Will the Real Higher-Ed Brands Please Stand Up?

Ashutosh Wakankar July 16, 2017

Have you noticed that Indian universities are taking to the skies to spread the word? The last time I checked, a dozen higher-ed brands had placed advertisements in Indigo’s inflight magazine, Hello6E.

Breaking free of the clutter

India’s education sector is getting increasingly crowded even as its job market grows more sluggish by the day. Yet, there is demand for top quality higher education, with quality being the operative word.

The consumer is becoming more discerning, and is no longer going to be impressed by premium ad placements alone. As in any maturing sector, our wannabe educationists are now realising that fame is a poor proxy for credibility. The stage therefore is set for the weeding out of mediocre players.

Don’t just survive. Thrive.

Like Charles Dickens pointed out, the worst of times can also be the best of times. As a brand consultant who has worked closely with educationists, here are some perspectives to consider:

1. Don’t treat education like a commodity

If your ad resembles a brochure, with edge-to-edge listings of all that you offer, then you send out a flare of desperation. Your ad says that you’re a higher-ed brand that is hoping to sell an engineering seat to a parent who finds a medical seat beyond his budget.

If you cite the size of your campus and the quality of your infrastructure as your primary differentiators, then aren’t you behaving like a real estate developer? Shouldn’t you instead be speaking of the transformational experience of learning that occurs on your campus?

2. Stop being fuzzy

Vague claims to excellence, leadership, values and expertise don’t work, at least not in the long term. Building a world-class institution is a marathon. It requires stamina.

The bluster of words gives your higher-ed brand but a sprinter’s advantage. You may do well with a catchy slogan or tagline in the short term, but before you go there, you need to do something incredibly important. Like any worthwhile higher-ed brand, you must…

3. Be well-differentiated

The branding of an institution begins with the inescapable hard work required to identify and showcase its uniqueness.

To be truly branded, you need branding from the inside out. The management needs to very sharply and clearly identify what it wants to be known for. And for A-grade institutions, the differentiator cannot be accreditations, rankings or placements. One assumes those benchmarks to be high.

The simplest path would be to define some form of industry specialisation. By focusing on a niche area, the institution can pursue excellence in the form of research as well as employability of the students.

The Path Less Trod

However, it will take courage to commit to a narrow niche and indirectly imply that everything else being offered is table stakes. Not many of the established players, or for that matter new players, will be able to find that courage.

If the institution does not differentiate itself through a niche, it can do so using a novel approach to pedagogy.

The jury is still out on whether any of the emerging higher-ed brands will be able to match the “prestige” associated with government-run institutions like the IITs, IIMs or even the NITs and NIDs, in the short to medium run. But to have a chance to do so, the institution must differentiate itself.

In subsequent posts, we will look at some of the ways in which universities and colleges can become truly branded entities whose quality is not just asserted, but obvious.