No Firsts for the University Experience

Gary - 2 nd July 2019

2 daughters, 131 university options, 17 open days over 3 years, endless exams and assessments and now it’s all over. Higher Education has served the Miss Mosses very well but the choosing process was tortuous and the customer experience, whilst it excelled at times, often left us disappointed, frustrated and angry.

Huge disruption is just around the corner but whilst universities can see change coming, I can’t see many of them moving fast enough and in the right direction to capitalise on it. I hope I am wrong but the platform is burning.

A sea of sameness…..
Let’s go back to the start when the Miss Mosses were choosing. Higher Education is one of the most cluttered and undifferentiated markets in existence. Beyond a very general, and probably inaccurate perception of different ‘quality’ tiers it is impossible to work out who is good at what, what their values are and what makes them different. As one parent said in some research, ‘To be honest, all universities say the same thing” and then, with increasing exasperation, “let’s face it, every single uni says the same thing, there is nothing fresh.”
Uni 1
Part of the answer for universities is to develop a ‘differentiating positioning’. At worse, this means coming up with a new tagline or logo, crossing fingers and hoping this takes care of it, and at best this means searching to find something that makes them stand out and delivering it. I fear that most universities think they can get by with a logo and tagline change rather than a proper re-positioning which involves real change and rocking the academic boat. You can tell by their language, what they emphasise in briefs and who they ask to pitch.

Finding a distinctive positioning is a key early step to success, the brutal truth though is that finding one  is very, very difficult for universities.

Let’s face it, how many differing positions are there? I have heard most of the candidates claimed by virtually everyone I saw on my university tours. Here are a few of the top ten: ‘the employability university’, ‘best for research’, ‘most connected to business’ and ‘the university that brings out the best in you’.  They all claim some kind of leadership in all these factors, believe me, I have seen the PowerPoint presentations and I am sure you have seen the cinema ads. Firstly, we should admire the creative statistics, brilliantly done… ‘lies and damn lies’ and all that. Secondly, who do they think they are kidding?  No one believes the stats, we know they are ‘cooked’. Then we all look at the league tables; Universities go up and down, which makes an impression, but the differences in some of the scores are marginal and they have much less impact than the universities themselves believe (we have the research to prove this).


So, back to positioning.

If we say that there are 10 or so general positioning's available, what do the others do? For some it is a thankless task. There is nothing remotely distinctive about them and even if they did find something truly original and compelling the chances are that it will hit the barrier of inertia and that its uniqueness will be bashed out by the need to be watertight-inclusive and not ruffle the feathers of those in a university who feel that they have been left out or side-lined. This leads to compromise and the positioning inevitably becomes just like all the others and an opportunity is lost. This can’t go on.

The real battleground the experience. Whilst universities spend time and resources trying to find a unique thing to say about themselves they run the risk that they will miss out fighting the real battle; the experience it delivers to students and parents. The way that universities will succeed is to deliver an experience that gets talked about, shared and aligns to what makes them distinctive. That’s how they will build their brands. They will need to annoy some people in the university and truly change and address what is important to students and parents and how they want to feel. Or they will wither and die and become an irrelevance.

The first stage to achieving this is to work out the gaps between what students want and the universities are delivering. So far, the evidence I have picked up suggests that universities still have a way to go before they genuinely get to grips with this. . I asked one university to plot the elements of the experience. They did so in about ten minutes. It was linear and full of assumptions that were relevant when they themselves went to university. I had a go myself and was then horrified to see that it bore no relation to the one I asked my daughter to do. Hers was definitely not linear, it was rational but mostly emotional and based on how she wanted to feel throughout the experience. Her experience map involved loops and questions and when I asked her what she wanted at different stages she compared universities to experiences outside the higher education bubble.  She wants a choosing experience that makes her feel wanted, a well-being experience that makes her feel cared for and an accommodation allocation experience that respects her and is fair. And that’s just the start. She asks questions about the values of the university, what its vision is and what it supports. Young people ask these questions of fashion retailers, why wouldn’t they ask it of the place which will define them for years to come? And how would I mark universities for customer experience? ‘Could do better. See me.’


Gary is the chairman and one of the original founders of Brand Vista. With over 20 years of brand experience both on the client and agency side he loves finding out what customers and consumers are really thinking and turning this knowledge into compelling brand propositions that succeed in the real world.
Find out more about Gary