Archive for the ‘Admissions Marketing’ Category

Branding Disorder

July 2, 2008

Thanks to John Moore at Brand Autopsy, my next summer book will be Obsessive Branding Disorder, by Lucas Conley. I always love to read stuff that validates my personal philosophies! Here are a couple of quotes from the Fast Company essay that spawned the book:

A brand is a result, not a tactic. One cannot go about branding an organization or a product or a service; the organization, product, or service is what creates the brand. (italics mine). In a brilliant twist, the experts have bottled an end and sold it as a means. (emphasis mine).

Lucas sees a connection between the decline in advertising and the rise of branding as a business religion. He points to a 14% drop in Madison Avenue employment from 2000 to 2005. I think it’s more likely that both are symptoms — there is correlation but not necessarily a causal connection.

In my view, the rise of branding with its focus on “being understood” and “knowing who you are” comes from the increasingly narcissistic mood of the culture. And that in turn might be flowing from the trends which have conspired to make “one” — the self — into the ultimate economic unit.

Whatever the cause, we agree on the results: the advertising world focuses on “what we say” and “how we say it”. But the reality is that true branding, minus the hype, is really just “what the business does.” Conley cites Jiffy mix, Disney, and Apple as his examples of strong brands that are strong because of their product, not their advertising. And my personal favorite, In-N-Out Burger:

The $310 million In-N-Out Burger chain, another iconic brand that rarely advertises or speaks to the press, has been putting the rest of the fast-food industry to shame for years. McDonald’s spent an estimated $1.5 billion on branding efforts last year, producing little more than one day’s worth of sales more per store than In-N-Out. Have you ever met anyone who’s had an In-N-Out Burger who doesn’t believe it’s one of the best burgers they’ve ever had? Meanwhile, just who, exactly, is really “lovin’ it”?

For colleges, the message is clear: focus on the delivery of a transformational education experience in keeping with the traditions and values of the school. And in the marketing area, focus on authentic portrayals of how real students are actually experiencing that transformative time in their lives. In that way the authentic brand for that college will emerge. And the branding techniques that are so faddishly au courant, can be left to the McDonalds’ of the world to obsess on.

Postscript on another great summer read:

Today it seems normative for members of a family, company, team, or band to find the current of success more rewarding when they wade into the deep waters alone. Fame and fortune are easier to manage solo, without the vulnerability and accountability of team participation. Using music as a metaphor, it’s easy to think of examples from my generation: the Beatles; Peter Cetera; Michael Jackson; Paul Simon; Enya. Of course, the ones whose sound was defined by the team brand, rather than individual stars, are also noteworthy: the Beach Boys; the Rolling Stones.

A great book about the difficulties yet rewards of team-building is The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, by Patrick Lencioni.

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Another College Video spoof

June 23, 2008

Here the target is political correctness, and the silliness of using on-camera spokespeople to sell a college like it was a used car.

“Whiteman” college….

Back on Barack

June 5, 2008

No, I didn’t leave to join the Obama campaign. And no, I haven’t been recently released from the Hillary campaign either. I just got too busy to blog, too focused on client projects that were pressing and proprietary.

Hopefully, I’m back. But I couldn’t pass up this little college marketing gem: a Brussels college that wants to advertise that it’s a combination of academic oil and water:

Barackary Clintama

Here’s how Hogeschool-Universiteit illustrates that it’s a college and university all rolled into one! Any reactions to their advertising chops or their taste? Image courtesy of adpulp.com through one of my commentors, Big Yellow Forehead blog.

Obama/Hillary fusion

ObaMac

February 20, 2008

Millennial sensibilities appear poised to determine who our next President will be. All of the research has been showing us that Millennials are diverse, are brand oriented, are media savvy, and most importantly, public spirited and community oriented. So it shouldn’t surprise us that they’ll begin to flex those muscles in ways that will impact the culture in far more significant ways than clothing styles and music genres.

