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Hats off to all who played a role in the delivery of another tremendous AMA Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education earlier this month. In an age when marketing-related professional development opportunities abound online, this year’s large attendance in Orlando was a testament to the enduring value of face-to-face interaction and case study-based learning.

As instructional as conferences like the annual AMA Symposium are, it’s fair to assume that most of us also attend events in search of inspiration to fuel our creative spirits, to stimulate our collaborative energy, to elevate our strategic insights, and to invigorate our passion for supporting the essential missions of our colleges and universities in this world.

When you get right down to it, higher education marketers are in the business of inspiration. Much like professors, coaches and directors are charged to light the fires of growth, learning and performance among the students in their care, we are challenged to breathe compelling and memorable life into our institutional brand foundations which, right or wrong, can often look quite alike from school to school.

That’s no easy task as our market grow ever-noisier, as communication channel options expand by the hour, as technology marches forward and as our prospective stakeholders (students, benefactors and employees) face a dizzying array of new and “non-traditional” options vying for their attention and loyalty. In casual dialogue at the AMA Symposium in Orlando, we heard no shortage of concern for the future of higher education generally, and for institutions specifically.

But we also heard many great stories of inspiration realized. Of innovative plans for addressing new challenges. And of marketing homeruns in the face of dwindling resources and lagging campus support.

Consistent through all the inspiration stories we heard was something that remarkably few higher education brands consistently, successfully tap: emotion. As business enterprises, colleges and universities must be decidedly transactional. But when marketing strategies and messaging are founded primarily on conducting transactions, they smack of sterility and commodity…hardly what we’d like our schools to embody.

In a recent essay, VP/Creative Director-Digital Peter Tressel at Preston Kelly in Minneapolis speaks volumes in just a few paragraphs about the largely untapped power of inspiring creative teams to engage emotionally with audiences. “Really knowing your customers’ hearts—their deepest motivations—can uncover and articulate insights that over time create the foundation of emotionally-centered brands,” Tressel writes.

He goes on to cite Canadian neurologist Donald Caine who says, “The essential difference between emotion and reason is that emotion leads to action while reason leads to conclusions.” Tressel’s short essay concludes with practical advice creative teams can use to find and tap emotion in their next assignments. Definitely worth a read.

Thinking of your team as being about the “business of inspiration” begins with creating a culture that celebrates inspiration. And the quickest route to developing inspired strategy and truly extraordinary creative begins with a willingness to tap compelling emotional insights.

Eric Sickler has helped the nation's college and universities clarify and more fully engage their brands for more than three decades. You can reach him at The Thorburn Group, a Stamats company.​