University advertising - what's with the big slogans?


University advertising campaigns, we’ve all seen them.

They love a big positioning line. In the past they tended towards self-congratulatory boasts of excellence, prestige and pedigree.

These days the trend is bold, individualistic slogans of the “Unlimited”, “Be True To You” and “Dream Large” variety, as they’re chasing the ‘me-me-me’ generation.

One thing that never changes with these slogans though, is their poor survival rate.

It seems standard practice for universities to launch a new slogan every three or so years, with lots of fanfare and a big advertising campaign. The line then proceeds to die a quiet death, the victim of irrelevance or neglect, and within one or two recruiting cycles it’s replaced with a new line. Spin, dry, repeat.

Why does this happen? Do University management and marketers understand some secret truth about the education market? I suspect the answer is no. While universities may spend a lot on marketing, they do not have particularly marketing-friendly cultures.

University executives tend to be fanatical about reputation. But they are inclined to focus on tangible measures like world rankings, research output, size, funding, revenue and ATAR scores, which discounts the influence of marketing.

Such a cosmetic approach to positioning lines means few last long beyond any change in key marketing personnel. Universities are prime offenders at this. I’m often amazed at how blasé big organisations can be in allowing a new marketing head to throw out a relatively new message (as if it is somehow worn out or worthless) despite a fortune invested in development and marketing.

This again comes from a lack of appreciation for the role of marketing and advertising in shaping and communicating a brand culture and purpose. A brand positioning line has no currency when not understood and embraced by its wider organisation.

Another hurdle university marketers can face is decentralised organisation structures with multiple marketing and communications teams. No positioning or slogan will survive without buy-in and consistency across all communications channels.

I guess all this poses the question, does it really matter if a university changes slogans every few years?

Is there any benefit to keeping a brand line over time? Don’t they all wear out?

I’d say tell that to Nike, Kit Kat, Mazda, Toyota and countless other iconic brands. The most powerful thing a brand can do is own a word or thought in the consumers mind. An effective positioning line can take years to become iconic and embedded. The core university offering is relatively constant, and not at the mercy of rapid obsolescence and the need for newness like a fashion or tech brand. Fresh new prospects come through looking for essentially the same product and outcome, year after year. Given this, the idea that a powerful positioning slogan would wear out in a few years seems ridiculous.

The truth is, most universities don’t need a new advertising line at all. They need to find a way to love and embrace the positioning they already have.