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 . 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
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
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
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
I also wasn’t thrilled the
Already, you may be a Grinnellian slogan
that appeared on our Web site a few weeks ago . Thankfully, that is now
gone . It has been replaced by the somewhat better, but also somewhat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
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 .
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 . 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 .
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
other than finding that it resonated well with prospective students .
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
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:
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
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
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 . 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 . Those are
However, I must note that their presentation raised one really significant
concern: They said that they had a strong connection to
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.
 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].
 The CS department maintains our own Web server at uhttp://www.cs.grinnell.edu>. That landing page is one communications created, and one I tend to ignore.
 I now phrase it as
Already, Grinnellian you may be. That seems
 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
 And in the middle of the soy fields, too.
 Yes, I know we have a responsibility to be fiscally responsible. But that’s different than following general corporate principles and approaches.
 Sarcasm doesn’t usually carry through in the written word. It should have carried through in that sentence.
 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.
 And yes, I realize that’s not a fair characterization.
 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.