Our 2017/18 research project reviewed the online brand profile of the best universities in the world - the top 50 in world in all four main global rankings, plus W100 members and nominated peers. Each university was assessed by two independent analysts on key brand attributes between January and June 2018.

The research found that top universities really struggle to look or sound different when their websites are compared. 50 universities use the same or similar shades of blue, and the best online brands are not necessarily the highest ranked.

Brand Snapshot Research 2017/18: Measuring online brand strength in world-class universities - Full Report

The project analysed the websites of 100 global institutions, finding that they adopted the same language, with phrases like ‘world impact’ and ‘challenging’ being repeated regularly.

Very few employed the techniques of brand campaigns that commercial companies use to clarify their points of difference or engage consumers with humour or succinct messages.

Few made the most of their locations, or used social media in imaginative ways. Only a limited number used their academics to illuminate their research strengths or explain their teaching styles. Institutional news was dominated by dull photographs of handshakes and visions were often multiple pages long.

Those that appeared most distinctive were prepared to say what they were really focused on, with engaging story-telling, and strong visual and personalised approaches. Such as Helsinki, with its powerful public engagement campaigns and its revolutionary Think Corner, or Manchester, with five ‘research beacons’ of excellence.

North American institutions were less good at explaining their global presence or international offerings. Asian universities tended to have formal approaches to language and old-fashioned designs. Across all continents, universities relied on long lists of rankings or partnerships to justify their brand, rather than explain what they were really good at.

“In such a competitive higher education world, universities have a long way to go in engaging the busy reader who looks at their website,” said Louise Simpson, Director of the World 100 Reputation Network. “Too many of them look and sound the same, and can’t explain what it is that makes them special. They really need to be much bolder both in the way they communicate, and in what they communicate. Good branding requires both creativity and decisiveness!”

The top 25 online university brands in the W100 study were dominated by universities from the English-speaking world, such as MelbourneIllinoisUBCBirmingham and Queen’s BelfastKeio University (Japan) stood out among Asian global universities; and GroningenHelsinkiAarhus and Karolinska were the European online brand leaders.