Australian universities take plagiarism by students or academic staff very seriously. But some, particulary those caught in the uniquely competitive Melbourne tertiary market, seem less concerned about originality when it comes to brand positioning and promotion.

In April 2007, the University of Melbourne launched “dream large”, a campaign it described as “a stimulus to attract the brightest minds and to create a generation of good global citizens and future leaders to tackle… major issues that face humanity”. Criticised in some quarters as elitist and grandiose, “dream large” nonetheless made a clear statement about the position Melbourne seeks to occupy in the Australian – and global – tertiary education market on the back of its radical “Melbourne model”.

A key visual device used in the “dream large” TV commercials and online is a view of the Earth as seen from space, against a black background. Some observers have been understandably surprised, that Monash University’s 2008 re-branding campaign, “Go boldly”, uses an image of the Earth from space in place of the letter “O” in the word “Go”, also set against a black background.

And the similarities don’t end with superficial features like the logo. Monash says its campaign is based on a vision that sounds strikingly similar to Melbourne’s, namely to “go boldly into the future with ambition and courage … we must reach out to the world if we are to continue having a positive impact on all facets of the human condition.” But, strategically, Monash hasn’t done anything remotely as bold as the Melbourne model … it’s just a slogan.

Meanwhile, earlier this year, La Trobe University launched a more restrained campaign using billboard posters with the tagline “Infinite possibilities”. If you were paying attention you might have noticed that in 2007 – before it went boldly – Monash ran ads inviting prospective students to “Engage with a world of possibility”.

If the Monash marketing people go (boldly, presumably) to La Trobe’s online Marketing Hub, they’ll find that top of the list of La Trobe’s brand messages is “We are bold enough to think we can change the world — and we do” and the tone of voice of the La Trobe brand is “brave and bold in approach”.

At the RMIT University homepage, a world map with the words “global passport” links to a poorly-written page that, in the space of just three paragraphs, manages to use all the clichés: “international university”, “global passport”, “international best practice”, “place on the world stage”, “well regarded overseas”, “across the globe”, “global university”, “world wide”, “international network”, “no boundaries” and “engage with the world”.

Is all this just an unfortunate series of coincidences, or something more troubling? Since the beginning of 2008, two Melbourne communications agencies have told stories of being asked by two different universities to address the same very simple brief: “We want a ‘dream large’ too!”. One agency says it declined such a brief because the strategy was simply wrong.

Intentionally or not, Monash and La Trobe in particular come across as adopting convergent, “me-too” brand positions, making words like “global”, “bold”, “possibilities” and “humanity” sound vague and hollow. This suggests a disturbing lack of strategic vision in an increasingly competitive market. As marketing strategies go, it’s far from bold and implies that only limited possibilities were considered.

Why spend lots of money on a fancy re-branding campaign if you can’t stand for something distinctive? Perhaps that’s why few universities outside Victoria have so far gone down this track.

Among those that have, it’s refreshing to find one approach that’s not derivative, vague or unimaginative. Bond University has a creative and dynamic advertising campaign around the theme of “Chase your ambition” that focuses on a tangible, believable benefit – graduate outcomes. Bond’s TV ad is engaging and inspiring, but not at all pompous, a perfect fit for a university that wants to be seen as independent and entrepreneurial and to attract like-minded students.

Stephen Downes lectures in the postgraduate advertising program at RMIT University and is a market researcher with QBrand Consulting.