what universities look to compete on involves a narrow range of criteria that inevitably keeps them similar to one another: league tables based on 'archetypes' of universities, for example. He went on to open up a discussion of the extent to which universities have truly considered the market they are or might be in, and the degree of understanding that we have of our target audiences. Further details of this presentation will be made available through the Distinct website.

In the second session the managing director of a strategic marketing consultancy talked of his work with a highly complex, global technology company. The leaders of this organisation saw only the complexity of what they offered to their market and it took a neutral observer to distil the essence of their identity into something that was not only simple but truly compelling. The agency team used a brand map model to help the company to identify and communicate who they are, what they offer and their organisational personality. They worked with the company to communicate this internally and externally; to develop the cohesiveness and ambition of staff, and to reinforce customer perceptions of the value of what they do. For us in Higher Education this was an encouraging analogy for our sector; it is possible to pull a disparate structure into a cohesive identity.

In our third session, we heard from a drinks company that is continuing to grow in spite of the general trends in their sector. We heard how a new CEO had created an opportunity to reconsider their strategy and market positioning. They, too, started by conducting extensive market research which showed them both the weaknesses and the potential strengths of their brand position. Based on the research, their creative agency developed alternative identities for the organisation which they then assessed in further research. In this way they found a simple, core idea that inspired both staff and customers and which lent itself to engaging advertising and PR. The result is that they were able to dramatically turn around their reputation and sales. This reminded me of examples of distinctiveness done well in universities in England; if you hit on a strong identity and external communication idea, the campaign starts to run itself.

All of those who shared their valuable insights with the Distinct project yesterday will be providing more resources for the Distinct project very soon. Sign up to our newsletter to find out when they are available.

The day was wrapped up with our HE colleagues discussing the inspiration, challenges and questions raised by the day. Insights from that discussion will be posted here soon.

The Distinct pilot workshops begin

Added by Tricia Scott, Research Analyst.

Yesterday I ran the first pilot of a workshop approach to identifying distinctiveness. An institution I hadn't known before invited me to facilitate a session with members of their senior management team and their governing body. As I was travelling back home on the train, I was reflecting on the day and what I and the workshop participants had learnt.

Some of the things that struck me were the relationship between the institution and its home city - how the character of the place is reflected in the character of the institution; how nebulous a thing an institutional culture is, and how the inability to express it risks its disintegration as long-standing key members of staff retire; how the way in which people in an institution behave towards each other sends unspoken messages about what can be expected of the institution, and can inspire trust; how the physical configuration of the institution affects the building and maintenance of communities.

On a personal level, I learnt that in a gathering of the senior management and board of governors of an institution, one can experience a very balanced, reflective discussion. I had anticipated, perhaps, more heat and less light, and the contemplative atmosphere led me to wonder whether this process offered a sufficiently engaging approach for HEI senior management.

However, when I looked at the evaluation forms, I found overwhelming agreement that the session had been worthwhile. Interestingly, to me, the areas that participants had found particularly useful were the reflections on specific elements of their identity. I had wondered whether some of the detail of the process might generate comment, but in fact the feedback made it clear that the value was very much in the opportunity to express, discuss and reflect on views and beliefs about their own institution.

Nevertheless, this first run showed me some areas for improvement and I shall be giving the workshop protocol a few tweaks before I run the next pilot at another institution in a couple of weeks. Yesterday's response gave me confidence that, through the support of these volunteer institutions, the Distinct project is developing a tool that can be of use to the whole sector.

Organisational culture: make or break for distinctiveness in HE?

Added by Anna Myers, Communications Manager

Conversations that I've had on distinctiveness over the last couple of weeks have opened up several interesting themes, and one that stands out clearly is the role of organisational culture - and how it may control our ability to derive benefits from distinctiveness in HE.

The conversations have taken place with people operating outside the sector, but who have a large amount of experience in or with Higher Education; and they have contributed to the debate on distinctiveness both in person and through our growing Linkedin community. Both have raised points that touch on the relevance of organisational culture to distinctiveness in Higher Education.

For me, this is important because the way that a university operates means that distinctiveness must be approached in a way that will work for it; which may not necessarily be the same as the way that it has worked in the private sector. My experience of working in the private sector has often been of an organisational culture that features 'command and control'. By this I don't mean a culture of absolute power, but one where it often seems possible for management to influence others to toe the party line. This approach has been much less obvious in my experience of working in the public sector, the not-for-profit sector, and the Higher Education environment; independent people and departments challenge organisational direction on different issues in a much stronger way. I attribute this to a more vocational ethos and a more democratically managed environment away from the private sector. For distinctiveness, this might mean that the approach to agreeing a joined up distinctive identity happens quite differently to the way it happens elsewhere. It is worth giving some thought to where there is value in learning from outside the sector, and where there is value in tweaking that learning for the context that we are operating in.

This isn't the only thing to bear in mind in translating our learning for the HE context. We'll be looking at organisational culture and all other possible 'lost in translation factors' throughout the project as we tailor our resources to the Higher Education sector. What else do you think sets HE apart from other operating environments? Contact the project team at or join the Linkedin debate to share your views and help us to support the sector as effectively as possible.

What will our Vice-Chancellors and Principals tell us about distinctiveness?

Added by Anna Myers, Communications Manager

The whole of HE can benefit from an understanding of what the heads of institutions across England think about distinctiveness - and their role in bringing it about in their own institution. There appears to be some common view that it is important for institutions to be distinctive, but is that a majority view? To what extent do VCs and Principals believe their institutions have already achieved distinctiveness? And how well equipped do they feel for their role in ensuring that their institution has a distinctive identity? The Distinct project is seeking to establish a baseline of information from which to evaluate progress and results in the sector.

