Brand Taglines and the Art of Under-Thinking Higher Ed Marketing

Stamats Insights

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As far as I’m concerned, three things complicate the higher education narrative more often than they help. Brand taglines are at the top of the list. They attempt to convey in just a few seconds what a college or university has spent decades creating: their very special brand story.

As busy consumers with ever-shorter attention spans, we all look for shortcuts to help us evaluate—and assign value to—products and services. Unlike buying something as ultimately disposable as a car or a refrigerator, however, selecting a college is a life-changing decision.

Taglines That Tank

But as higher education marketers (too-often inspired by well-intentioned arm-chair marketing experts higher up the organizational food chain) race to deploy snappy taglines designed to catapult their institutions into brighter lights, we consistently see their efforts fall prey to some serious under-thinking:

  1. They assume audiences will fully comprehend and honor the ponderous depth and breadth of whatever work ultimately yielded its nifty tagline shorthand.
  2. They forget how essential it is to “unpack” the tagline by showing artful and compelling images and telling mind-blowing and compelling stories about their schools’ emotional cores; taglines should rarely stand alone.
  3. They forget that most of their important target audiences already have their school’s prior taglines, campaign themes, mottos, mantras, advertising slogans, hashtags, and cheer squad yells already swirling around in their heads; this new one just fuels brand blur.
  4. At a most fundamental level, they forget to conduct a disaster check to identify other schools—some in their own backyards—already using the same or similar taglines. Two extraordinarily unscientific and entirely incomplete tools offer a place to start: (1) any respectable search engine, and (2) our own Higher Education tagline repository recently featured in a Chronicle of Higher Education poem by reporter Steve Kolowich.
  5. And most important of all, they woefully underestimate the snap judgment college-shopping students exercise when they see trite, cliché, sappy taglines that are anything but remarkable or memorable.

Resist the temptation to relegate your institutional brand to mediocrity by saddling it with another forgettable tagline. Save the tags for short-term ad campaigns or sideline cheers at the big game.

Honor Your Story and Your Students’ Journeys

Be wise and be brave. Honor your institutional brand with a reflective expression of your school story. Show and tell. Don’t simply default to a tagline.

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