Standing out from the crowd: Why differentiation is still a big challenge for business schools

brand value, branding, Marcom External Relations Conference

Early this year, I was pleased to attend the EFMD Marketing and Communications Conference at Cambridge Judge Business School. We covered many different topics, including building brand value, SDGs, and the strategic value of alumni relations.

Afterwards, I found myself reflecting on one session in particular. Michael Johnson, Johnson Banks Design, cleverly started his session by bringing up on the screen a number of descriptive words and phrases such as: “complex challenges”, “global community” and “making an impact”.

When he asked the audience which school they described, we needed help to correctly match the words to a particular institution. His message? Many business schools use the same language and they need help to stand out.

How to differentiate themselves from the competition is a topic for business schools.

In 2020, Roe Communications, CarringtonCrisp and EFMD carried out a major survey of business school marketing and communications heads to uncover their biggest challenges. Six out of ten (60%) definitely or mostly agreed it was becoming more difficult to differentiate their business school from competitors.

This issue regularly arises in media relations for business schools and our work. Journalists are perhaps one of the most discerning – and difficult – audiences to convince. One of the factors leading to a media pitch being ignored is that the story just isn’t different enough.

So what can business schools do to strengthen their positioning in the marketplace? Here are five strategies:

  1. Create a compelling brand value story: the most successful business schools have a unique brand story and value proposition. And they prioritise communications strategies that focus on and amplify their strengths: innovation or sustainability.
  2. Build media relationships: having positive, third-party endorsement via media coverage makes the rest of your marketing effort easier. Identifying key publications, industry-specific websites, and popular blogs enables schools to target their media efforts effectively. Press releases, media pitches, and expert commentary on trending topics help position business schools as authoritative sources and increase their chances of being featured in influential media outlets.
  3. Leverage content marketing: creating high-quality content that aligns with your areas of strength is a great way to showcase expertise and engage with target audiences. Business schools are investing in creating valuable content through blog articles, podcasts, whitepapers, case studies, and videos. Many have specific online platforms to showcase their research. By addressing industry trends, sharing thought leadership insights, and providing practical knowledge, schools can position themselves as valuable resources for students and professionals alike. Sharing this content through various channels, including websites, social media platforms, and email newsletters, ensures wider reach and engagement.
  4. Showcase success stories: CarringtonCrisp’s Business of Branding reports have consistently highlighted that career outcomes (ROI) is the most important consideration for students picking a business school. Highlighting success stories of students and alumni, aligned to an overall communications strategy, remains a key strategy. Testimonials, case studies, and profiles demonstrate the positive impact of their programmes and experiences. These success stories serve as social proof and can be leveraged through both earned and owned media channels.
  5. Show how you are tackling the ‘bigger’ issues. Today’s students want good career options, but they also expect business schools to be tackling global issues such as social responsibility. However, schools need to be aware that within this topic alone, they need to show what they are doing differently. Many schools have aligned their strategy or teaching towards the SDGs, so this in itself (whilst commendable) is no longer new or different. Picking out some truly innovative teaching or research to showcase, especially if it is showing real-world impact, is essential.

Your chance to get involved
If you work in marketing, communications or external relations at a business school, you have the opportunity to put your opinion forward on the issues you face in your role.

We have launched a new survey with CarringtonCrisp and EFMD to uncover the current state of affairs for these critical support teams. We are asking what keeps you up at night, what your most complex challenges are, how things have changed since COVID, and where you see opportunities.

We look forward to sharing and discussing the findings with you in Autumn 2023. #EFMDextrel