The #highered #branding problem: lack of differentiation

Missouri S&T's "Miners Dig Deeper" tagline graces university banners across campus.
Missouri S&T’s “Miners Dig Deeper” tagline graces university banners across campus.

You’ve probably seen the Inside Higher Ed story published today about the remarkably (or unremarkably) similar taglines in use today by many colleges and universities. In Your Future Starts Here. Or Here. Or Here.Inside Higher Ed‘s Ellen Wexler shares examples of higher ed taglines that hold the distinction of being non-distinctive.

(If you haven’t yet read this story, stop what you’re doing and read it now. I’ll wait.)

That lack of distinctiveness is one of the biggest problems with higher ed taglines. In an over-crowded market of education providers, “Colleges want to stand out,” Wexler writes, “but they also want to be pithy. The effect is often grandiose, stylized and crushingly clichéd.”

“No university tagline has ever had any lasting meaning for any of their intended audiences, yet schools still insist on them – and waste a lot of good money on their creation and implementation,” claims branding firm 160over90 in its book Three and a Tree, which is a must-read for higher ed marketers.

So why does this trend continue?

Wexler doesn’t directly answer the question. But one person who commented on today’s Inside Higher Ed story nails it:

If it seems like a lot of higher ed institutions use the same marketing strategies, it’s because their marketing teams are given the task of creating unique identities for institutions that don’t really have anything that makes them stand out. Most higher education institutions refuse to differentiate themselves. Some think they do, but few actually make the hard decisions to realign resources into making their institution something special.

The topic of higher ed’s branding practices “needs to be broadened to discuss the lack of differentiation among colleges in general,” the commenter writes.

He’s right. There is a lack of differentiation in higher education.

When so many colleges and universities offer the same degree programs, conduct the same cutting-edge research, and boast the same small class sizes and caring faculty, what makes the difference? (Location is the obvious differentiator – or was, in the days before online education. Even today, bricks-and-mortar universities are competing in the online degree space.)

Those of us responsible for marketing our colleges and universities find ourselves grasping for something – anything – that will make us stand out from the crowd. A tagline is sometimes seen as the most feasible solution. A logo redesign is another.

Compounding this lack of differentiation is higher ed’s risk-averse culture. We want to portray our institutions as welcoming, inviting, caring and innovative — just like every other college and university, but somehow different. We want to appeal to every possible prospective student.

This combination of a risk-averse culture and lack of differentiation make higher ed branding a risky undertaking. Maybe instead of looking at how other colleges and universities are approaching branding, we should look outside of our own niche and see what works best in other sectors.


Author: andrewcareaga

Higher ed PR and marketing guy. Communications director for Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) in Rolla, Missouri, USA. Slow runner, mediocre guitarist, lover of music and puns, and an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan. I blog and Tweet about #highered, #music, #gocards and #random stuff.

6 thoughts on “The #highered #branding problem: lack of differentiation”

  1. After I had been in higher ed communications for a few years I started to question the need for tag lines at all. When I was communications director at Drury University, we went through a complete rebranding, including trying to find a slogan. After a number of meetings discussing tag lines that didn’t work, we went in a different direction: we developed a university logo (more of an emblem, I’d say) that incorporates important academic and cultural elements of the school. It made the first impression we were looking for, and, more importantly, it helped open the way to a deeper conversation about Drury. That emblem is still the primary visual mark of the university, so it must be working out OK.

  2. Thank you Andrew. Institutions has something special, They need to discover their unique culture and personality. That will make them stand out from the crowd.

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