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Marketing Grinnell

Topics/tags: Grinnell, marketing, longish, rambly

Some time this week, we will get a new Brand Book. Here’s the announcement we got in the campus memo.

The Office of Communications will begin distributing copies of Our Grinnellian Story, to faculty and staff this week. The goal of this booklet is to provide a common language as we work together to tell the story of this special place - the story of individually advised learning for the intellectually engaged. Our strong academic program, a globally informed community, and our commitment to purposeful life preparation combine to express the College’s unique value proposition. We hope you find this publication useful and inspiring. [1]

I thought it would be useful to reflect on general issues marketing before we get the new brand book. I don’t know how I’ll react to the brand book, but a pre-brand-book reflection strikes me as something more neutral, a reflection that will be neither positively nor negatively affected by the brand book. Here goes.

Grinnell faces a difficult challenge. How do you convince people, particularly who can afford something like sticker price [2], that Grinnell is the gem [3] we all know it is?

Grinnell provides an excellent education, with strong and integrated curricular and co-curricular components. We have faculty who are both strong scholars and innovative teachers. Our students are committed to struggling with complex issues in challenging classes. We have a long tradition of social justice.

But most of our peers and near peers can also speak about their commitment to social good, about local and global engagement, about an integrated liberal arts experience, and about close student-faculty interactions. Even if we do many of those things better than our peers [4], how would you convince a prospective student [5] of that, particularly since many would normally dismiss a school in flyover country or worry about the distance from Grinnell to the nearest airport? (Or, more recently, who worry about the way the Iowa Legislature impinges upon a women’s bodies.)

It’s hard to show a prospective student what’s unique about Grinnell, other than the individually mentored curriculum. In fact, we hear from our admissions office that most prospectives know about and acknowledge the excellent academic program. It’s just not enough to convince them to come here.

So we need a marketing campaign.

If the banners with two-word phrases hanging around campus and the branding page are representative, I’m worried about what our new one will be. I appreciate that we are preparing students to navigate the world’s complexities. But you don’t do that with simplistic [6] phrases.

As a Grinnellian said to me recently,

Marketing has never worked for Grinnell because marketing and the language of marketing is the antithesis of what Grinnell teaches.

But we do need to convince people to choose Grinnell, and we need to do so for a wide variety of people, not just students who benefit from a top-notch education at a bargain rate.

No limits wasn’t the answer.

Banners with two-word phrases aren’t the answer.

Awkward noun phrases [7] aren’t the answer.

I appreciate the central concept of the current campaign, even if I would not phrase it that way.

Individually advised learning for the intellectually engaged so they can navigate the world’s complexities and contribute with great responsibility.

Nonetheless, I worry whether it suffices. I don’t think it distinguishes us significantly from our peers. And, as importantly, the awkward phrases that are scattered throughout the campaign undermine the attention to language that should be core to Grinnell’s identity [8].

So what should we do?

I wish I had a good answer.

So let me brainstorm.

Idea the first: We need to change Grinnell to make it more distinctive. We should not discard the things that make Grinnell great. But we might find ways to enhance some of those things so that they clearly distinguish the College. What new things might be valuable enough that they’d convince someone to come here, or at least to consider us more deeply. That requires some deep reflection [9]. It requires a willingness to change. Both are difficult to achieve.

Idea the second: Embrace complexity. Let’s start with some really draft marketing text.

Investigate Grinnell. We’re sorry, but we don’t have a simple tagline or phrase to describe Grinnell College. Central to a Grinnell education is an understanding that most complex issues cannot and should not be reduced to a simple answer, comment, or phrase. Grinnellians approach issues and decisions with a deep understanding of the need to embrace that complexity and to employ a variety of tools to explore and unpack related issues.

If you’re right for Grinnell, you won’t pay attention to our marketing. Rather, you’ll investigate the College. You’ll look at the kinds of research our faculty and students do, the initiatives our students develop, and the creative pedagogy that undergirds the institution.

We won’t delay you any longer. Go take a look. If what you discover sounds interesting, feel free to contact us at to schedule a more detailed exploration, one in which you can meet with faculty, students, and staff and develop your own deeper understanding of the institution.

