Positioning A University In A Competitive Market

by Freddie R. Obligacion, Ph.D

The higher education market has become highly competitive. This has spurred academic managers to cater to a diversified studentry, conduct cutting-edge research, strengthen services to communities and establish their institutions as economic, technological and innovation powerhouses locally, nationally and internationally.

In response to the opportunities and threats posed by keen competition, a coherent and viable market positioning strategy needs to be crafted. In fact, university positioning has evolved into a focal point for academic leaders, higher education researchers and policymakers.

Positioning is a strategic exercise to impress the image of a service or product in a potential customer’s mind. To do this, a careful delineation of the four Ps – promotion, price, place, and product/service – must be conducted. The more detailed the positioning strategy is at defining the Ps, the more effective the strategy will be.

There are five steps in fashioning a viable university position.

First is the crafting of a positioning statement. A positioning statement is a declaration one or two sentences long that succinctly captures the university’s unique value relative to its competitors.Before writing the positioning statement, the following issues must be addressed: Who is the university’s target clientele? What category does the university belong to? What is the biggest advantage the university provides? Can you prove that advantage?Once a positioning statement is expressed, the following aspects need to be considered: Does it do a good job of differentiating the university from its competitors? Does it share the university’s unique value? Is it focused on the target market and its needs? Is it consistent across all areas of the university? Is it easy for university outsiders to understand?If the answer to all of the above is yes, one can be confident that the positioning statement is apropos and ready to be shared publicly.A good example of a positioning statement is the State University of New York at Buffalo:“The University at Buffalo amplifies ambition for students, faculty, staff and the community, offering vast possibilities of achievement in a diverse, supportive and creative environment.”

The second step in establishing a university position is the creation of a tagline. A tagline is a shorter and catchier version of the positioning statement that tells the target market everything it needs to know in a short, memorable line. Here are a few well-known taglines for reference:

L’Oreal: “Because you’re worth it.”
Nike: “Just do it.”
B&Q: “You can do it when you B&Q it.”
California Milk Processor Board: “Got Milk?”

The third step in positioning is conducting competitor analysis, a process of identifying the university’s competitors and analyzing their strengths and weaknesses. Competitor analysis must take into account the following factors:Objectives. What share of the market do your competitors have? What’s their growth rate?

History. Take a look at their past marketing efforts and their dominant messages.Strategy. Assess promotional campaigns and advertisements

Audience. What’s their relationship with their clientele like? Analyze social media, features, collaborations, and review sites to determine their strong and weak points.The fourth step in positioning is the evaluation of the university’s current position. What is the university’s location relative to its competitors? How do competitors size up the university’s capabilities? How do university constituents view the university’s role in the market?Once the market status of the university is figured out, the fifth step can now be undertaken; that is, the crafting of an impactful marketing strategy.In a study conducted in Turkish universities, eight different positioning strategies were identified in which universities attempted to be distinct from each other through their promotional videos.

These strategies are internationalization, training systems, academic achievement, social and sporting facilities, job opportunities, physical facilities, scholarship and dormitory facilities, and rooted history.

The internationalization strategy accounts for international accreditation. For instance, students and staff may participate in an international exchange program. Further, international scientific, social, and cultural activities are organized on campus. The university also provides training and a joint degree via 12 international joint degree programs of the partner universities in the United States.

The training systems strategy is how well students are being taught critical, inquisitive, social, teamwork skills, and achievement-oriented expertise.

The academic achievement strategy is related to several scientific projects, publications, and patents which are made by the faculty and lecturers at the university, and other scientific activities in the university.

The social and sporting facilities strategy is associated with social, cultural, and sportive activities which are held on campus, and the number of student clubs, and places for social activities.

The job opportunities strategy is related to job placement rates of graduates, positions staffed by graduates, application classes in the university, entrepreneurship and career courses, and relations between the university and the private sector.

The physical facilities strategy is associated with the accessibility of the campus and facilities in the campus.

The scholarship and dormitory facilities strategy stand for the capacity and comfort of the dormitories which the university has and scholarship opportunities of the university. 

The rooted history strategy is associated with how old, well-known, and big the university is, and the numbers of students, graduated students, faculty, departments, and campuses of the university.

The findings of this research indicate that the physical facilities strategy is the most frequently used in promotional movies. Findings also show that both public and foundation universities emphasize the location, accessibility, attractiveness, and technological equipment of their campuses, and facilities on the campuses such as restaurants, cafes, health centers, and sports complexes. These features of the universities are the most accentuated ones not only in the promotional movies, but also in the print advertisements of the universities in Turkey.

The second most frequently used in promotional movies is the social and sporting facilities. This strategy accounts for student clubs, sporting events, social events, cultural events, and social centers on the campuses of the universities. On the other hand, the scholarship and dormitory facilities strategy is the least used.

Results also indicate that public universities mostly engaged in the internationalization strategy, academic achievement strategy, and rooted history strategy.

In conclusion, universities with a carefully formulated positioning strategy can better navigate the uncertain and unpredictable demands of a constantly shifting market.


DR. FREDDIE R. OBLIGACION is an alumnus of The Ohio State University-Columbus (MA, PhD sociology) and the University of the Philippines-Diliman (MBA Honors and BS Psych., magna cum laude). He is currently studying leadership preferences and the community impact of grassroots entrepreneurship


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