Generation Z & your school’s USPs: Unique or Ubiquitous?

  • Posted by Richard Bradford
  • 16th November 2016
Generation Z & your school’s USPs: Unique or Ubiquitous?

However you dress it up, the likelihood is that many of your organisation’s proclaimed USPs are far from unique. And yet we know that in actual fact every school or centre of learning is genuinely different. So how do you position your school for Generation Z (7-20 yrs) and Millennials (15-30 yrs) in a way which resonates with them from a marketing perspective but also genuinely delivers to their expectations?

Do you sell your school on these USPs?

I once told one of my sales and marketing teams that unique selling points (USPs) were dead. It was a provocative statement intended to wean people off the idea that you could sell a school based on:

  • Speed and strength of the WiFi
  • A good number of classrooms
  • Up-to-date-ness of its (interactive) whiteboards
  • How nice the reception area is
  • Other facilities like libraries, quiet work areas, break out areas, restaurant, grounds
  • Qualifications of staff
  • Good location
  • Eclectic student population
  • Website full of smiling people having a great experience.

All schools are definitely not the same. It’s also true that the one I worked in, International House London, was particularly exemplary and highly coveted in terms of its physical presence. However most schools will put a positive spin on whatever they’ve got (of course) and in spite of the very real differences, it can quickly seem that “they’re all the same”. So the selling points appear more UBIQUITOUS than UNIQUE.

USPs and Generation Z

At the time I proposed that my team focus instead on the school’s service levels and its adaptability to individual requests, and a greater focus on “the experience”. That may have been right to a point, but today’s Generation Z buyers, and the Millennials before them, may have specific traits which we can pick up on in our marketing. And by marketing, I’m thinking as much about how our insights might change our offerings, and not just change how we sell the same old educational product with a new shiny wrapper. That’s important because the one thing Generation Z excels at is its ability to see beyond what organisations want us to believe!

Before we look at 10 features of Generation Z and what this might mean for how schools market themselves online and off, it’s worth taking a look at one further ‘USP’ which is still seen by schools to be an absolute differentiator: quality.

Are quality standards the ultimate USP?

Quality of provision is one of the most resilient USPs which schools and colleges attempt to compete on. Whilst the factors on which quality is judged may vary wildly, the key perceived benefit of referencing quality is that:

  • Quality standards are usually external validated and calibrated
  • Overall measures include a wide range of features of the school and may give an overall impression
  • External reports are more impartial than what the school says about itself
  • Ranking tables and quality benchmarks make it easier to compare schools

In the state sector in the UK, OFSTED (The Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills) is a non-ministerial government department which inspects schools and colleges, childcare services and many other organisations as well as overseeing the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI) too. In the private training sector, scores of independently managed accreditation and inspection bodies exist to monitor, measure and quantify quality.

But how does even the most official national or international quality standard actually benefit an organisation, and how important is that quality stamp to Generation Z’ers – the roughly seven to 20 year-olds you may be dealing with?

How important is it to Generation Z that you’re outstanding?

Well if any of my recent conversations with students is anything to go by, probably not very. Whilst Generation Z will be more vigilant in terms of your genuine ability to serve their needs than previous generations, there is a widely held assumption amongst students that an education provider is competent at delivering education. It’s the one thing that a student in your establishment should be able to take for granted. Quality tables and rankings may therefore be a great way of schools to psyche each other out, jostle behind the scenes within their respective markets, and push at their staff to up performance levels, but they might not be the absolute indicator to the outside world that some believe them to be.

OFSTED, for example, labels the top establishments as “OUTSTANDING”. This level is extremely hard to achieve these days as standards and benchmarks change regularly to keep the outstanding classification partly aspirational. The best way to get outstanding is not to aim for the classification itself, but rather to be truly inspiring, make real and significant differences to individual people’s lives, and give them the best possible chances in life. This approach starts to take us closer to what Generation Z is looking for, and possibly what your USPs should be more about.


10 Aspects of Generation Z, and what that means for USPs


1) It’s all about building my personal brand

Well it looks like we’re all at it now. Organisations like schools, colleges and universities have clearly been in this game for a long time. But how can an education provider find the time to worry about individuals’ personal brands? Well sure, it sounds like a stretch too far, but it actually ties nicely into the notion of differentiated learning strategies. In the classroom, teachers have the time to get to know students, and in the case of international students studying away from home, training providers will often combine teaching with extra-curricular activities. Finding out what makes students the individuals they are, including hobbies, likes and interests, and facilitating their access to more of the same will give them a great opportunity to show and share how they’re able to live their lives and personal brand attributes whilst still studying with your organisation.

2) I really like being mentored

Generation Z needs that extra reassurance. It comes from being born into one of the most uncertain eras in modern memory. Whilst they’re individualistic, they’re not entirely independent, and seek support and guidance too. Education providers can therefore seize the opportunity to assign a trusted learning mentor to provide them with round-the-clock help to:

  • develop individual learning strategies
  • work through their unique challenges and sticking points
  • work out progression routes and learning pathways
  • get guidance on future careers and options

3) I’m committed to learning, discovering, skilling up. I’m naturally curious.