Several articles in the press recently underscore the arrival of this Gen-Y phenomenon in our political decision-making process:

Is Clinton a PC and Obama a Mac?

Clinton as PC, Obama as Mac

The important thing to emphasize here is that indeed Obama is a Mac. His website reflects his brand – cool, intuitive, imaginative, well-designed, interactive, respectful, authentic.

Hillary’s website, by contrast, lacks the Apple-esque human engineering, the sensibilities that show careful listening and an ethos that is comfortable with handing the keys to the Millennials to let them take the culture for a spin.

I concur with Noam’s assessment, as well as the article by Doug Kendall which triggered this current media stampede.

Not from a political perspective, mind you, but from the jaded mindset of a branding guy and marketer-to-Millennials. The reporters have done their homework, and their assessment rings true. I predict it’ll play out that way in the political process … though I claim no expertise in that arena.

Another incisive commentary by Frank Rich adds observations about the impact of Millennial ways of thinking on the McCain candidacy. He says,

Whatever the potency of his political skills and message, Mr. Obama is also riding a demographic wave. The authors of the new book “Millennial Makeover,” Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais, point out that the so-called millennial generation (dating from 1982) is the largest in American history, boomers included, and that roughly 40 percent of it is African-American, Latino, Asian or racially mixed. One in five millennials has an immigrant parent. It’s this generation that is fueling the excitement and some of the record turnout of the Democratic primary campaign, and not just for Mr. Obama.

Even by the low standards of his party, Mr. McCain has underperformed at reaching millennials in the thriving culture where they live. His campaign’s effort to create a MySpace-like Web site flopped. His most-viewed appearances on YouTube are not viral videos extolling him or replaying his best speeches but are instead sendups of his most reckless foreign-policy improvisations…”

Barack compared the Boomers to the Moses generation, and the Millennials to the “Joshua” generation which followed it — doers instead of idealists. Of course, this could all be empty rhetoric, and I’m not personally interested in the politics. I’m interested in the branding. The point is that the Obama brand does seem to fit the style of both the candidate and his helpers, while the attempt to fly a “change” flag appears ineffectual from a branding standpoint when either Clinton or McCain make similar claims. You can rely on the Millennials ability to interpret visceral media signals, in deciding whether a candidate’s message and person align with their stated brand. And it appears like Obama will definitely win that battle.

Whether the Millennials will display historic perspective, or political wisdom, is another question entirely.

For colleges, the lesson is clear. Make sure your brand is clearly and authentically implemented in your website and your use of media.

Unreason and me(dia)

February 18, 2008

This video is the latest YouTube example of what Susan Jacoby writes about in her new book, The Age of American Unreason. The question is, are Americans hostile to knowledge?

What do you think I am? A clique chic geek? How should I know?!!!

Inspiration – III

February 11, 2008

Enjoying some personal recharge time in San Diego, I met a couple of committed walkers who taught me some great insights into authenticity as a personal and institutional lifestyle.

I was climbing Cowles Mountain, the highest spot in San Diego county. It’s a great spot to enjoy the sunrise — an hour up, 15 minutes down. While on the way, I stopped to rest and as Del (on the right) passed with his friend, we struck up a conversation. I asked him about walking as metaphor of life, and he hit me right between the eyes with, as Kenny Rogers put it, an ace that I could keep. Del’s formula?

“I have two feet. The first is rethinking/change. The second is confidence/assertiveness.” (I’m translating from more religious terminology – repentance and faith). Del went on (I’m paraphrasing): “When I start out, I have to listen and respond to my environment. I need to rethink, based on who I impact and where I don’t measure up. Then, I am free to confidently go forward, seize opportunities, be effective at what I can do and who I am. And then comes another step of listening, responding, rethinking.”

Del’s comments inspired me with a fresh insight into both personal and institutional authenticity. Being “me”, honestly projecting who I am, is not enough if I want to be perceived as authentic — if I want to be an organic and productive enterprise. I also have to respond to “you”. I must be committed to self-improvement, and work that out through a cycle of receiving and sending, give and take, listening and expressing.

