In Defense of the Tagline (But Not Every Tagline)

Tired of the constant disparaging of higher ed taglines? Rob Zinkan speaks up.
August 16, 2016

Higher education marketing is frequently derided for its lack of differentiation, and the much-maligned tagline is often front and center in such critiques. Frankly, I’m tired of the constant disparaging of higher ed taglines. I don’t think it advances the conversation.

When this criticism arises or there is yet another reference to the poem of college taglines, why do we just shrug our shoulders? (I have been guilty of this as well.)

Instead of shrugging or joining in on the bashing, perhaps we should start speaking up.

Tagline ≠ brand

A brand is not a logo, a tagline, or an ad. Comparing taglines, like comparing logos, is an empty exercise. Many institutions don’t even use a tagline, and that’s fine because it alone is not the brand. We try to educate our faculty and staff colleagues that brand strategy is about much more than a tagline, so let’s practice what we preach when looking at other institutions.

A platform, not an oversimplification

One of the knocks against the higher ed tagline is that it oversimplifies or sloganizes our multidimensional institutions and offerings. For my university, “Fulfilling the Promise” is not just a tagline, it’s the name of our brand strategy, which came from a disciplined, research-validated process. For a diverse institution with multiple campuses and more than 100,000 students, “Fulfilling the Promise” and our 15 brand promises serve as a unifying platform for all partners across the university to tell the brand story. It provides campuses, schools, and units a foundation on which to build customized positioning strategies and bring the brand to life for their specific audiences, while both contributing to and leveraging the overall institutional brand.

We are not the target audience

We may look at another institution’s tagline and think it sounds generic. But we’re not the target audience. Paul Redfern showed how “Do Great Work” resonates for the constituents of Gettysburg College and captures the essence of that institution. On the surface, “Do Great Work” may not seem differentiating, until you see how it is rooted in the college’s core values and reflects the experiences people have there. (As a side note, could we all follow Paul’s lead and use the term “signature line” instead of “tagline”?)

Another example is the widespread public criticism—much of it harsh—that Penn State University faced when it unveiled a refreshed, digital-friendly academic logo last year. Fueled by social media, critics lambasted various elements of the lion-based logo. Some detractors may not have realized that the lion is based on Penn State’s iconic Nittany Lion Shrine. Penn State leaders conducted testing with their stakeholders, built internal buy-in, and had the institutional fortitude to continue despite the criticism, understanding that change can be difficult at tradition-laden institutions. The naysayers were not the target audience.

The competitive set matters

There are approximately 4,000 colleges and universities in the U.S. Yes, it’s easy to step back and point to examples of sameness across the industry. We are improving our marketing sophistication as a sector, and we can further improve. However, we are not competing against every other school. Points of differentiation reside where we are doing something—relevant to our target audience—different from (or better than) our competitors. An individual tagline that may not sound unique in the context of 4,000 institutions may in fact be differentiating within one’s primary competitive set of a dozen or so schools.

“Start Here. Go Anywhere.”, for instance, might work well for a community college that has more articulation agreements with area four-year universities than its competition and thus offers more pathways to a bachelor’s degree and career success.

Differentiation and focus—while at the heart of effective brand strategy—do not always translate easily to complex higher education settings. Our institutions were not founded to be different from one another (but where there is competition, there is branding). True differentiation is hard. Let’s continue the discussion, but let’s move beyond the tagline and dig a little deeper.

Rob Zinkan is associate vice president, marketing, at Indiana University. In his 14 years there, he has also served as vice chancellor for external affairs and assistant dean for advancement at two different IU campuses.


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