Differentiation and College Marketing

Don't blame the marketers alone for the lack of differentiation in higher ed.

May 5, 2016

A number of institutions made news in the past week for stakeholder dissatisfaction with a new college identity and perceived similarity between a newly launched brand campaign and that of a another university.

This raises yet again the question of differentiation among colleges and universities. Or at least in the way they depict themselves visually and verbally.

Let’s not kid ourselves: it’s a difficult challenge to create a visual image and write a brief statement that capture a complex institution. Which is one reason why so many colleges and universities appear to be similar in their visual identities and taglines.

Furthermore, it’s very difficult to come up with images that are completely new. Designers are always influenced by images they’ve seen before and, because it's subconscious, they aren’t deliberately “copying” anything.

Marketer Spencer Chen, vice president of marketing and business development at Alibaba Group, made that very point last week. He tweeted familiar-looking images that resemble but nevertheless aren’t the logos of Medium, AirBNB, Flipboard and Beats, asserting that “Nothing is original, esp. in #design.”

Plus, we just don’t like change

It’s also a fact that college and university stakeholders are conservative by nature. They feel emotionally connected to the institution and its existing logo and just don’t like a change, any change. Marty Neumeier touches on the reason for this when he asserts in The Brand Gap that “A brand is a person’s gut feeling about a product, service, or organization." 

Though consumers react badly when commercial brands redesign [look what happened when GAP launched a new logo in 2010]  the controversies around changing or even evolving university logos reveal how powerfully institutional images have affected certain constituents and how enduring their attachment can be.

So one lesson to be learned is that the longer a logo is in use, the more attached people become to it. If you’re going to make a change, you’re just going to have to ride out the criticism while the new logo takes hold. It takes patience.

Differentiation isn't easy

When it comes to university taglines, I always like to send people to Stamats’ Higher Education Tagline Repository. It’s a revealing experience for anyone.

But to me, the similarity of the taglines from many institutions isn’t really a statement on the creativity of tagline writers as much as it is a reflection of the limited number of words in the English language that can be used to describe the complex range of experiences that most colleges offer and the myriad feelings they evoke. It's, as well, a recognition of the lack of differentiation among colleges and universities.

So it’s one thing to decry cliches in college marketing and another entirely to create something that’s truly distinctive and meaningful. Recent attempts illustrate just how hard that is to accomplish.

And, in fact, even the best logo and most original tagline, in themselves, don’t really differentiate an institution. The thousands of colleges and universities in this country are far more alike in what they do than they are different. That’s a reality that marketers — and more importantly, senior administrators, faculty, and others who love their institutions and have the power to change things — must face. 

Focus on demonstrating value

Today, consumers expect colleges and universities to demonstrate clear value around the education they offer and deliver to those who enroll in their programs. To meet these expectations means careful attention to how academic programs and related services are evolving to meet the needs of a changing world.

It’s not impossible for colleges to do this. In College (Un)Bound, Jeff Selingo offers snapshots of institutions ranging from private liberal arts colleges to huge universities that are offering different kinds of educational experiences to students.

This is real differentiation. And it is very hard to do. It requires vision; imagination; hard work; commitment from administration, faculty, and staff; and money. And it takes time. I’ll never discount the value of images and language to tell an institution’s story in powerful and authentic ways. But marketers can’t invent differentiation when it doesn't exist.


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