Institutional positioning

By in News


The University of Sakatchewan is looking to define its public image and it needs your help.

Unfortunately, it looks like U of S students aren’t interested. Thousands of students got the invitation in their announcements on PAWS asking, “What should the University of Saskatchewan be known for?”Â However, only a handful of students showed up to the institutional positioning town hall on Sept. 18.

External consultant Alex Usher, director and vice-president for the Educational Policy Institute, said “positioning” is superficially similar to the way businesses brand themselves to compete in the marketplace.

The Institutional Positioning Project’s goal is to “pinpoint our place in the Canadian post-secondary education sector in a single relevant and compelling statement.”

Universities are different, he said, because where businesses brand themselves to make more money, universities are after prestige. And according to Usher, prestige comes from research and graduates.

“People do see your students, they do care about the graduates that come out of universities,” he said. “It’s the quality of graduates that’s really important. There is a correlation between what types of students you bring in and the type of student you bring out.”

The group wants students’ feedback but there’s no guarantee everyone will be happy with the end results.

“You can’t be all things to all people in positioning,” Usher pointed out. “The positioning tells a story about the school. It’s a framework of how you talk to people. It’s telling the story that makes you attractive to the people you want.”
Positioning Chart
Heather Magotiaux, project chair and vice-president university advancement, stressed a similar point, saying the project isn’t intended to reinvent the university, just to give the university a clear, definable image and an easy way for administrators, professors and students to talk about their school that is attractive to potential students. The positioning initiative is part of the university’s integrated plan — a four-year plan for the direction of the university.

Usher pointed to increasing national and international competition between universities as one of the reasons the branding process is important. Students will move where they think they will get the best credentials and the U of S could be that place if it has the right kind of image.

One of the challenges of positioning is finding a unique way to describe the university. Magotiaux gave a few examples of slogans and statements from several North American universities that sounded vague and similar, using words such as “excellence,” “research” and “best.” Examples from some of the best known universities in the world, such as Harvard and MIT, were more specific.

Breaking out of obscurity?
Right now, the U of S doesn’t have much of a national or international image. In a survey conducted by the positioning group, the words people connected to the University of Saskatchewan included prairie, far, agriculture, good and Saskatchewan, but the number one response was “I don’t know.”

To drive the point home that the university needs an identity, Magotiaux played an old clip from This Hour Has 22 Minutes. The faux newscast has a report on Victoria Beckham being photographed wearing a University of Saskatchewan sweatshirt in 2003, when the reporter says that before this event, the university was known for “nothing.”

“Positioning has to be relevant and relevant to the consumer,” said Usher. “It has to be credible — everyone can’t say they’re Harvard if they’re not — and it has to be differentiated. What’s different about you?”

“It has to be credible — everyone can’t say they’re Harvard if they’re not — and it has to be differentiated. What’s different about you?”
—Heather Magotiaux
VP university advancement

This is where feedback from the university community comes in. The positioning team wants to hear from the people whom the branding is going to reflect on most.

“When you decide what degree you’ll have on the wall, what do you want people to say about the place you graduated from?” asked Magotiaux, explaining why students should care about the process.

“Sometimes people worry that when we talk about positioning, we’re talking about a slogan or logo and how we sell ourselves,” said Magotiaux. “It’s got to be credible, it’s got to be real and we have a lot to be proud of at our university. It’s not about what we say, it’s about what we do. We need to tap into everyone to do this.”

The project is overseen by nine committee members and five resource group members from around the university, as well as representatives from external partners Interbrand Canada and the Educational Policy Institute.

The group has been working on the project since February or March and through research, engagement and feedback, they hope to have a working model of the positioning strategy by April 2010.

For more information, or to give the group your feedback, see or email