Tricia Scott, research leader for the project, said that universities had to discover and communicate the “core” of what they do.
But at the moment, she said, “we all use exactly the same words” and many mission statements resembled a “horse designed by a committee”.
“If you look at mission statements in the sector, you see camels,” she said.
Ms Scott pointed to Ikea’s motto – “affordable design” – as one that pithily captured what was distinctive about the company.
Distinctiveness was “not about being unique” but about finding a “combination of things” that add up to a distinctive whole, she said.
She added that an institution’s distinguishing qualities had to be “imperfectly imitable”, otherwise competitors would simply copy them.
Ms Scott suggested that universities conduct a “brand audit” to see what consumers think about them – in the same way that Brains, a Cardiff-based brewery, had done. The brewer found that its brand was associated with tradition, the elderly and local Cardiff pubs, prompting a rebranding exercise based on “optimism”.
Asked if there was an industry with 150 distinctive brands, Ms Scott pointed to the retail sector, where “at least” that many were to be found.