Think + Do » an exploration of mission-driven marketing and design

And Now for Something Completely Different

Like the very proper announcer who provided transitions between outlandish scenes in Monty Python’s Flying Circus, colleges and universities would like to promise that they are completely different from their competitors. Unfortunately, most schools’ marketing boldly goes where everyone has gone before:

  • Where Success Begins With You!
  • From Here You Can Go Anywhere!
  • What College Should Be!

Though one might fault marketers for a lack of imagination, the truth is a little more painful: most schools just aren’t that different. And that spells trouble.

Warning signs
Books, magazines, newspapers, and music have all seen dominant business models rendered obsolete in recent years. Higher education is ripe for the same kind of disruption witnessed in other information industries.

Earlier this year, technology observer Clay Shirky argued that “complex societies collapse because, when some stress comes, those societies have become too inflexible to respond.” Notice any stress in higher ed recently?

Trying to be all things to all people can prevent institutions from responding to the challenge of doing things differently.

No one said this was going to be easy
As difficult as it might be for some institutions to undertake a new branding or marketing effort, it pales in comparison to taking a cold hard look in the mirror and deciding “We’re this, not that.”

The fact that this kind of systemic review hasn’t happened on a broad scale only points to the opportunity waiting for those institutions able to move more urgently. As Anya Kamenetz notes in her book, DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, if institutions are unable or unwilling to change, others will fill the void.

Different is as different does
What might this new world of higher education look like? It could be college that’s no longer campus-based. It could come from a realization that all students are “non-traditional.” Maybe some schools will entirely forsake athletics. The point is that a higher education monoculture is both unacceptable and unhealthy.

Some schools already maintain distinct models that serve them well:

  • At St. John’s College in Maryland, there are no majors or departments. All classes are discussion-based and no textbooks are used. Now that’s different!
  • At Berea College all students receive a full, four-year scholarship, putting real action behind the school’s mission to provide opportunity to academically promising students who have limited financial resources.
  • Missouri University of Science & Technology, formerly the University of Missouri-Rolla, changed its named to better reflect the school’s academic focus.

Different is good
Cynically, one could look at marketing simply as a way to raise the perceived value of what colleges offer so that regular cost increases are more acceptable. Ideally, however, a marketing campaign helps a school draw distinctions that attract students who are the right fit. The better an organization can differentiate its operations and offerings, not just its tagline, the more successful its marketing will be.

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United We Brand

Many organizations choose to market some of their products and services differently from their core brand. This is common in industries ranging from hotels and cars to food products and clothing retailers. For example, The Gap, Banana Republic, and Old Navy are parts of a single corporation. While all three stores sell clothes, they each have a distinct price point, customer base, visual identity and marketing.

Is such an approach appropriate and beneficial in the non-profit sector? Or do you risk diluting your brand? Consider the following questions:

What is your organization’s core promise?

Whether for a small non-profit organization or a large, national retailer, a brand is more about what’s being promised than what’s being sold. For example, Old Navy promises fashionable, casual basics for its young, value-conscious customer, while Banana Republic offers more formal, higher-end clothes for young working adults.

Similarly, most colleges and universities serve customers with a wide variety of interests ranging from business and the arts to engineering and medicine. Should each program be branded separately? While it would be unrealistic to suggest that all programs are of equal quality or prestige, the core promise from the university is basically the same: We will provide an education that will help you pursue your chosen career.

Before fragmenting your message or modifying your brand, consider your important similarities as much as your superficial differences.

Who is your target audience?

Different audiences often have different needs. Because she knows the brand, a 30-year-old looking for an outfit to wear to the office is not going to shop at Old Navy. Similarly, a teenager may turn to a non-profit organization with different needs than a working adult.

Because a university primarily serves students, a department that serves a distinctly different audience – providing agricultural resources to the neighboring community, for instance – might want to market itself differently. In this case, one must ask: How important is the association with the university? If that association is a large motivator for the target audience to turn to the department, you probably want to think twice before obscuring that connection.

What is your audience looking for?

Collection of Pew Research logos.The Pew Research Center provides information on American issues, attitudes and trends. Though different Pew-sponsored programs delve into a broad array of topics, a quick look at the description of each of these programs reveals that that they all provide the same service – information. The organization’s many programs would benefit from reinforcing its audience’s expectations for reliable insights and data, instead of creating distinct logos for each (see graphic).

Conversely, the fans of a university’s athletics teams are seeking entertainment, while its students in the classroom are seeking a degree. In this case, it makes sense to brand the university’s athletics and academics differently.

The sum of many parts

We’re all inclined to think that our organization, department, program, or service is unique. But, you’d be wise to carefully consider the benefits and perils of pursuing distinctly different brands before proceeding. Often it is those unique factors that work together to shape your audience’s perception of a single, solid brand.

By Claire Napier and Dan Woychick