Why many college brochures look strangely similar

'It really feels like they bought a campaign off a shelf'

Marketing and branding campaign designs in higher education often end up with similar end results, Ellen Wexler reports for Inside Higher Ed

"Colleges want to stand out, but they also want to be pithy. The effect is often grandiose, stylized, and crushingly clichéd," Wexler writes. 

Recently, an Ologie and Marshall Strategy-created campaign for the University of Buffalo ended up looking quite similar to a branding campaign by the University of Sydney. Both feature "here" written in white script, even though the campaigns were created by separate companies.

"The presentation is very alarming," says Peter Hahn, creative director of public relations firm Finn Partners. "It really feels like they bought a campaign off a shelf."

Trends in themes, images, and slogans come and go, Hahn says.

When colleges look to other colleges for creative inspiration, ideas spread across campuses, says Darryl Cilli, founding partner of 160over90. One of the most visible is the "Three and a Tree," showing a small group of students representing different races and genders, sporting college-branded clothing.

"Finding a differentiated way to communicate your value to students and parents is critical," says Tom Taylor, senior consultant and principal at Royall & Company. "But it's not an easy thing to accomplish. All too often, colleges fall prey to the trap of marketing the very things that make them so alike."

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And at a time when many institutions are ramping up their recruitment efforts, standing out becomes both more difficult and more necessary.

"This problem becomes more acute in congested markets where individual students are often recruited simultaneously by many competing colleges," says Taylor.

College is the second most expensive thing most people buy, Cilli points out. Students want to feel connected to the place they're attending.

"I always feel like brands are very much like people, very much like human relationships," Hahn says. "The logo has to carry so much weight. It's the very symbolic embodiment of everything."

To cut through the noise, Taylor recommends adopting an experimental attitude. 

"The key to success in these circumstances is to approach the market with great humility and rigorously test each marketing concept repeatedly to assess which messages and techniques actually work," he says. The strategies that worked a few years ago may not be equally effective today.

Infographic: When and how you communicate to students really matters

"Students are fickle and tastes can rapidly change. Staying ahead of the curve takes discipline," says Taylor (Wexler, Inside Higher Ed, 5/2). 

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