The brand of an institution does not emerge from what it repeats about itself. As John Moore said in Brand Autopsy recently, it flows from being, not “branding”.

Being “me”, personally or institutionally, involves a recognition that if a “me” has value because of my story, my unique experiences and perspective, then every “you” has value, too. If one individual is golden, a diverse community brings infinite riches.

If there were only one university it would be a boring and provincial world of ideas. But Oxford has greater value because there is Cambridge. Harvard is interesting because it shares many qualities with the other Ivies, as well as because of the nuances which differentiate it.

Each “me” becomes actualized as an authentic brand because of its response to its environment. I can attempt to assert my independence from my peers, but when I do so it only cheapens my actual brand, the authentic “me” which is not what I think of myself, but what I actually am as an organic member of a community of interrelated, interdependent organisms. My ability to project a distinct perspective, a valuable set of values, tarnishes whenever I grow sluggish in my efforts to be accountable.

In fact, I would argue that if there is one foot more important than another in Del’s metaphor, it would be the rethinking foot. By rethinking and changing as rapidly as possible to changing conditions and needs, I earn the right to assert my identity as valuable, as useful, as worth consideration. I have a valid reason to hold forth my brand. And I have a decent chance, thus, of my brand being perceived as authentic.

Thanks, Del, for your helpful insight!

Archetypical Climbers

Taking out the good lines

February 6, 2008

Hillman Curtis is one clear-thinking web designer, who has evolved into video production. (I am a video producer, who has evolved into web design and branding). In his book, MTIV, he quotes Hemingway: “Write the story. Then take out all the good lines, and see if it still works.”

That’s the key to effective storytelling. The good lines too often get in the way of the story, and I think the main reason why “college video” has become a term of derision is that most of the videos focus on delivering “good lines” rather than authentic stories.

A video I really saw by Chapman University is a case in point. It starts with a long shot of the President, who addresses the camera and talks about the 4 pillars of Chapman as the camera pulls back to reveal the literal pillars of the administration building. There’s a good line that needs to be killed off because it is deadly to viewership. He’s followed by a student who’s obviously reading a teleprompter. More good lines that get the talking points in, but kill the authenticity and completely fail to establish a story.

The only way to tell a story is to let a person talk about something they care about — usually their own experience. If after a few seconds we sense that their story is interesting to us, we may watch.

That’s it. Take out ALL the good lines, and see if it works. Because in college video, it definitely WILL NOT work if the lines are left in there.

Fair use abuse

January 3, 2008

This Chronicle clip talks about the academic/pop culture remix uses of copyrighted video on the web. The American University profs in the interview claim that the sorts of uses they sample for the reporter are fair, and contribute to a new kind of dialog among people. I’m not inclined to agree. I think most of those things are opportunistic misuses of creativity… because they build a creative product on someone else’s investment.

The fact that they’re funny and creative in their own right doesn’t matter to me as an artist. The law is designed to protect artists from having their work reproduced and distributed by others, because the duplication of images I created cheapens the resale value of those images for me, as the artist.

I’ve done many parodies of other creative works over the years. No problem with that. But I’ve done so the right way, by recreating, with a twist, the original idea in a way that serves my client’s communication objective.

Fair use? Sure, a couple seconds of a news event, a very brief clip from a concert at a college, to show the audience that the event occurred. That’s fair use. But if I were to repurpose the entire chorus of an artist’s song as part of the sound track, letting the words or music set the mood for that segment of the video — that would NOT be fair use, but would instead be benefitting from the other artist’s work without paying him. So in those cases I always contact the artist and explain the desire to use his work for that purpose, and tell him what the college can afford (usually from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, depending on artist, purpose, and how it will be distributed). Usually, along with credit they’re happy for the exposure at a nominal rate.

