Grandiosity Run Amok

Lawrence Lokman examined imaging slogans being used in higher education, and he's not impressed with the results.

July 17, 2012

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.


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