What Makes Your Institution Stand Out?

Communicate what sets your institution apart from the rest

By Richard Taylor and Richard Gillingwater

What Makes Your Institution Stand Out?


The following articles are adapted from the new CASE book The Challenge of Being Distinctive: What You Stand for and How It Delivers Strategic Advantage by Susannah Baker and Anna Myers.

A Reputation That Resonates

By Richard Taylor

Poor Gherman Titov. He achieved something great, but most people have never heard of the second man to orbit the earth. Yet you likely know the name of the first man to accomplish this feat: Yuri Gagarin, hero of the former Soviet Union.

I'm not belittling space flight. I've never orbited the earth and likely never will. I'm simply arguing that although Titov also orbited the earth, few remember his name. Higher education institutions also have many great achievements, but if they don't position themselves as distinctive, they are unlikely to break through the communication clutter in a memorable way.

The comedic group Flight of the Conchords describes itself as "the almost award-winning fourth-most-popular folk duo in New Zealand." Too much of the marketing and communications in higher education sounds like this when it should resonate like Gagarin's name does. A marketer's task is to identify, distill, and project an institution's distinct characteristics and achievements.

For example: Who was the 49th person to become U.K. prime minister? Not sure? All right. Who was the U.K.'s first female prime minister? The questions are different but the answer is the same—Margaret Thatcher. Tell your story in a way people will remember.

Since time immemorial, marketers have been accused of manipulation and exaggeration. The stories and claims universities communicate have to be real and true. The intangible nature of higher education and the weight that prospective students place on the opinions of current students and alumni make this not just morally right but also an operational necessity.

Why is this so important? Look up G. Lynn Shostack's Goods-Services Continuum, which positions education as an extreme example of a service. Because of their intangible nature, services are low on search qualities (difficult to evaluate before "purchase") but high on experience qualities (experiencing the service gives the user a clear view of it). As a result, people turn to those with experience for validation. In higher education, that means alumni, current students, faculty, rankings, and more.

Why Be Distinctive?

Having a strong reputation and being known for things are the same thing. If people believe you have a strong reputation, they will believe that they know things about you. Conversely, if people don't know things about your organization, they will believe you have a weak reputation. There's no third way. You can't keep your head down, work hard, and not be known for things yet end up with a strong reputation.

A 2012 survey of opinion leaders, including politicians, journalists, and CEOs of leading U.K. companies, illustrates this point. Participants were asked to rank the reputation of various British universities on a scale of 1 to 10. They also had the option to omit a rating if they knew nothing about an institution. There was a clear correlation between poor reputation scores and the proportion of respondents who said they knew nothing about an institution. I'm going to stick my neck out and argue at least some causality: The fact that some institutions are known for things causes them to be viewed as having strong reputations.

Improve Your Reputation With the Three R's

Being known for things is the way to build a strong reputation. And the way to be known for things is to articulate achievements that are clear and memorable, whether that's strategically in terms of the overall position your institution adopts or in how you manage its day-to-day communications. If the territory you adopt for your university's distinctiveness is real, rare, and relevant, you should be successful in advancing your organization's reputation.

Some examples of U.K. universities with good positioning statements include:

  • The UK's European University—University of Kent
  • London's Evening University—Birkbeck, University of London
  • Inspiring Winners Since 1909—Loughborough University

All are true (real), no other university can or does say them (rare), and all resonate with their stakeholder audiences (relevant).

Gagarin was the first man in space, so we can't achieve that. But within our institutions are things that are real, rare, and relevant. Go find, distill, and project them to the world.

Find the Big IdeaFind the Big Idea

By Richard Gillingwater

You want your institution to stand out and be distinct, to have a clear and bold proposition in the higher education marketplace, to have a big idea around which to align both marketing and internal resources. The problem is that there are so many things to say and so many different internal and external stakeholders that it feels wrong to settle on one thing. You recognize that some of your university's attributes don't seem that different from those of others in your sector, but they are nevertheless important. Meanwhile, other attributes appear to be different but are not that important. So, how do you find your institution's big idea—that simple yet compelling narrative that exemplifies what the institution wants to be known for? How do you uncover the thing that will attract more students, academics, investment, recognition, and support?

No university or person will ever want to find just one characteristic. People will always argue for adding another attribute, resulting in a list that makes your university indistinguishable from every other institution. Yet the alternatives are even scarier: a single idea that feels forced, a marketing slogan without buy-in, or something so generic or abstract that it needs further explanation. You can't talk about everything you do if you are trying to convey what is really special about you.

Begin with a workshop that brings colleagues together to unearth gems of truth that lead to a big idea, which can be burnished through strong creative work that expresses what makes your institution distinctive. The purpose is to discuss the fundamental aspects of what makes your institution stand out and what holds all that together—what you would tell someone about your organization in simple, clear language. Don't leap straight to a tagline or strapline or to creative expression; that's a separate workshop. Get your simple narrative clear first, then look for creative and operational ways to bring it to life later.

There are two golden rules for running such a workshop:

1. Be authentic. The value of your big idea exists only in how it can ultimately be expressed, either operationally or creatively. You'll probably want to test some of your ideas, or elements of them, on key audiences. The simplest of stories can be brought to life in a creative way, but don't worry about that now. Focus on how to articulate a true expression of the institution. The creative work that follows this workshop needs a solid foundation from which to launch.

2. Aim for more emotion. By nature, universities look for empirical evidence and facts to substantiate any claim. It's wise to consider the more tangible attributes: the truths around the product or service such as academic portfolio, teaching styles, awards, research areas, location, size, campus, or diversity of the student body. There are other benefits, though, that are more psychological, more aspirational, and more emotive, such as the student experience and how people feel or think about your vision—ideas that might come out of a perception audit. Such attributes will need to come together to form the story. According to the World Advertising Research Center, ideas that communicate both functionally and emotionally are significantly more effective than purely functional concepts. The underlying emotion is often what differentiates any brand.