I’ve only to look at my own children to know how very self-motivated they can be (if they’re in the mood). If those supposedly in the know are unable to give the answer to a question, then we’re all of the era that we’ll ‘Google it’. However Generation Z will go further. They now no longer expect their teachers and elders to have all the answers.

Their unique questions can get a more multifaceted answer online than any individual can provide. Some of the more forward thinking approaches to education, including flipped learning and self-organising learning environments (SOLEs) point very much towards the idea that you can harness Generation Z’s natural curiosity and allow them the freedom to find their own answers and report back to their peers. Not only is this a highly empowering methodology but it also drops the status of a teacher down from being the person who is supposed to know everything to a more manageable level of facilitator and mentor. Not only is this more realistic, but it also fits with the Generation Z mindset.

4) I’m naturally sceptical of big organisations

Aren’t we all?! None of us generally believe what huge corporate entities and governments are telling us any more. With Generation Z this is particularly acute. This also means, significantly, that it no longer matters what organisations say about themselves. Generation Z will therefore be more likely to:

  • trawl blogs and forums
  • check independent ratings sites
  • avidly read the one star and five star feedback comments
  • check out how much of a buzz there is on social media platforms
  • ensure there are direct routes in to real people in the organisation who will be honest and open
  • look out for student ambassadors and talk to these first

5) I will avoid risk where possible. I look after my money.

This generation has possibly grown up with parents having to watch their money more than those brought up in the decade before. Money is tighter now, and a stronger return on investment is required. A shorter degree may be better than a long one if it arrives at the same outcome. An online course which teaches a Generation Z’er in a creative way where there is plenty of community might be as good as a face-to-face option, especially if there is lots of full sight, sound and motion involved, as they’ve come to expect from Messaging apps, Snapchat, FaceTime and similar.

6) I actually prefer person to person contact, even though I’m totally digital too.

Here’s the surprise in some ways. Generation Zers are most likely to be using their digital platforms to stay in touch with their best friends and deepen their relationships. Hence why many schools these days are talking up the sense of community and belonging and possibly worrying less about messages related to outcomes and attainment. Education establishments which are actually walking the walk on this and investing time and effort to bring people together socially are also seeing the benefits in terms of attainment and achievement. This points strongly to the fact that if you facilitate Generation Z being Generation Z in their learning environment, you’ll also get the academic stretch you’re looking for as an educator.

7) I can consume information rapidly and my attention span is short

This article would not suit a Generation Zer particularly. It’s simply not succinct enough! Messaging is so important these days. The way to start is to cut to the absolute essential. Twitter is a good mentor here. If you can say it in fewer words, do so. If you can communicate an idea in a picture which also invokes an emotional response, all the better. The only place for tons of text on your website is your blog. For everywhere else, keep it simple. Once they’ve found your site on Google, Generation Z will be off elsewhere to see what everyone else thinks of you anyway.

8) I need stability and security

Generation Z is less likely to simply go travelling without a proper plan in place. They may need help with that plan. Another trait of Generation Z is that they actually quite like products. They like feature rich stuff that is clever and well thought out. Maybe in education terms that starts with some very careful, active listening on a one-to-one, mentoring-style approach around a Generation Z’er’s goals and objectives. Then it could be around creating a specific package which fits the bill, where every component is known and understood. This could manifest itself online with a personalised digital brochure, or a clever personal video proposal.

9) I’m resourceful. I’ll seek out my own solutions.

This generation has only known a digital world. Therefore it’s no surprise that their first instinct will be to ‘go search’. This is where your online positioning and online brand is so important. In order to appear high up on search, you have to have content which is highly relevant to the specific searches that Generation Z is making. It’s possible to conduct research and audits into your organisation’s unique search landscape so that the content you write for your site is ready and waiting to answer the questions you know your potential students are likely to be asking. The more specific the information you provide, the more genuinely trustworthy you will be to those seeking it out. If you can’t anticipate those questions, and you’ve not even thought about what people might want to know, how can prove you’re really bothered about them as individuals?

10) I’m OK walking an individual route. There are other people like me out there in the world.

In spite of the need for real contact with real people, Generation Z has built on the Millennials’ ability to reach out to people around the world and find like-minded individuals. If you are working in an international branch of education, it might be worth considering how you could help your students to hook up with like minded people as part of their studies. What connections do you have as an organisation with other organisations around the world, and might that be a strong message and example for your students? Would you genuinely be a richer and more connected organisation as a result? How could you help your students to connect more through the medium of their studies with you?


So, if you have any USPs at all, these days they’re likely to be in the unique ways that you’re able to connect into the needs of Generation Z and their Millennial forerunners. Never has it been more the case that your brand and your USPs live only in the perception of the beholder. It no longer matters what you think and what you say. Give Generation Z what it needs to succeed in the world, and let those successful students say it for you. Because that will be believable.


Richard Bradford is MD of Disquiet Dog

This article has been adapted from an excerpt of Richard’s forthcoming book.


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Is this a theme you’re interested in? Richard Bradford has spoken extensively at conferences around the world and has written for publications including Times Educational Supplement, The Independent, The Guardian and The Telegraph. Please use the contact form if you would like to discuss future speaking engagements.


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