How to stand out in a crowded Higher Education Sector

How to stand out in a crowded Higher Education Sector

Let’s cut to the chase. In order for a University to stand in a crowded Higher Education sector, it’s no longer enough to have a great course offering and first-class student experience – these are now expected.

At a time of rising fees, increasing competition and with the cap coming off student recruitment numbers, institutions now have the challenging task of differentiating themselves from the competition – making the function and performance of a university marketing departments now even more critical to an institution’s success.

Now, you may not be working in marketing for a university that necessarily has the most prestige, the richest heritage or even the highest standards or student satisfaction ratings. But there is hope.

Some universities are ahead of the curve and have quickly recognised the awareness, engagement and conversions they can generate through creativity, effective marketing and deep student insights. Relying not so much on their capabilities – but how they present themselves.

So how do you go about doing this? Well, if you want your institution to clearly stand out in a crowded HE market and appear appear much bigger than your budget, it’s going to come down to effective branding and marketing.

Here are 6 proven steps taken from leading HE marketers on how they do it:

1. Be clear and consistent

Firstly, you’re going to need to stop talking about your business school as a business school…and start talking about it as a brand. And that means identifying what makes your university unique, what “added value” you provide and what it is that your students really appreciate about you. This will take student research.

A strong, bold brand is more than just a new logo. It takes the risk out of buying and shapes perceptions and expectations. It has personality, values, spirit and humour – human traits. However, it’s also a commitment, because to make that brand successful your university is going to have to live and breathe that brand promise every day. And here’s the tricky part, your brand values must be unique to you but common to your target audience.

The brand must align with your institution’s DNA, while at the same time being edgy, cool and relevant, connecting with youth culture – and key influencers such as parents, teachers and alumni. This brand identity must be continually and consistently communicated throughout all of your marketing communications.

2. Be disruptive

It’s good to go against the grain. Universities that rebel against traditional norms and values will get noticed. And without this university marketing does not evolve…and that’s no good for anyone.

Consider how you deliver your content to prospective students. Is it old-fashioned print prospectuses or long, boring YouTube videos of campus tours? Or would you be better served producing small, snackable pieces of digital content such as infographics or live Periscope broadcasts from “behind the scenes”.

Today’s prospective students want to source their own content in formats they are familiar with. This may be a big departure from what you’re currently doing, but do it well and your brand and engagement will really benefit.

3. Be collaborative

One of the main bonuses of practicing marketing in a university setting is that you are permanently surrounded by gifted and inspirational people – colleagues, academics and students. Use them.

Marketing Managers should tap into this goldmine resource. Conduct regular focus group research across the full spectrum of the HE community and pinpoint new trends, subcultures, what’s cool and what’s not. Find out who or what everyone is talking about and make them / it a part of your next campaign planning and delivery. There’s an array of social listening tools that you can use which will help you reveal what your target audience are really talking about – and why.

4. Be natural

It’s no secret that generation X and Y are much more savvy and cynical to modern marketing methods. They’ve grown up being bombarded with clunky push techniques that offer little value, or every brand under the sun trying to align themselves with the latest movie or pop star…regardless of how tenuous the link.

So, no matter how hard it is – do not try and sell to them. What you want is them to gravitate towards you through your innovative, effective and engaging campaigns. Once you have drawn them in, you want prospective students to have an appetite and curiosity to find out more about your brand – so enable them to discover more with strategically placed digital content.

Even better still, empower them to create and share their own content about their journey with you so far. This may be via selfies and hashtags, Snapchat and Vine, or even an app you have created.

5. Be outward-looking

How are organisations in other crowded marketplaces driving awareness, enquiries and conversions? Sometimes looking outside the HE sphere, or recruiting new talent, brings a fresh perspective on things.

There’s always a high level of noise and saturation in sectors like leisure and hospitality, so carry out some research and find out what strategies marketing leaders in these industries employ to stand out from the crowd and be noticed. Of course, marketing agencies also work with clients across a broad spectrum of sectors, a carefully chosen agency could really help amplify your offering and enquiry rates.

Don’t expect yourself or your team to immediately come up with all of the solutions. Sometimes an agile and iterative approach works best to find out which tactics get traction before investing much of your precious budget.


So there is it, essentially it’s going to come down to creativity, clarity and consistency. Use those deep student insights to distil down to just a handful of key messages what it is that makes your university unique – then reinforce these throughout every communication and across every student touch-point.

Speak to students on their wavelength, in their language and around subjects they care about. Use social listening tools to uncover what they’re talking about and the sentiment surrounding it. And finally, be brave, don’t be afraid to seek advice from the talented individuals around you or thought-leaders succeeding in other crowded sectors. Be the first to get all of these elements in a line and your university will be the one that grabs the audiences’ attention.


For further information on how you can use software to build big brands, deliver targeted communications and gain clear Student insights; email: or call: 0121 380 1010. Alternatively, read one of our Success Stories and find out how we help leading University clients achieve their Marketing goals, click here.