Analyze Your Institution's Story

People perceive organizations through a combination of details that form a bigger picture in their mind, through a narrative. These include:

  • What others are saying about your university;
  • What peers think about your institution and the 
  • stories associated with the higher education sector;
  • How much people have heard about your institution;
  • The truths that come from what your university does, how it does things, and where it's located; and
  • The tone, voice, and quality of your institution's messages.

A workshop that looks at these different stories best starts by sharing them. People love to share their stories, and this approach allows both functional and emotional benefits to surface and makes participating enjoyable.

Many great stories can be told about a university, from how it began to the difference it has made in a person's life. Some stories are general, and some are more emblematic of what the university stands for. By sharing and analyzing these stories, you can pull out the fundamental truths that lie within the university's DNA. These truths can then be prioritized and explored later for their potential to grow into big ideas. These stories have survived because people find them interesting, easy to share, and memorable. These are the exact qualities you need to make a story believable.

It's as if you're painting a picture: Messages, statements, and attributes add important details to the picture.

Recognize What Is True

To explore these elements, document people's thoughts, and then revisit the statements. Keep the whole concept active and alive. Try these approaches.

Benefit analysis: Identify three key benefits of your sector, the experience, and the services you offer. Then rate them using the distinctiveness criteria: real, rare, and relevant.

Look beyond the benefits: Explore what each key benefit really means. Why does your university exist? Throughout this exercise, you're trying to move people's perception from functional to psychological benefits.

Archetypes: Use personality models to explore your institution's voice and tone. People buy people. Presenting a strong personality in the marketplace can be a point of differentiation. Visual language is also helpful for discussing tone and voice because images offer another way to characterize and express an organization.

Picture Your Qualities

Don't simply list a set of attributes; structure them within a visual metaphor. A heraldic shield is one approach. Such a framework has four quadrants with a symbol overlaying them at the center. Each quadrant can contain different elements, such as personality, student experience, vision, and awards, and then you can overlay the big idea at the center. Visual representations make the concept more relevant and improve the workshop by creating structure and developing an end goal.

Don't judge your big idea in isolation. Our eyes see things through contrast, and that's how you need to view your story—in contrast to others. It's difficult to see the degrees of difference between organizations without comparing them with others. Use the same list of attributes you used to form your big picture, then fill in your view of how another organization comes across. Usually two competitors are enough to help inform the debate at this stage, although you can reference others.

This workshop approach usually requires external facilitation. It's difficult for anyone to be objective when they talk about themselves. They either become too modest or claim too much. People who work for the university know much more about it than would interest those outside the institution. Internal voices also tend to jump beyond the obvious to the abstract, from the simple to the complex. A facilitator can stand back and challenge participants on whether what is being said is interesting, makes sense, or will make people stand up, listen, and remember you.


Outline a Workshop Agenda
  1. Introduce the objective: a shared understanding of what we stand for, expressed through a simple narrative with a big idea.
  2. Review the organization's strategic goals and key challenges to ensure that summary statements built during the session are judged against this background.
  3. Share and gather emblematic stories.
  4. Cluster the underlying themes of these stories to identify benefits of your organization.
  5. Create a visual framework that can contain these different benefits so that you form a bigger picture.
  6. Prioritize characteristics and create an overall story, developing the narrative to pull out the big idea.
  7. Position against the competition: What's their story? Use a visual metaphor, such as a heraldic shield, to benchmark.
  8. Discuss how to test possible creative implementations of the concept.
  9. Finally, ask: Does this capture the essence of what we're about? Is it emotive enough? If not, keep evolving by simplifying and uncovering the underlying emotions.
Things to Remember
  • Don't let the opening expectation be that you're there to finalize everything and agree on a tagline or creative campaign.
  • Use an external facilitator to challenge ideas and offer an external perspective. Knowing too much about the institution will create complexity in people's answers rather than simplicity, which is the goal.
  • Analyze the stories people share about the university.
  • Emotions are more powerful than logic when it comes to communicating distinctiveness.
  • Select the right attributes and metaphor that reflect your institution's key challenges and culture. You can build your story from there.
  • Try various techniques for getting people to explore the different attributes-from using imagery or structured analysis to storytelling and benchmarking against the competition.
  • Look for the underlying emotion within the story that acts as a driver for decision-making.
  • The aim of such a workshop is not to create your entire campaign. Rather, it is to develop a creative brief that details what's at the heart of the university. The ideas that the university's creative staff and/or external consultants generate in response will form the campaign's foundation.
  • The internal workings of universities are diverse and complex, but if institutions want to stand out in the marketplace, they must present a bold and creative yet simple idea to the world.

The Challenge of Being DistinctiveThe preceding articles were adapted from The Challenge of Being Distinctive: What You Stand for and How It Delivers Strategic Advantage. The new CASE book—written by Susannah Baker, director of the Waynflete Office at Magdalen College School, and Anna Myers, senior project manager for Dementias Platform UK at the University of Oxford—details the authors’ Distinct Framework and the Three R’s Test, which support higher education institutions’ efforts to achieve distinctiveness. It features case studies, opinion essays, and guidance from marketing professionals and university leaders in Europe and around the world. Purchase the book at

About the Authors

Richard Taylor is chief operating officer of Loughborough University in the U.K. He has worked in higher education for more than 20 years, including significant periods leading marketing activities for institutions.

Richard Gillingwater is managing director of Emotional Branding, a U.K.-based brand agency that specializes in helping businesses and educational institutions tell their stories creatively and build connections with their stakeholders.