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Branding

Business-to-consumer marketers have become increasingly adept at identifying various demographic segments with specialized interests: moms who blog, people who like to cruise, upscale married couples with children, environmentally minded homeowners, etc., etc.

To be or not to be? A college on the East Coast uses "The Place to Be!" as its tagline. And why not? Everyone has to be somewhere. But unless the school wishes to target modern-day Hamlets who haven't decided whether to be or not, it has zero impact.

Another popular tagline is "Start Here, Go Anywhere." It's too popular, in fact. Dozens of schools use that same slogan or a close derivation. When an institution's tagline is so generic as to be interchangeable among schools, it's a sure sign that coherent strategy has "gone elsewhere."

In our current economic environment, critical funding for an array of essential entities and institutions has dried up, leaving a momentous gap between budget needs and realities. Universities are certainly no exception to this phenomenon. Even Harvard is feeling the pinch. The university had reported a 30 percent decline in its endowment for the fiscal year ending June 2009.

So the question presents itself: What can universities do to throw out a larger net and create a new class and type of donor? The short answer: sacred spaces.

Over the past two years, Arizona State University has opened two new schools at its campuses in the Phoenix area. But these educational additions are not training future social workers, lawyers, or business executives. They'll be turning out qualified future college students, many of whom—ASU officials hope—will populate the state's universities years from now.

In America, we lavish attention on our most talented fellow citizens—star athletes, film and television celebrities, brilliant scholars and scientists, and sometimes even college presidents—but we also insist that our celebrities not act like self-styled royalty. When members of America's elite are aloof and ignore the public's welfare—as many titans of Wall Street did, first ruining the economy, then paying themselves bonuses—Americans insist on retribution.

As branding initiatives in higher education have emerged and evolved over the past two decades, the media-outreach segments of the plans often continue to miss the mark. The reason? The campus professionals who are responsible for strategic communication are often relegated to a back-seat role in the process, or are left in the dark until the branding campaign is ready to be rolled out.

When I applied to colleges 40 years ago, I wrote letters to six schools and received a view book from each with a friendly cover letter, an invitation to visit the campus, an application, and a pointer to an alum or two who would be glad to sit down with me and discuss my future.

 

A DEFINITION OF STRATEGY that centers around the idea of “more”—we will serve more students, offer more programs, and be in more places—is highly likely to fail. Dollars are finite, so doing more will actually decrease quality because tight resources are spread even more thinly.

 

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