9 minute read

Top tips on standing out from the competition

In a recent episode of the BlueSky Education Thinking podcast, International Business Education Guru Matt Symonds, BlueSky Education’s Adrian Barrett and Stephanie Mullins, Sergio Oliveri of MIP Politecnico di Milano and Carrington Crisp's Ian Hawkings shared their advice and some great examples of how a business school can stand out from the competition.

Here's what they had to say:

Matt: Business schools come in all shapes and sizes but, as they talk about being international and courses that they offer, to truly be able to differentiate in a very crowded market, one of the big challenges is trying to identify what it is about an institution that really helps it to stand out. Steph, I'm sure this is absolutely pivotal to the sort of communications work that you deal with for BlueSky clients.

Steph: Indeed it is. Standing out is obviously key for our work with clients here at BlueSky, but I don't believe that there is such thing as a USP for business schools. Having said that, I'm certainly open to debate if anyone would like to argue their case with me. But I do believe that there are things that are special about each business school that they can talk about and use to stand out from their competition, whether that's their location, specialism, facilities, or something else really strong that they do. Our work with business schools often hinges on helping them to successfully stand out from the crowd and we take great pride in doing this really well.

MattMatt: Right. And I guess sometimes with the different aspects of the business school that overlap, it's just being able to effectively get that message out. So, you've been talking to various experts with their perspectives on branding, and how to get that message across to an international audience. Let's hear what they have to say.

Sergio: I am Sergio Oliveri, Head of Media Relations at MIP Politecnico di Milano, which is the School of Business in Italy.

Steph: Thanks, Sergio.

Can you just tell us firstly, about how you use PR to stand out from the competition?

Sergio: The main reason our school is using international PR is to showcase its main expertise. So, for example, stating about the research that we produce, or the success stories of our students who maybe can launch their own startup or a success stories of our alumni. PR can help our school to spread these messages and raise the visibility across all media internationally.

Steph: And you have some really great stories to tell. But with so much change in today's fast paced world, surely it's a challenge for business schools like you to stay ahead of the competition and to stand out from it?

SergioSergio: I think the most important challenge business schools must face nowadays is to drive change. We are living in an era of change. Let's think about digitalisation, artificial intelligence, and all these topics. A business school must be able to, not to adapt, but to drive this change in their courses, in the way they are teaching. So, if I think about my school, we are launching a project as a digital platform based on artificial intelligence that we have, and will accompany students in their continuous learning path.

Steph: I totally agree. And I know that you've mentioned to me before, that you need those students buy in to get the stories that make your school stand out in the media, but it's not just your students and alumni that have assisted to create these beneficial stories is it?

Sergio: Starting from the benefits within the school, I can say the most important benefit was the involvement of the faculty. We started working with BlueSky in late 2016 and from that point, I can share that the number of emails coming from the faculty Increased positively. Why did they increase? Because as soon as they see that their colleague has a piece of coverage in one international media, they say, “hey, that comes from the work that Sergio is doing with BlueSky, I have recently published this piece of research, and better drop an email to Sergio, in order to help me to pitch it to the business media.”

Steph: It sounds like a wonderful domino effect that's really getting people involved and helping create the school's external image. I suppose it's all about standing out and getting people to really pay attention to MIP.

Sergio: Externally, in terms of process, I think it helps our school to gain more visibility. I think potential students are watching our website or social media channels and see that, for example, the Financial Times or the Guardian or the Wall Street Journal has recently published an article about our school that gives us, in our school, a lot of credibility, and also visibility.

Steph: Thanks, Sergio. I can see how this is really strengthening MIP's brand. I've been talking with Ian in more detail, actually. And we've been exploring brand positioning in more depth.

IanIan: My name is Ian Hawkings. I have spent just over 10 years working with business schools on communications PR marketing strategy, as you well know, spent just over nine years with you guys at BlueSky before making a move, and now work with a company called Carrington Crisp, where we basically work with business schools, and universities to some extent, around the world on market research and consulting projects. We've done quite a lot of work at the moment with schools to help them position their institutions for the future, looking ahead at how business education is changing, and will change.

Steph: Awesome, sounds brilliant. And it makes you perfectly placed to comment for this, because in this episode of our business education podcast, we've been talking about how business schools can stand out from their competitors.

So how do you think institutions can really raise the awareness of their brand?

Ian: I think raising awareness of the brand is one thing. I think to do that effectively, you need a joined up marketing strategy that incorporates elements of marketing, communications, and leverages the strengths and key selling points of your school, of your institution. First, these things, those key selling points, the things that make you great, need to be identified and clearly communicated internally and you have to know who you're addressing. This is where comms strategy and overall operational strategy need to combine. You know, what's the vision for the school? What are the key goals? What are you trying to achieve overall? You know, and that's actually, quite complicated. The market for quality international business education is competitive and increasingly so. So, you know, raising awareness is important, but it doesn't mean that much if, when you scratch the surface, there isn't anything concrete that differentiates your school from the competition in some way.

Steph: Definitely, definitely. So one thing that occurred to me was that during your time at BlueSky Education, you worked with Vlerick Business School on their rebrand, and I was wondering how this helped them stand out?

Ian: What they did was they went from being a very traditional old school institution, moving into management school – even the typefaces they used just said ‘traditional education’! The universities that joined up to make the management school were, I think, two of the oldest universities in Belgium, and two of the most kind of august institutions, if you want to put it that way. The business school itself kind of moved away from that, that traditional focus, and they went to a much more, younger funkier more future facing approach. It really was a top to bottom rebrand, totally and fundamentally changed the look and the feel of the school.