Professor Janet Beer, Vice-Chancellor of Oxford Brookes University, recently wrote to all VCs and Principals in England to encourage them to complete a questionnaire from the Distinct project. The questions focus on VC perceptions of the distinctiveness of their institution, and the leadership skills and behaviours required to get them there.

The results will enable the Distinct project team to have a fuller picture of distinctiveness in the sector from which to tailor future project activity. And by sharing the results with you, you'll be able to understand more about the range of VC views on distinctiveness, and benchmark your own institution against the national average.

To maximise the benefits of the questionnaire results, we need to maximise the response level. If you are a VC or Principal, please do take the few minutes required to complete the questionnaire. If you work with a VC or Principal, please give them a friendly reminder to send in their response.

The proposed deadline for responses is 31 May 2011. You'll be able to access the results on our website in June. If you require another copy of the Insights into Distinctiveness questionnaire, please email:

Thank you!

Private providers and for-profit models: an inevitable evil?

Added by Anna Myers, Communications Manager

More a catalyst for the sector to raise its game, was the sense I got from an excellent panel debate at the AUA conference in Nottingham last month.

I heard several references to the apparent certainty of the rise of the private provider in the HE sector. In particular, the pros and cons were discussed at the panel debate with insight, humour and passion for the UK HE sector. The panel were: Ann Mroz - Editor, THE; Aaron Porter - President, NUS; Ruth Amos - Managing Director and Inventor, Stairsteady Ltd; and Paul Greatrix - Registrar, University of Nottingham.

Concern was expressed from the audience at what kind of competitors private providers might prove to be; the relative agility with which they might be able to operate, and the risk of unscrupulous practices, given the precedent set across the pond.

But the debate also considered whether the current changes to HE will result in a stronger sector in five years' time. And there was a convincing argument that these changes - and by extension, the emergence of private competitors - will quite rightly stir up the sector. For those of us in not-for-profit institutions, questioning our own institution's offer, finding out what our prospective students really think of us, and having competitors who can move quickly may not be a painless process. But it will almost certainly help the HE sector to raise its game.

DNA, AUA and distinctiveness - latest resources and events

Added by Anna Myers, Communications Manager

The latest resources to join the growing Distinct toolkit look at two key parts of the journey towards distinctiveness.

Analysing your institution by survey is a handy briefing note that you can download and refer to as part of working out what makes your institution distinctive. For other tools on looking at your own distinctive identity, see the Our competencies, our culture area of Distinct's resources.

Getting under the skin of distinctiveness is a thought piece based on our interviews with executives from private sector and third sector organisations, which have told us very clearly: distinctiveness has to be in the DNA of your organisation.

And in other good news, Distinct will be showcasing its progress at the AUA Jubilee Conference, 18 - 20 April 2011. I'm looking forward to more informative discussions with colleagues from across the sector there...

The collaborative process: creating something effective and memorable

Added by Anna Myers, Communications Manager

Exploring what makes your institution strong and distinctive cannot happen without a collaborative approach to pool the institutional knowledge of your people. This is the way that the project team works too.

Drawing on not only the team's expertise but, as the project progresses, reaching out to glean and pool insight and intelligence from colleagues across and beyond the sector, we aim to bring you the 'pick of the bunch' in terms of effective and authoritative resources to equip you for the journey towards a distinctive identity.

A good example is the Mission Statement Shuffle resource. After researching how HEIs position themselves with their mission statements, Tricia created an activity that influences and tells you about your market. With Anna and Jennifer's communications expertise, this became a well-received tool for the sector.

Sharing good practice and lessons learnt across the sector will be central to the value of this project. We stay in contact with our audience as much as possible and want you to keep challenging us. Let us know how we can better provide what you need.

Reflecting on distinctiveness and partnership working: complementary?

Added by Tricia Scott, Research Analyst

Back at the desks, following the LFHE conference, we reflected on the challenges of establishing a distinctive identity in an environment of partnership working; or even of merging institutions.

In the commercial sector, mergers tend to be about complementary product or service offerings. Mergers can cause significant problems, though, if there is a mismatch in cultures (the Morrisons/Safeway merger came to mind). Partnership - forging a less permanent connection - also involves finding an organisation to complement and reflect well on one's own offering (the hotel chain Malmaison's brand partners are a good example of this).

The secret to getting the right partner is to ensure that you have a thorough understanding of both your own organisation and that 'significant other'. As in other aspects of life, shared beliefs and values are the best basis for a lasting relationship.

Preparing today's leaders for tomorrow's challenges

Added by Anna Myers, Communications Manager

Yesterday, it was the insight into the experiences of our HE colleagues that really inspired me.

Those present at LFHE's annual conference on Leading Transformational Change shared their reflections on the current challenges and opportunities that distinctiveness offers for HEIs. It was certainly an inspirational and thought-provoking day. It was also an opportunity to share with peers what we've learnt so far in our interviews with leaders of distinctive organisations from other sectors.

During a workshop session on distinctiveness strategies which I was helping out on, one delegate highlighted a particular challenge of creating a distinctive institutional identity; does the push for partnership working mean smaller institutions risk their own identity being overshadowed by a larger partner? A question which provoked an interesting debate on the train home. Ideas on a postcard please...

Project now closed

This project is now finished and the content on the site is provided as an archive of the research.