American Colleges Need Help

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I come to the title’s surprising conclusion based on my recent experience touring with my daughter, who is a rising high school senior. Together, over the past 2 weeks, we sat through about 20 information sessions and took as many tours at northeastern colleges.

And I can say without a moment’s hesitation that America’s colleges and universities need some serious help in the branding department; not, as anyone who’s been in a college bookstore recently can tell you, in developing hot logos or color schemes or apparel merchandising.

All those mission-critical components seem safely under control.

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No, our colleges need work saying out loud what it is, precisely, they stand for, what they’re about, what they promise. In short, my recent experience tells me few of America’s elite colleges are any good at the very basics of communicating their own brands, even to an interested, self-selected and highly qualified audience of potential customers.

And, as any brand advisor will tell you, that’s a big-time fail.

What do high-performing, brand-driven organizations do? They drive all their behaviors and communications off the basis of their message architecture, brand promise and desired attributes. Collateral materials are supportive, that is to say specifically illustrative, of the messages the enterprise wishes to build. Customer contact moments are constructed to reinforce brand attributes. Brand ambassadors (i.e., everyone who represents the institution to relevant audiences, like potential customers) embody the characteristics of the brand as well.

I saw almost precisely the opposite at these elite educational institutions. In our visit experiences, we saw and heard mostly mush, generalities, overly cute and obviously manufactured stories, and oft-used clichés. (The oldest building on campus? For the 20th time, pardon me while I stifle a yawn.) Worst of all, I observed indifference to assembled groups of their potential customers.

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The (very) few notable exceptions, NYU, Emerson, Bates and, perhaps, Boston College deserve kudos and can safely skip my seminar. They each, in their own ways, creatively, clearly and engagingly stated their brands, and illustrated and supported them with presentations, materials and ambassadors.

All the rest of you: my advice is to sign up now. Especially you, Yale. Ivy-covered buildings and a good pedigree are no substitutes for successful brand communications.