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Branding the College

Yesterday, I attended a public presentation by Ologie, the College’s new marketing firm, one in a series of marketing or market consulting firms we’ve hired over the past few years. Let’s see, we started with Arts and Sciences. Then we hired Crane Metamarketing [1]. And now we’re on to Ologie, whose responsibility is to take the ideas generated by A&S and Crane, add their own, and put together a marketing and branding campaign.

I admit that I have some trepidation for marketing firms. After all, it was a marketing firm that came up with the horrendous No Limits campaign. I may be mistaken, but it feels like that campaign played a significant role in the huge growth of student misunderstanding of self governance. Certainly, the view that self gov means I can do whatever I want instead of self gov means that we have a shared responsibility to each other came about around the time of No Limits. While I know that correlation does not imply causation, there seems to be a causal relationship: If, as a prospective student, you hear that we have No Limits, and you also hear that we pride ourselves on a culture in which we allow students to govern themselves, you might start to believe that traditional limits (e.g., laws and policies) don’t apply to you. And once we hit a critical mass of students who have this incorrect view, it can propagate to incoming students, even after we get rid of the slogan.

I also wasn’t thrilled the Already, you may be a Grinnellian slogan that appeared on our Web site a few weeks ago [4]. Thankfully, that is now gone [5]. It has been replaced by the somewhat better, but also somewhat wordy, Grinnellian: The scientist and activist, strategist and artist, leader and teacher, continuous learner and otherwise thinker. I admit that I like the quadrupled pairs and the slightly off otherwise thinker. But I’d drop the article at the beginning. But I still worry that we too frequently come up with bad slogans.

At the same time, I understand the need to market the College. Marketing can provide many benefits: It can help students who might not otherwise find out about the wonder that is Grinnell learn about it. Good marketing allows us to bring in students we would serve well, including the many students who cannot afford a top liberal arts education, but who would thrive at Grinnell and that we could support. Good marketing also allows us to bring in students who can afford a Grinnell education, but might otherwise dismiss us for being in the middle of the US and in the middle of the cornfields [6].

As importantly, a good marketing firm will help sell Grinnell graduates to prospective employers. Unfortunately, too few people know quite how wonderful our graduates are. When companies hire a few Grinnellians, the discover those graduates’ strong problem solving skills and thinking abilities, and quickly start reaching out to the College to bring in more. But getting the first few Grinnellians in the door can be hard and good marketing can help.

However, while I understand the need to market the College, I really dislike the term branding. In addition to my negative experience with the no limits brand, I have two serious concerns. First, most people associate branding with corporations, and the use of the term for a College seems to reflect the increasing corporatization of academia. We are not a corporation and we should not run as one [7]. More importantly, though, the term has incredibly negative historical connotations in the U.S. Let’s do a quick Web search for etymology of branding. Here’s the first result.

gerund or present participle: branding
1. mark (an animal, formerly a criminal or slave) with a branding iron.

Yeah, that’s definitely a concept I want associated with an institution of higher education [8].

So, what was my impression of Ologie, our new marketing firm, other than that they use the term branding as a good thing? I appreciate some things they said. They clearly feel that it’s pointless to have a marketing approach that is inauthentic or inaccurate; you want to represent what you are really selling. That’s good. Our prior firm didn’t really appear to think deeply about the slogan No limits, other than finding that it resonated well with prospective students [9]. Ologie also highlighted a few things that I consider important, including the diversity of our international students and that our location can be seen as an advantage by folks from a city because there’s a power in being able to study in a quiet location without too many distractions. When I asked about how their work reflected our mission statement, they knew enough of the mission statement to talk about our goal of producing engaged citizens.

I was a bit concerned that in their presentation, they put up some pictures of Notre Dame and talked about branding. But, in those pictures, I saw very little of what I assume the Notre Dame faculty and trustees consider their brand. I’d phrase it thus: We are not just the best Catholic University in America, we are also one of the best Universities in the world. We develop strong thinkers and embue them with even stronger moral underpinnings. I didn’t see that in the pictures and certainly not in the overlapping N and D. I thought their response to my criticism was good; they pointed out that one of the examples had the tagline Heal, Unify, Enlighten. Still, I will admit that I prefer the Notre Dame Mission Statement. That statement would attract me as a prospective student or faculty member, much more than all the pretty pictures or any tagline. Still, their response was good. Then they undermined it by referring to Notre Dame as a Christian University. I’m pretty sure that Notre Dame would always use the term Catholic. I worry about marketers that would not pay attention to the difference.

