A Great College Brand That Works

Gettysburg College has implemented a brand and is proud to talk about it.

May 31, 2016

In contrast to many colleges, Gettysburg has implemented a brand and is proud to talk about it.

Recent Inside Higher Ed articles from Ellen Wexler and Michael Stoner on college branding prompted some thoughtful reactions and debate. But what I found most interesting was the lack of positive examples of brand development by colleges and universities. A well-conceived brand is rooted in institutional reality and outlives those who created it.

I believe that Gettysburg College, my institution, can tell that story. Our brand has thrived for more than a decade: it’s well into a third Presidency and second CMO.

When we developed the brand in collaboration with Cognitive Marketing, we began by conducting extensive conversations with members of every college constituency.

Do Great Work, our signature line, was born from our own words. Because it emerged from within, our brand is rooted in our core values. And it represents both our reality and our aspiration. It was, as Cognitive Marketing’s president (and Gettysburg alumnus) Peter Holloran, described: “timeless, eloquent, and elegant.” Twelve years later it remains our institution’s brand signature, an expression of determination and shared values that is embedded in the culture of the College.

One of the cornerstones of our brand strategy is to own our history, to lay claim to our historic location. We used to say that we are located in the rolling hills of south central Pennsylvania, essentially ignoring the fact that the course of history changed in our town.

Our brand development work helped us realize that one of the traits of great schools is that they develop traditions that transcend generations. To emphasize our connection to this historic place, we created a new tradition. In the First-Year Walk, every Gettysburg College first-year walks with faculty, staff, and other students from campus to the national cemetery in town. There, on “hallowed ground,” our incoming class listens to the words of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address read by an invited guest. The experience links today’s student to our students in 1863.

This video captures the effect of this moment on our entering class:

During Lincoln’s famous address he states, “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.” The idea of that work is now embedded in our town’s — and in the College’s — history. This is one reason why the call to “Do great work” has survived as the College Brand Signature for so long — its roots are deep.

But that’s not the only reason our brand — specifically the signature line of Do Great Work — gained momentum in the last 12 years. When it was first introduced, it was used subtly — it was not beaten to death by overexposure. For example, when it first appeared in materials it was represented as a small tag. (Think of the Levi’s jeans.) It was used purposefully and understatedly, and allowed to settle into the culture of the college over time.

Do Great Work is now more than a tagline and it is flexible enough to bend without breaking. So we’ve grown with it. Our admissions viewbook and search campaigns talk about the institution in relationship to what it means to do great work. Our comprehensive fundraising campaign is named Gettysburgreat: A Campaign for Our College.

Our students even put the idea of do great work on their graduation caps:

But perhaps the best example of the brand was in the words spoken to the Class of 2016 just a few days ago during commencement. At 1:28 is an excerpt of President Janet Morgan Riggs’ charge to the class, summing up what it means to do great work:

“Be a leader others can count on and a voice for those without a say. And in a world where there are so many who are climbing over others just to reach the top, be the one who will raise others up higher than they ever dreamed they could reach on their own. That is what is means to be a Gettysburgian. And that is what it means to do great work.”

Paul Redfern leads the communications and marketing team at Gettysburg College and is a frequent presenter on marketing and brand topics at national conferences.


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