Is a competitive analysis worth it? Only if your higher ed. institution needs to stand out.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Unless you’re in higher education marketing. Then it’s something to be avoided like your campus on move-in day.

But déjà vu branding happens. After all, your diverse stakeholders can only agree on so many brand expressions. And since that’s the case for almost all higher ed. institutions, well, achieving remarkable branding is tough.

Here’s the thing: You already have the ability to see what else is out there, thanks to competitive analyses.

Keeping your finger on the pulse of what your competitors are doing not only allows you to course correct when you’re teetering into rip-off territory. But it also inspires your higher ed. institution to stand out in authentic ways that separate your institution — and win over your most skeptical stakeholders.

Competitive analyses should be an ongoing discipline in higher education.

There’s a lot of hope at the beginning of a new branding exercise. You and your team may unearth a truly bold and specific tagline. One that defines who you are to a T. 

You get ready to plant your flag, but then…

Nitpickers poke their holes. Vocal stakeholders go back and forth. You drift further and further from your true differentiator, exhaustively landing on the least provocative idea in an effort to please everyone. But in the end, it’s lacklustre. 

It doesn’t always have to be this way. By routinely performing competitive analyses you get to know what everyone else is saying and doing. Then you can use what you find to bolster your case for a bigger, bolder brand expression and approach. 

You see, by comparing your ideas to that of your contemporaries’ you can empirically prove that you’re saying something no one else is. Not only that, but you can also justify the need to embrace gutsy, specific ideas instead of well-worn platitudes that will make some stalwart stakeholders feel safer. 

Trust. Discover. Community.

Sound familiar? Your institution isn’t the only one who can claim those words. If you did a competitive analysis you would know who is saying the same thing about their institution — and reconvene your troops to strategize on a fresh course of action.

The best brand offence is a good brand defence. 

Ok, we’ll give you some credit. Maybe your institution came out with a brand expression that was totally groundbreaking. You shook up the marketplace, upped your enrolment numbers, and carved a niche. Maybe you even won a CASE award for it. Congratulations! But you’re not off the hook.

You need competitive analyses because your brand needs a defence. You can’t have people copying you. A regular scan can tell you if anyone is nipping at your coattails — and give you a chance to tell them to kindly knock it off at the next luncheon.

For effective competitive analyses, follow all the usual suspects–and then some.

Thanks to virtual learning your institution is competing with more schools than ever before. But if you think we’re going to tell you to competitively analyze everyone, relax. You may have to follow a lot of competitors, but there’s a more targeted approach. 

Your institution’s true competitive scan should focus on these main competitors:

  • Institutions that have a similar offering (other medical/doctoral, undergraduates, polytechnics, research intensives, comprehensives, trades schools)
  • Institutions closely operating in your region that you’ll be competing against in the local market
  • Institutions drawing from the same pool of right-fit students you’re targeting. 

Try to follow as many in the industry as possible without feeling like you’re trying to drink from a firehose. Though that sounds like a lot, as long as you’re following industry blogs and keeping up with who’s winning the awards, you should have a good idea of what is going on outside your main pool of competitors.

During the course of your findings, it’s possible that you’ll find some similarities with another institution. Hey, it’s a small world. But if they’re a different kind of school, in a vastly different place with a different focus, and they’re not drawing from your student pool, give yourself a break. Just make sure that whatever the area of overlap is, you put your own mark on it. 

7 tips to get the most out of your competitive analysis.

If you’ve let competitive analyses fall by the wayside, don’t stress. You can always jump in. But if you want to maximize your team’s efforts, here are a few helpful tips.

  1. Assign someone to monitor your competitors — It should be one person’s responsibility to follow all your relevant competitors on social media, subscribe to their blogs, and routinely check their websites. Then, they should update everyone on what they find that’s worth noting.
  2. Share what you find — If you see something, say something. And encourage everyone else to share interesting ideas they find, and talk about them. Maybe you’ll realize you’re doing the same thing. Maybe you’ll take some inspiration. You’ll never know unless you share.
  3. Enlist some help — Ask your friends in recruitment to pick up copies of competitors’ marketing materials and viewbooks when they attend recruitment or job fairs. Having tangible marketing materials will give you a comprehensive analysis.
  4. Subscribe to industry blogs — Sign up to receive alerts from some higher ed. marketing blogs and newsletters that cover the sector at large. For instance: We follow Eduvation and Bob Johnson Consulting, among others.
  5. Get inspired — We don’t advocate ripping off someone else’s brand messages and campaign ideas. But if there’s innovative material another school is producing, take notes. Draw inspiration from their tactics or tools, then put your unique twist on it.
  6. Follow industry awards winners — Check out the CASE awards site and its archive for some truly impactful work. Take a look at what’s been done at the international level and especially in your region. You’ll know who is best to follow as you identify your main competitors.
  7. ABC: Always Be ComparingDon’t let this inspirational/defence mechanism fall off your radar. The more you know what’s going on around you, the better you can strategize and position your brand for success.

If nothing else, your impetus to perform routine competitive analyses should be to say something that cuts through the noise. And in the process of studying what everyone else is doing, you should be inspired to find your own brand expression. 

Leave your competitors to worry about how to avoid imitating you.

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