I’ve read enough Bruner to know that stories really are the way that many people make sense of the world, and that stories (particularly stories with pictures) are potentially a good way to market an institution. At the same time, as a parent of prospective students, I’ve never found myself swayed by stories. As President Kington is fond of saying, Stories are not data. Show me the data. Yeah, one of your students went on a cool study abroad trip. How many of your students go? Where do they go? One of your students did a summer research project with a faculty member. How many of your students do summer research projects? Do the results get published? Where? How do you select the students? Is it only the top students, or the most aggressive, or …? Perhaps because I approach the world that way, I also look closely at mission statements. From my experience, naive as it may be, mission statements have been carefully developed and approved by the college community, and therefore are one of the best reflections of the institution’s values and approaches.

Am I satisfied with Ologie as a marketing firm? It clearly doesn’t matter what I think; no one’s going to ask me, and it appears that I’m enough of a curmudgeon that I don’t even get invited to focus groups any more. But yes, I’m satisfied. I don’t like the term branding. I really don’t like the term branding. I’m concerned that at least one of the people they brought to campus misunderstands the core identity of one of their clients [10]. But their approach seems direct rather than misleading, they seem interested in understanding who we are, and they thought well on their feet when dealing with me [11]. Those are important strengths.

However, I must note that their presentation raised one really significant concern: They said that they had a strong connection to President Kington’s Vision 2030. Do I know what President Kington’s Vision 2030 is? Nope. I recall a piece in the Grinnell magazine from about a year ago. A search of the College Web site reveals only what seems to be a copy of that piece. So I asked Communications for a copy of the Vision 2030 statement. They don’t have one. I asked the chair of the faculty. He’s never seen one. I have an email out to President Kington, but he’s with the trustees this weekend, and, in any case, I suspect that one doesn’t exist. I find it incredibly troubling that a vision that is guiding our marketing has never been clearly shared with the campus community and is not available in an easy to consider form. Let’s hear it for transparency!

I will admit that I’m interested to hear, and did not have a chance to ask, what their vision for the role of social media is. We are fortunate to have a spectacular social-media specialist on campus. Her work regularly strikes me as one of the highlights of our communications efforts. While we shouldn’t build the campaign around the strengths of one individual, we should take advantage of those strengths when we can. Social media are one of the key ways we reach the prospective student generation, and that that generation is particularly attuned to authentic and inauthentic use of social media.

[1] I recall Crane Metamarketing, in part, because they were taking pictures of campus, wandered by my office, and said We need to photograph this room. It has so much texture. I was talking to Albert Owusu Asare at the time, so they got a picture that they clearly considered useful; it is now at the top of the College’s landing page for CS [2,3].

[2] The CS department maintains our own Web server at u>. That landing page is one communications created, and one I tend to ignore.

[3] The College appears to like Rebelskys. Eldest son appears on the College’s landing page for Math/Stats and middle son appears on the Swimming and Diving poster.

[4] I now phrase it as Already, Grinnellian you may be. That seems appropriately Yoda-esque.

[5] It may be that the slogan disappeared for practical reasons, rather than aesthetic ones. I heard that a number of prospective students saw the text and wrote in or called to ask Does that mean that you have made admissions decisions?

[6] And in the middle of the soy fields, too.

[7] Yes, I know we have a responsibility to be fiscally responsible. But that’s different than following general corporate principles and approaches.

[8] Sarcasm doesn’t usually carry through in the written word. It should have carried through in that sentence.

[9] I always wonder who they are surveying. And I wonder whether they realize that most high school students are perhaps more likely to pick a stupid answer for the fun of it than to pick what they really like.

[10] And yes, I realize that’s not a fair characterization.

[11] Someone told me that my questions caught them off guard. If that’s really the case, they adapted really well.

Version 1.0.1 of 2017-05-11.