They brought in lots of external consultants to help them do the research to provide the inputs and the intelligence that actually counts and BlueSky worked on that project as well back then, as well as another agent, so they did a really thorough job on that and spent a lot of money on it. But then what they also did was then, from that point, where they refreshed the whole ground, is that they followed through over the next number of years, by really radically redesigning their programmes and their pedagogical approach. They totally took apart what they were doing on MBA programmes. They launched lots of specialists, the master's programme, they looked at very specific sectors that they wanted to be known for, and then communicated about that. So I think they did a really good job of that. It’s a case study that I bring up when schools are talking to us about branding, rebranding, and communicating, rebrand, and all that sort of stuff.

Steph: Yeah, what a great example it sounds like they really worked on standing out and being different.

Ian: They did. They did a lot of things over a period of time, they brought in a new younger Dean, they did the Brussels campus which, as you know, is really funky and fresh and in the heart of Europe, so there's a lot of stuff. I think they really were a good example of when you look below the surface of what the rebrand was saying there was substance there to back it all up.

Steph: Absolutely. I think schools can learn a lot from that example.

Is there any advice in particular that you would give schools who are keen to be more prominent?

Ian: I think making sure that your marketing and sales teams are properly staffed would be a good starting point. Make sure that they have a direct line to senior leadership so that you can have communication about what the overall overarching strategy of the school is, and how that can and should inform the communications of the people that are working in the marketing department. Make sure that there's an institution-wide clarity of purpose that can inform work on strategy and a long-term view rather than just what's happening today, what's happening this week. I think those are things that schools, some schools, could do better.

And I think also, there are other examples here, making bolder decisions about what a school wants to be known for and sticking with it, you know, for a reasonable period of time to get some momentum behind that whole thing. If you look at a school that I've worked with a lot in Lyon, who very early on, a number of years ago now, hung their hat on entrepreneurship. They said, ‘we want to be known as a school for entrepreneurs’. Now, this is kind of a risky strategy because the MBA is generalist, business education is generalist. They do finance, they do all of the other stuff that business schools do, but they made a strategic decision to be known as a school for entrepreneurs, and then they communicated that consistently over a long period of time. And they'll tell you whether that paid off, and you know they're a very good, high level, well known, well respected European school, so I think it probably has.

Stephanie MullinsSteph: I agree. I think they've done that quite effectively. And they have some amazing stats to back up that way of going about standing out. But I think a lot of schools maybe, perhaps, aren't being as successful and I mean, do you think there is some mistake schools are making in an effort to be seen? Are some even wasting their time in pursuit of standing out?

Ian: As I said previously, the underfunding of marketing departments is one thing that springs to mind and I’ve observed one or even only two people responsible for PR, comms and marketing at a business school which is, I think, madness, because there's not enough time in the day to fulfil the functions and they're constantly overrun and it really creates a situation where it's almost impossible to think long term strategically because you're constantly fighting fires. So that's one thing that it leads to high staff turnover as well as other things. You see people come and go and that really kills momentum I think and lead to lack of direction on communication strategy. And I think some are very, very good at all this stuff. But some schools are definitely guilty of spending time on communications that don't feed into an overall strategic vision. And I'll keep coming back to that. But I think it's really important. Well, thinking that because something is significant internally, that it's worth spending time trying to communicate that externally, things like rankings results, new staff hires, accreditation renewals, they're all really important things. But then perhaps not the best way to tell the market why your school is great, or what sets it apart. And all of these activities take up time and resources that could be put to better use, I think.

Steph: I think it's something that we see all the time, really understaffed, underfunded, comms departments and one of the ways we help is really by relieving a lot of the pressure on them. So you've given us so much really great advice and information there. I just wondered if there was anything else you'd like to add?

Ian: Just going back to what we've just been talking about, there are lots of stakeholders vying for attention so it is difficult to try and focus on the long term, medium term. And I think just keeping in mind what the overall goals of the organisation are, and using that, as the barometer of what needs to be communicated is, I think, a good approach.

Adrian Barrett-2Adrian: Another great podcast in my humble opinion. So thanks Sergio, and Ian came up with some great examples. But Steph can you summarise what you get from this.


What do you think are the key takeaways about how the school can effectively stand out from its competition?

Steph: Sure, I think ultimately, all business schools want to do this and stand out from their competitors. They're all jostling to be seen. But it's about finding the perfect point, that something that makes them special, and then communicating this in the right way.

Matt: It's also this idea of how you do it through language, how you do it through visuals, how you perhaps do it through data, through outreach and personal contact. There are so many ways.

One other thought that I have on this, as important as it is standing out from the competition, as others in this podcast have shared, at the same time, schools need to make sure that they swim with the right competition. I think working with the media is a great example of this. Take a business school – and their faculty expertise or a programme that they're running and its impact – and then share media coverage with their peers, perhaps even schools that they aspire to be identified with, whether it's top schools like MIT Sloan or Stanford. Sometimes it's just as important to be alongside your competition, to then be able, I think, to stand out – but it's not going to go away this one.

And I think as the market tightens in the years ahead, standing out is going to be a key focus for all business schools.

Listen to this and other episodes of the BlueSky education thinking podcast.

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