Recent years have seen significant growth in the use of brand messages to support colleges and universities. The same could be said for medical and cultural organizations. Finding themselves in a competitive world, and facing a tough economy and reduced public support, many nonprofit entities now understand -- or grudgingly accept – the importance of brand communications.
Unfortunately, too many campuses adopt simplistic consumer product marketing approaches that do not translate well to higher education. "Marketing" a university isn’t the same as marketing a candy bar, or a car, or some other product or corporation, where oversimplified slogans and repetition rule the day.
The work of our educators and researchers cuts across a range of artistic, historical, legal, scientific, philosophical and health-based disciplines. It is intrinsically worthy. It must engage well-educated and diverse audiences, and rely on the support of leading business, civic and governmental leaders.
All of this argues for complexity, dimension and nuance, and against slogans or word sets that trivialize the colleges and universities they’re meant to advance. The Wordle that follows features words and phrases taken from the websites of the top 30 business schools. There are a mind-numbing set of nearly identical terms and slogans put forward to "distinguish" the business schools. Yet they're all variations of the same or similar ideas.
A Different Approach
Our universities are pushing the bounds of knowledge and care. They are changing the way we think, live, feel, act and lead. They deserve more than a bumper sticker. Tell us how. Tell us with depth and personality. Show us with originality – pulleez, no beaker shots. Let the audiences arrive at conclusions like "leadership" and "transformational" on their own.
In this realm, slogans often ring hollow, no matter how clever. Or they work only temporarily. If slogans are used, they should be used as signatures that help tie together rich storytelling. But it is the content that reigns supreme. Lead with proprietary content. Let the slogan embody its meaning.
Additionally, campuses should more fully incorporate the voices of scholars, distinguished alumni and beneficiaries as messengers and storytellers. When the message comes only from the institution, it loses dimension (and often credibility) – by definition. Amazing people define our institutions. They should be enlisted in communicating their wonder.
Communications should be “sticky.” Break clutter. Possess personality. Surprise. Open the mind. Disrupt. Make you think. Better yet, rethink. More than perhaps any other field of marketing, our educational institutions provide us with the content to do all those things, and more. Let’s honor that opportunity.
Lawrence Lokman is managing director of Window In Communications, and former associate vice chancellor of communications and public outreach at the University of California at Los Angeles.
Pretty much anything passes for higher education these days. Enterprising institutions routinely offer intellectually challenging programs such as cosmetology, astrology, thimble repair, linen folding and bikini waxing. But hey, if it’s at a university, it must be rigorous, right? And these academic pursuits, let’s not forget, do lead to jobs, a concern that college students ranked first, second and fourth in a recent survey of desired outcomes.
Coming out of high school, I too was in search of a job, a career that would make my family proud and let me show off my true talents. So naturally I applied to clown college. I conducted extensive research, talking with guidance counselors, reading the viewbooks and underground accounts of campus life, consulting the U.S. News rankings and other magazines touting the “best values” in clown education, visiting campuses and chatting with current students (not the mimes, of course).
The standardized exam, called the Comic Reasoning and Performance test, was especially tough. Ostensibly designed to test only your clown aptitude, it did pose questions that presumed an existing knowledge of clown history and culture. I sensed an inherent bias toward those who had grown up in a clown family or had somehow been exposed to clowns, in a good way. I did well enough, scoring in the 80th percentile, though at that point I knew the most elite bastions of clown education might lie beyond reach. I wished I could have opted for the CRAP prep course or hired a personal admissions consultant, who purported to know all the clown-admissions insiders and whose advice came at a reasonable $150 per hour, but family funds were tight.
By comparison, the application form was a breeze. It asked a bunch of hypothetical questions, such as, “If given the chance to travel with a top circus troupe or to corner the Long Island Bat Mitzvah market, which would you choose?” It also required you to write an essay that asked which clown, living or dead, you’d most like to share a cotton candy with. I’d read in online discussion forums that it’s best to stay away from hackneyed choices such as Bozo and Clarabell. I instead chose Krusty.
As I’d feared, I failed to get into my reach school, Ringmaster U., but my admission to Jester College came with a partial scholarship and my choice of housing among the finest on-campus tents. I figured my mediocre CRAP scores nixed my Ringmaster bid, but I later discovered the school has a strong tradition of admitting children of alumni — Ringers, as they call them. I never really stood a chance.
My first year was predictable, largely because of the general education curriculum. We all took the same courses, such as Rodeo Responsibilities, Props and Pratfalls, and Legendary Clowns of the Western World. Electives allowed us to explore our personal interests in topics like unicycling and stilt aerobics. Some required courses were oversubscribed, shutting out students and leaving them to doubt that they’d be able to graduate on time.
Even with my partial scholarship, I still could barely make ends meet. I landed a work-study job custom-fitting floppy shoes, a commitment that absorbed 20 hours a week. My performance began to suffer as a result. I couldn’t get my lapel flower to squirt straight and my “mime trapped in the box” routine evinced a more rectangular than square orientation. Even worse, while plowing a pie into a classmate’s face, I dislodged his foam nose and knocked his derby askew, thus exposing a rubber chicken’s beak. Shame and scorn fell upon me.
Perhaps my major downfall, however, was my inability to find myself. Clown elders spoke of creating a personal brand, a professional identity that would set me apart from legions of other performers. Should I be Sinisterio the Dark Clown? Take a more playful approach and bill myself as Quacky the Six-Foot Duck? How about Moody the Contemplative Clown? Brainy the Intellectual? Nothing seemed to fit.
Nor did I assimilate with any of the clown cliques — the jock clowns with their acrobatics, the pothead clowns, the earnest ones who formed study groups. I was a loner, a sad clown who didn’t need tears painted down his cheeks. The Office of Clown Counseling and Retention offered some consoling advice: when you flop, get back up and keep dancing. They tried.
Eventually, alas, I failed. My CPA, or Clown Performance Average, dropped below 2.0 thanks to D grades in poorly chosen electives — Hobos of the Great Depression and Combating Coulrophobia. I became yet another clown dropout, a lost soul destined to forever wonder how many smiles I might have engendered. I can’t blame the system, really; generations of successful alumni testify to the college’s ability to pump out performers. Maybe it was my fault. Maybe I just wasn’t clown material.
I harbor neither regret nor bitterness. I have moved on, though I do keep tabs on former classmates via Facebook and the alumni magazine, which I receive along with calls and letters seeking donations. On some level, I suppose, I am an alumnus. And a part of that experience will stay with me. I may not be a graduate, but I’ll forever be a clown.
Mark J. Drozdowski is director of university communications at the University of New Haven. This marks the debut of an occasional humor column, Special Edification.