If you don’t want to take the effort, that’s okay. We only want students who embrace hard work and complexity.

Think of the power of a student discovering on their own that Grinnell trusted students to write The Grinnell Guide to Writing, that The Grinnell Beowulf was developed by a team of students and a faculty member, that BIO 150 is in incredibly innovative introductory course that treats students as experimental scientists from day one, rather than throwing bookloads of facts at them, that our alums have transformed the world in many ways, that we are so supportive of free speech that we allow a curmudgeonly old faculty member to post critical articles on the College site, that we have sociology classes in which students build Web sites that reflect on divergent communities, that our computer science department’s curriculum is one of only four curricular exemplars in international CS education standards, that we are trailblazers in the digital liberal arts, that we have interdisciplinary courses in which students travel abroad as part of their studies, and so much more [10].

Of course, that approach would require that more of the great aspects of Grinnell be out in the open, rather than behind a password wall. We’d need a public Web site that is intended to support current students and faculty, rather than the marketing-oriented approach we embraced a few years ago [11].

They’ll also discover many things that are wrong with Grinnell. But those things are also easy to discover, perhaps easier to discover than the good things. Each issue of The Scarlet and Black reveals many of our problems. Hopefully, our investigative prospective students will understand that many of those negatives relate to some underlying positive. Yes, students criticize the Trustees’ decision on divestment. But we had a deep, thoughtful process that included students [14].

Would this second marketing strategy work? Probably not. We’ve already learned that our academics are not enough to attract students. But maybe it’s worth trying something different. We might even add something like the following.

Rather than polluting the environment with large, glossy folders or plastic toys that you will soon discard, we think it best to send only a short note and to point you to our Web site. Please come explore.

Could I get someone to take these suggestions seriously? Since it didn’t take terrifyingly large amounts of money to develop, it’s unlikely. And, given the world of higher-ed admissions, I bet someone has done something like this already.

In any case, it’s also unlikely that I have any say in the matter. So I’ll just cross my fingers that I’m wrong and that the current campaign turns out to be meaningful, powerful, and successful. I’ll even do my best to support it, as long as I see those in authority supporting it, too [17,18,19].

[1] Grinnell College Campus Memo - 5/8/2018.

[2] And every other prospective Grinnell student and parent.

[3] No, not the Jewel of the Prairie.

[4] We do a few things worse, too. It depends on the peer.

[5] Or, more accurately, a prospective prospective student. Or perhaps the parents or family of that prospective prospective student.

[6] With a strange/complex structure.

[7] Liberal arts and mentored research that equips Grinnellians to pursue ideas and knowledge with confidence. Taken from

[8] I realize that I don’t always pay enough attention to my language, either. But I’m writing a daily musing, not materials that are intended to convince careful thinkers to attend this institution.

[9] For those who are comfortable with shallower reflection, I’ll do my best to suggest one possibility in the next few days.

[10] Wow, that was a long sentence. I hope that they don’t discover that sentence.

[11] I did say this was a rant, right? [12] Five or so years have passed since the great Web site restructuing and we not only have many great things hidden, but also lack a public plan on how we’re moving forward on things that should more easily available.

[12] No. It appears that I did not. Since the focus is not the rant about our Web site, I’ll leave this as a non-rant.

[14] Sometimes you have to embrace the process even if the outcome is not one you’d choose [15].

[15] You might think that I’d say the same thing about marketing. But I don’t embrace the process, which I think has left faculty voices out of a lot of the core decisions, such as the language used [16].

[16] For example, at the last faculty meeting in which we discussed the marketing strategy, many faculty members raised concerns about the quality of language used in the draft materials. I don’t think it made a difference.

[17] A good starting point would be to fix the broken logo.

[18] I’d also like to see better language. I hope that’s not a pipe dream.

[19] Oh, yeah, I’d also expect that we post clear descriptions of the two-word phrases and explain what mentored research we provide in each department and across the College.

Version 1.0 of 2018-05-09.