While higher education is a very crowded market, there are some colleges and universities that have differentiated themselves in highly compelling ways. Here are some of my favorite examples of this:
- Naropa University: Transform Yourself, Transform the World
- The Naropa Experience: Perform in an Indian classical music ensemble. Write a thesis on creativity and social action. Take yoga for credit. Volunteer in a community garden. Study Tibetan. Spend the weekend at a meditation retreat. Intern at the Peace Jam Foundation. Conduct research on the nature of consciousness.
- American University: What’s KNOW spelled backwards? WONK
- “The term can apply to anyone because it’s a smart person who is incredibly passionate about what they do,” said Nate Beeler, SOC/BA ’02, a self-described journalism wonk. “D.C. attracts that kind of thing, and AU is the perfect place for it.”
- St. John’s College: The following teachers will return to St. John’s next year… HOMER, EUCLID, CHAUCER, EINSTEIN, DU BOIS, VIRGIL, AGUSTINE, AROSOTLE, WASHINGTON, WOOLF, PLATO, TOCQUEVILLE, AUSTEN, NEWTON, CERVANTES, DARWIN, MOZART, GALILEO, TOLSTOY, DESCARTE, FREUD
- There is no other college quite like St. John’s. Through sustained engagement with the works of great thinkers and through genuine discussion with peers, students at St. John’s College cultivate habits of mind that will last a lifetime.
- Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute: why not change the world?(R)
- A history and future of changing the world through technological creativity
- Alumni inventions: baking powder, sun screen, Ferris wheel, television, computer, pocket calculator, e-mail, digital camera, etc.
At least two universities are on to something big in their brand positioning: my alma mater, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and American University. Both focus on their students’ and prospective students’ aspirations.
Rensselaer chose the tagline, “why not change the world?SM” as its service mark in the late 1990s. The tagline reflects the university’s intention to market itself as a place where people can change the world through technological innovation. It uses as its proof points alumni who have invented life changing things – microprocessor, television, pocket calculator, email, etc. It also cites its environment of interdisciplinary innovation, innovative pedagogical techniques and extensive support of student entrepreneurship. The tagline has attitude and builds confidence. Most importantly, it attracts students and faculty members that want to change the world and increases alumni pride in the school.
American University recently announced its intent to own the category of educating “Wonks.” Their new campaign states “When you know something backward and forward, you’re a wonk. It’s a term Washington insiders use to describe their experts, people who are focused on creating change—people like American University’s students, faculty, staff, and alumni.” Again, this is an aspirational term and appeals to students and faculty members alike. It also makes a strong reference to its location in the midst of our nation’s capital and its politics and policy making.
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute: Why not change the world?™
As Vice President of the Rensselaer Alumni Association (RAA) board and chairman of its national Alumni Admissions Committee I was a key participant in the endeavor to rebrand Rensselaer. Today I want to share the case study of that effort.
Great Accomplishments, “No Man’s Land” Marketing Position
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, founded in 1824, was the first degree-granting technological university in the English-speaking world. Rensselaer was established "for the purpose of instructing persons, who may choose to apply themselves, in the application of science to the common purposes of life." Since Rensselaer’s founding, its alumni have impacted the world in many significant ways:
• Inventing television
• Creating the microprocessor
• Managing the Apollo project that put the first man on the moon
• Founding Texas Instruments and creating the first pocket calculator
• Creating e-mail (including using the @ symbol)
• Inventing baking powder
• Inventing the Reach toothbrush
• Building the Brooklyn Bridge
• Building the Panama Canal
• Inventing the Ferris Wheel
Yet, for all its accomplishments, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Rensselaer was not well positioned (to prospective students) compared to its world-renowned rival, MIT, or even to schools such as Cal Tech, UC Berkeley, and Carnegie-Mellon. Many state schools (Purdue, University of Illinois at Urbana, etc.) offered exceptionally strong technical programs at significantly lower costs than private universities such as Rensselaer.