With UK applicant numbers set to soar, it’s becoming increasingly important for universities to identify their unique differentiators to help them stand out. And although a compelling reason to complete this exercise, it’s not just student recruitment that can benefit from identifying your differentiators — it’s your entire brand. And with a powerful brand comes improved reputation, ranking, academic recognition, funding opportunities and more.
In a past The Brand Education podcast episode, we discussed ‘discovering brand strength through specialism’ with Paul Baines, Professor of Political Marketing and Deputy Dean For Strategic Projects at The University Of Leicester. You can listen to the podcast here, or read our write-up here. You may remember when Paul said the following:
‘Branding is quite complex, what do you want to be known for? And in which areas? [. . .] You can’t be all things to all people. Some universities don’t have a medical school, some are highly specialist and operate a largely postgraduate-only model or a largely research-based model. [. . .] There’s a choice to be made about what kind of university you want to be, and that then ties in to “what do you think the role of [the] university actually is?”’
These are some thought-provoking questions that every university needs to be asking itself if it wants to maintain and drive industry recognition and relevance. But where to start?
Embracing brand strategy
Although an increasingly accepted and celebrated concept, ‘brand’ is still somewhat of a touchy subject within higher education. Maybe it commercialises education in a way that makes institutions feel uneasy, or maybe it feels too ‘fluffy’. But in actual fact, brand is simply perception — what people (particularly your target audience of students and stakeholders) think of you. And whilst other people’s perception is generally out of your hands, it is possible to influence it, and when you think about brand in these terms, it becomes more important to embrace it.
The very purpose of a brand strategy is to outline what you stand for, to help you stand out.
Let’s look beyond higher education to see how commercially-focused, product-driven brands make an impact in their industry.
Between 1997 to 2002, Apple didn’t tell the world ‘we sell computers,’ it said, ‘we think differently’.
To this day, TED doesn’t share lectures online, it shares ‘ideas worth spreading’.
And sportswear giant, Nike, isn’t on a mission to dress you in good-quality activewear, it’s on a mission to ‘bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world’.
The remarkable thing about these organisations is their ability to concisely convey what makes them different to their counterparts i.e. true innovation, commitment to knowledge-sharing, and athletic empowerment. Their value and point of differentiation lies in their approach. What makes them truly distinct is their vision, mission and values. Their offering/product/service is merely a byproduct of their drive to make a positive change.
The importance of brand vision, mission and values for universities
The importance of brand vision, mission, and values for universities cannot be overstated. These elements serve as guiding principles that shape the identity and direction of an institution, providing a clear sense of purpose and differentiation in a highly competitive landscape.
Here’s a whistle-stop tour.
A brand vision represents the desired future state of the university. It sets the aspirational goals and ambitions that the institution aims to achieve. A strong vision inspires stakeholders and creates a sense of shared purpose, guiding strategic decisions and long-term planning. It also helps attract and retain students, academics, and staff who align with the university’s vision and are motivated to contribute to its realisation.
The mission statement outlines the fundamental purpose and core activities of the university. It communicates what the institution does, who it serves, and how it adds value to society. A well-crafted mission statement communicates the unique value proposition of the university and helps differentiate it from competitors. It also provides a framework for decision-making and resource allocation, ensuring that all activities align with the overall mission.
Brand values represent the ethical and cultural principles that guide the behaviour and actions of the university community. They define the institution’s character and influence its relationships with stakeholders. By clearly articulating values, universities can attract individuals who share these values and foster a strong sense of community and purpose.
Collectively, a well-defined vision, mission, and set of brand values enable universities to establish a clear and compelling identity that resonates with stakeholders and stands out from its competitors. It may not always be the case that you separate them in this way — you may want to get creative with your comms, but the sentiments should remain and appear clearly within your messaging.
This messaging helps build trust, enhances reputation, and attracts resources and support from various sources. And by consistently embodying these guiding principles, universities can differentiate themselves, thrive in a competitive landscape, and effectively fulfil their educational and societal missions.