Distinctionary; a Darwinian recipe for success

Louise Simpson, Director of TKP, presented an interactive session on Brand Distinctiveness with Alan Ferns, Associate Vice-President for External Relations and Reputation, University of Manchester in April, at the spring AHUA conference. They set out to show how many universities were still not achieving any separate or remarkable identity and to tell the story of Manchester’s research beacons. The new TKP card game Distinctionary proved the highlight of the session, and we have some packs to give away if you missed it!

What does it mean to be distinctive? We probably know what distinctiveness means when it comes to a person – even a favourite clothes or technology brand - but we struggle to implement ideas of identity and distinctiveness in higher education.

Distinctiveness means being recognizably different in nature from something else of a similar type. clear, clear-cut, definite, well defined, sharp, marked, decided, unmistakable, easily distinguishable. It is a mix of reputation and brand – what we think we are best at, and what the public notices we are best at. So you can’t be distinctive if people doesn’t notice your distinctiveness! The very concept requires both an audience to notice and a performer to stand out. It should be a proof that your brand is working!

But universities are averse to brand positioning and find differentiation very difficult. This is because they are instinctively collegiate and traditional and that has been a successful formula when there were far fewer universities. After all, Darwin said “those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.” But his work on finch populations also revealed that breaking away from homogeneity was the key to evolutionary success. “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, not the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” Thus the finch species that survived were different in some way.

The need for finding one’s competitive edge in higher education has never been more pressing, with market pressures (a dip in student demographics, a decline in international students, questioning of the graduate premium); regulatory pressures (OfS, TEF, REF, KEF, and the new LEO) and political pressures – BREXIT, changes in government. Meanwhile bad press over VC pay, as well as strikes and lecture cancellations over pension reforms provokes the public into thinking that universities are not lean, nimble or responsive to change but rather out of touch and stuck in the past. More dodos than adaptive finches.

Universities might blame this on external metrics, which have pushed them to explore identikit formulas. Strategies have been pinned to rankings rather than interesting differentiators. But there is also an inherent sense of sounding the same that bedevils universities. One only has to take a look at the About us pages of universities to know that a lot of what is said is pretty similar. Directors of marketing were not able to identify their university from World Clouds derived from the About Us pages when we published these last year at our W100 conference in Utrecht. So it’s a no brainer to invest in distinctiveness, because it could add real competitive advantage. Amplifying your authentic attributes should future proof you against rankings or political turbulence. But so few universities have the courage or commitment to articulate their points of difference.

We found this when we played a game at the AHUA conference in April. Our brand game Distinctionary takes four clues from anonymised universities to explain their brand. The gathered registrars and DVCs couldn’t recognise most of the universities from these descriptors. Most visions are the same. Few universities has academic strengths and slogans are not used well to add focus or personality. The most distinctive aspect of a university tends to be its location which is good to exploit, but it’s a bit sad if that’s all a university can say about itself. What if Microsoft built its brand around Seattle rather than the excellence of its technology? For universities, there are rich opportunities for amplifying distinctiveness around teaching, research, business interactions, and the student experience but so few do this.

So if a university wants to amplify a strong sense of distinctiveness, occupy a competitive brand position, where does it start? First they need to undertake anonymous stakeholder research. We help universities find out what the most important audiences – staff, funders, media, regulatory bodies, alumni, prospective students, parents, teachers, agents - think you are doing really well at? What are competing universities doing not so well, and why do external stakeholders want to have a relationship with you?

Decision making is the next phase. Reflecting on this stakeholder research and wider analysis, the university must then agree a small number of areas in which to differentiate. The decisions will be informed by research grants, investments in infrastructure and staff, and real points of excellence. But what you communicate must be stripped back to basics. You can’t tell outsiders that you are distinctive in more than a few areas, as they simply won’t remember them. Here less really is more. As esteemed American marketers Ries and Trout put it: “The best approach to take in an overcommunicated society is the oversimplified message. In communications, as in architecture, less is more. You have to sharpen your message to cut into the mind… then simplify it some more if you want to make a lasting impression.” The leadership team really must commit to a very small number of distinctive messages. Three would be a real achievement, five are okay, and any more than that and you have lost the battle for the mind of your audience!

Thirdly, the university needs to communicate their agreed points of distinctiveness. A strategy needs to announce the positioning and specify how it will be amplified and measured. Resources and professional communications staff work to operationalize the strategy, and wider academic and professional staff need to be enthused and involved. Specialist press officers will help with the focus and delivery of events and brand campaigns to realize the difference you are embracing. Academics are clearly key to making research subjects come to life (think Mary Beard, Hawking, or Brian Cox!). Conferences and events are also critical. (A director at the University of Chicago told me they ensured they hold the major economics conferences there every year to reinforce their leadership in this field.) International media and social media then needs to take the messages to the wider populations of potential students and other supporters.

And finally, perseverance is absolutely essential. It takes several years to build up strong brand distinctiveness and requires a real commitment across the university. But it will pay dividends in reputational terms and deliver far more than the efforts you put in. And just remember Darwin, collaboration helps you survive, but you need to differentiate to succeed!

Let Louise know what your reputation challenge is, and we will also send you a copy of Distinctionary!

Category: INSIGHTS