Universities need unique stories if they’re to compete in the race for recognition, recruitment and research funding
The UK is recognised the world over for the quality of its universities.
Drivers of economic growth they develop skills, fuel innovation and together contribute some £73 billion per year to the UK economy.
But the Higher Education (HE) landscape is changing. Increases in tuition fees, alterations to funding arrangements and changes to government policy coupled with the huge amount uncertainty surrounding Brexit have left many institutions under pressure.
Universities are working hard to improve graduate outcomes, develop their research activity and increase their student intake, especially from overseas. But this year has seen a reduction in applications across the board meaning income is shrinking at a time when competition for students and top-flight academics is on the increase.
Our universities now find themselves operating in an increasingly competitive marketplace. Those at the top of the league tables and from within the ‘golden triangle,’ continue to attract the brightest and the best as well as the largest slice of research funding. While the others compete for their place their market.
In this environment how a university defines itself is key to its future success but finding a unique selling proposition (USP) can be easier said than done.
Over the last few years, the sector has embraced branding with universities developing their core brand, articulating their values and creating their visual identity with the aim of standing out.
But our recent research has revealed that most use a common language when articulating their offer. Highlighting factors such as league table positions, student experience or new buildings as their main points of difference. It now seems every university is in the ‘top ten,’ has ‘world-class facilities’ or offers a ‘great student experience.’
This means hard rational factors such as these have now become basic requirements and, with some league table ranking claims are now being officially questioned, this has big implications on how universities market themselves in the future.
Fo a university is to stand apart it needs to look deeper for the factors that truly makes it different. These may be deeply held values, historical or cultural factors or particular examples of excellence or innovation. As competition grows more intense, these softer emotional factors will begin to play a major role in positively affecting audience perceptions.
Institutions tend to focus on their core brand often rejecting sub-brands at discipline, school, department, institute or Faculty level but it’s at these levels that real differences are often found.
In order to make the most of these differences universities need to think differently and take a holistic approach to their brand.
As large and complex organisations a university engages a wide range of audiences including prospective students, staff, research partners, public bodies and the private sector. This calls for a multi-level narrative that both supports the core yet allows enough flexibility to tailor messages depending on who they are aimed at.
For example, a prospective undergraduate student wishing to study Geography would first look to the discipline and then the University. Yet a prospective research partner may look at discipline and Faculty first. By creating a framework of ownable messages at all levels universities can alter their narrative so messages focus on the priorities of each target audience.
I am not advocating the creation of a multitude of unnecessary visual identities but remember branding is not just about a visual manifestation. It’s about highlighting benefits and communicating a clear value proposition. Creating engaging and compelling stories designed to positively influence audience behaviour.
Unearthing real points of difference requires consultation. Bringing academics, professional staff and leadership together to identify where strengths, priorities and opportunities lie. This collaborative approach helps to foster a sense of ownership so that, once messages are honed and agreed, everyone understands how and when to use them.
This approach is not without its challenges as large organisations do tend to work in silos. But when a community of highly skilled and knowledgeable people operate in and open and collegiate atmosphere great things happen. And, after all, that’s what a university is.