Swap camels for custom vehicles

Universities told to vaunt uniqueness instead of relying on identikit cliches. David Matthews writes

September 8, 2011

Higher education institutions are being encouraged to develop concise mottoes and brands in a centrally funded project to promote institutional "distinctiveness".

Speaking at the Council for Advancement and Support of Education conference in Manchester last week, leaders of the Distinct project said it was especially important for universities in the "squeezed middle" to stand out in an age of greater competition.

The project, funded with £249,924 from the Higher Education Funding Council for England, is being led by Oxford Brookes University, which is collaborating with Bournemouth University and the University of Bradford.

Tricia Scott, research leader for the project, said that universities had to discover and communicate the "core" of what they do.

But at the moment, she said, "we all use exactly the same words" and many mission statements resembled a "horse designed by a committee".

"If you look at mission statements in the sector, you see camels," she said.

Ms Scott pointed to Ikea's motto - "affordable design" - as one that pithily captured what was distinctive about the company.

Distinctiveness was "not about being unique" but about finding a "combination of things" that add up to a distinctive whole, she said.

She added that an institution's distinguishing qualities had to be "imperfectly imitable", otherwise competitors would simply copy them.

Ms Scott suggested that universities conduct a "brand audit" to see what consumers think about them - in the same way that Brains, a Cardiff-based brewery, had done. The brewer found that its brand was associated with tradition, the elderly and local Cardiff pubs, prompting a rebranding exercise based on "optimism".

Asked if there was an industry with 150 distinctive brands, Ms Scott pointed to the retail sector, where "at least" that many were to be found.

The Distinct project runs from November 2009 to June 2012, and has now completed most of its planned research.

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said the sector's diversity should be celebrated, but added that "we need to be careful of rebrands for the sake of it, where style is more important than substance".

Times Higher Education asked members of its reader panel to suggest distinctive mottoes for their own institutions.

One academic at a Russell Group institution suggested: "The Original Entrepreneurial University", another reader proposed: "Knowledge without wisdom is vacuous". A third offered: "Research only (if we can). Teaching (if we must)".

david.matthews@tsleducation.com.

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