Beyond taglines

The utilisation of commercial marketing strategies and tools within HE is nothing new. Most universities now have documented 'brand strategies'. But the evidence indicates that universities still struggle to 'own' truly distinctive positions*.

Added by Tricia Scott, March 2011.

"Being different is at the heart of everything we've done for almost 30 years"

- Jack Trout, 2001 marketing guru and author of ‘Differentiate Or Die’

In the commercial sector, the need for distinctiveness and differentiation is a given. But the HE sector has only recently started to move towards a market economy, and therefore the need for the kind of systematic, strategic marketing approaches that are common in commercial organisations present something of a culture shift for many of the leaders of HE.

But times are changing. When students (and their parents) are investing over £30,000 in their HE experience it is inevitable that they will be more discerning in their choice of institution. And so each institution will need to make a much more clearly defined case for why it should be the prospective student's choice.

However, whilst the ability to engage and effectively communicate with stakeholders is becoming ever more critical, the nature of the HE sector is such that many of the pressures tend to conformity: statutory requirements, standards, comparability, the emphasis on one dimension (research). Making your institution stand out from the rest isn't easy.

Mind the gap: marketing vs reality

The truth is that many universities do have a distinctive identity – you can tell the difference once you’re there. Many institutions rely heavily on students' experiences at Open Days, to allow students to "feel the fit". But the claims made on university websites can come across as very generic, so if prospective students choose which Open Days to attend based on online research, there are many institutions which may not make it past the first sift.

Attempts to reach out and communicate to school students also risk being ineffective if the messages being delivered simply mirror the 'key messages' to be found in the websites and publications. Every institution speaks of the quality or excellence of its research, teaching and student experience. Some describe themselves as distinctive, but also make claims that could be found in many other universities' websites and printed materials; the result is generic-sounding, promotional statements.

Worse still, if these marketing communications are aspirational and not supported internally, unsurprisingly, students feel misled and frustrated, and the reputation of the institution suffers.

Time for a fresh approach?

The trouble is that, in the past, most university branding efforts have been focussed on external brand-building solutions, such as logo and marketing collateral redesigns. These "product brand" approaches will only ever offer short-term benefits if they are not first underpinned by a robust, sustainable strategy.

When universities limit their identity to solutions like advertising, they reinforce concerns about branding. Inevitably, faculties, along with other constituents, think that branding is just another marketing exercise. As such, they fail to see its relevance and fail to support it.

Successful organisations, on the other hand, embrace an "inside-out" approach to develop distinctive strategies, based on a set of core values and beliefs that connect the entire organisation (Hatch and Schultz, 2008).

A culture shift for HE

The challenge now is for universities to move beyond marketing rhetoric and develop distinctiveness strategies which encapsulate the core 'truth' of the institution. Only in this way will marketing communications resonate with internal and external audiences as authentic.

We have already touched on the need to better understand both the values and expectations of potential students and their parents, and how this influences their choice of university. But in the changing HE funding environment, the second paradigm shift required is a recognition that this is not just about student recruitment. Universities also need to present a more cogent argument to potential partners about why they might want to engage with that particular institution - rather than any one of the many others seeking their attention.  

HEFCE set up the funding for this project in 2009. Given what has happened since then, it now looks remarkably prescient. Now in 2011 there is no doubt that this is the time to think carefully about what it means to be distinctive in HE.

*2011 Survey of Heads of UK HEIs, PA Consulting

Hatch and Schultz, 2008 - Taking Brand Initiative: How Corporations Can Align. Strategy, Culture and Identity through Corporate Branding.

Topics: The case for change.