Amid much fanfare and hoopla, one of America’s premier discount department stores recently unveiled its new tagline. After spending months on market research and millions on agency fees, T.J. Maxx came up with the memorable catchphrase "You Should Go," which narrowly defeated the runner-up, "Go…You Really Should."
That bit of Madison Avenue magic reminds me of similar attempts in higher education. As any college communications officer will tell you, it's all about branding. Stamats, a marketing consulting firm, defines brand as "a trust mark, a warrant, and a promise," as well as "a word a college or university owns in the prospect’s mind." To help marketers figure out how they might capture their own complex institutions in a few words, the firm offers a useful database of 551 slogans others have tried. A few patterns emerge.
Some colleges take the logical approach, simply stating what they are. Houghton College says it’s "A Christian College of Liberal Arts and Sciences." Stetson University brags about being "Florida’s First Private University," though I’m not sure this is a mark of distinction. The University of Texas at Austin gets right to the point with "We’re Texas." Can’t argue with that.
Trendy buzzwords abound. Phrases such as "A Culture of Success," "Excellence in Achievement" and "A Tradition of Excellence" must sound good to students, but they certainly don’t differentiate institutions from the competition. How’s an admissions tour guide to respond if a parent says, "The three places we visited last week said they were excellent, too"?
Also undistinguished are pithy efforts like "Making a Difference" or "A Distinctive Approach." Anderson University touts its "Excellent Performance" while Bethel College encourages you to "Take the Next Step." Warner College invites you to "Join a Community" and Calumet College of St. Joseph says "You Can." Can what?
I do like the ones that rhyme, no doubt the products of campus marketers unconvinced of the power of taglines but instructed to concoct one nonetheless. Witness Rasmussen College ("100 Years of Great Careers"), Grand Canyon University ("The You in GCU") and my personal favorite, the University of Alaska-Fairbanks ("Latitude with Attitude").
Another theme is thinking. Colleges like to make you think, and to think about them. So you’ll fine plenty that say "Think _____." People at the University of Illinois are "Always Thinking" and Wichita State University says it produces "Thinkers, Doers, Movers & Shockers" (Shockers is its nickname, in case you didn’t get the pun). Another way to get you thinking is to pose a question. Bethany College asks, "Where are You Going?" and Kettering University wonders, "Why Wait?" Widener University’s School of Law asks two questions: "Why Widener? Why Not Widener?"
Speaking of two, several taglines come in pairs, such as those from Southwestern College ("Come Here. Go Far.") and Waldorf College ("Faster. Better.)." But because everyone likes a trilogy, lots of places offer up theirs in threes. Rogers State University chose "Tradition. Innovation. Excellence." Trinity Christian College, as we all know, is "Distinctive. Christian. Incredible." Westfield State College added a bit of alliteration with "Explore. Experience. Excel," as did Ursuline College with "Values, Voice, Vision." The University of Florida’s Levin College of Law combined these themes with "Big Decisions. Smart Choice. Case Closed."
Still others appear to need re-thinking. Bentley College says it’s "America’s Business University" and Mississippi College calls itself "A Christian University," even though they’re both colleges. Bucknell University clarifies its standing as "A College-Like University." Teens like the word "like." Something seems missing in Berklee College of Music’s "Nothing Conservatory About It," whereas Thiel College’s "Thiel Time" could be confused with "Miller Time" or "Tool Time." Trinity Western University’s "Unwrap the Universe, Peel Back its Shroud" sounds vaguely obscene, as does the University of Richmond’s "Do it With Your Head." Don’t The Sage Colleges and Quincy College send mixed messages with "Change Your Mind" and "Think Again"?
And while some institutions promise fulfilling careers, some venture a step further. Trinity International University, for example, is "The College With a View of Eternity," and Bethany Lutheran College offers "Education That Lasts Beyond a Lifetime." Perhaps Shirley MacLaine is on the faculty.
Most puzzling, though, are taglines that try to capture an institution’s brand too succinctly. Colleges are increasingly playing a version of "Name That Tune," attempting to summarize themselves in fewer and fewer words. In the process, taglines lose all meaning. Can anyone tell what Concordia University-Seward’s "See You" really means? How about Georgia State University’s "Advantage" or Sherman College of Straight Chiropractic’s "True"? That only reminds me of the cheesy 1980s hit by Spandau Ballet.
Of course, admissions isn’t the only arena for taglines. Colleges also use them in job ads. The University of Pennsylvania Health System wants you to work "Where Careers Come to Life" and
Jackson Community College calls itself "The Smart Choice!" Similarly, a few years ago Harvard tried recruiting the best and brightest with the line "Smart People Choose Harvard," much like Choosy Mothers Choose Jif. To its credit, it didn’t opt for "Dumb People Don’t Choose Harvard," which also holds true in the obverse.
Yet I’m left wondering what value these slogans add. Will a student be more attracted to a college if it claims a "culture of excellence"? Are institutions actually weakening their brands with such nonsense? Can universities reveal their true character in one or two words? Do they risk oversimplification?
Maybe, but taglines have become a necessary evil, helping institutions sell their products to consumers. And marketing consultants are only too eager to help colleges define a brand, condense it, package it and promote it. Never mind that most sound similar and many say nothing at all.
Here’s my advice to taglines: You Should Go.