In the movie I Am Sam, the screenwriter wanted to use Beatles songs because that was part of the title character’s shorthand way of communicating with his daughter. They didn’t have the king’s ransom it would take to use 10 seconds here or 30 seconds there of real Beatles songs. This seemed like a setback … but instead they went to relatively unknown bands who cover Beatles tunes and hired them to recreate the songs. Then, they only had to buy less expensive performing rights and the much less expensive song usage license for the movie. Was this a noble purpose, a new audience, a creative recontexting of Beatles music? Yes. Would it have been fair use? No, and if they had tried it they would have risked facing the punitive damages and criminal penalties that the copyright law has been given to enforce it.

I once violated the copyright law myself, and it still gives me the creeps to think about it. I was doing a motivational show for a sales meeting in Phoenix… a one-time feel good meeting for a bunch of guys who had been through a rough time in their struggling division of a Fortune 100 company. I took 20 second to 1 minute clips from a bunch of different movies and added a narration by a voice that sounded like the country philosopher. The theme was “great beginnings”, and every clip was either funny or inspiring. Did I get away with it? Yes, because it was under the radar in 1989 or so. Was it fair use? Not on your life. It was an abuse of the fair use laws and I’m glad no one ever caught me.

Let’s end this on a light note by breaking the law together… 🙂

PS. The report you can read yourself is by Pat Afderheide and Peter Jaszi, co-director of the American University Law School’s Program on Information Justice and Intellectual Property.

I just interviewed an attorney who is an expert in intellectual property a few months ago. I’ll contact him and report back to you what he says about it.

Authentic authenticity

December 31, 2007

Over the last few weeks I’ve kept coming back to the issue of authenticity, as discussed on YouTube and as advocated by Andy Beedle.

Authenticity is my mantra, my corporate compass, but YouTube’s shock-schlock and Beedle’s quest for viral humor seem to me to be cheap substitutes for the real thing. Here’s a year-end reflection on authentic authenticity.

I still subscribe to the “3 gates” view of communication I learned as a kid: “Is it true, necessary, and kind?”

YouTube as an Institutional Platform

It’s almost laughable to look at YouTube through that prism.

The authenticity question deals with “Is it true?” But is anyone on YouTube asking the other 2 questions? Some are; most, it seems to me, are not. It’s a commons, and the least common denominator now defines the YouTube brand.

Is it necessary to see most of the garbage on YouTube? Objectively, no.

Is it kind to folks like Miss Teen South Carolina or other YouTube laughingstocks at their worst, caught doing silly, foolish, or degrading things? Obviously not, but then again, there may be times when seeing a window into the darker parts of the soul of a football coach or politician may be a public service.

But if I’m charged with protecting an institutional brand, and I want to compete for attention in that marketplace with representatives of my college, my answer is “No.” No, I’m not going to put up 2nd rate hubris, which most college videos tend to be, and no, I’m not going to intentionally put my President wiping out on water skis or my dean of students in drag. Such a visual might be viral, but that kind of viral is a disease, not desirable publicity.

It’s a free country. Kids and faculty members are going to post stuff on YouTube. A lot of it will be embarrassing, and some of it will actually be a credit to the institution. But as a rule I’d say try to live in a way as an institution that avoids YouTube. Practice authenticity and transparency in both public and private … expect  your administrators and faculty to be the same people all the time … and then there won’t be much ugly, yukyuk junk to get skewered by on YouTube.
The YouTube phenomenon demonstrates, not the need for censorship, but the desirability of individual self-censorship.

While authenticity is a value I subscribe to, in my view it is not the highest value. Necessary and Kind are equally important values. Openness and authenticity are only a virtue when admirable, humane qualities are at the core of each person’s value system. Honor toward others, humility and kindness and other-centered nobility … these are the aspirational virtues that all institutional leaders should exemplify. Isn’t that one reason we call this biz “Higher Education”?

At its best, YouTube is a tribute to the human spirit; at its worst, it is a searchable, accessible latrine. You can’t stop people from reading about your school in a magazine they take into the bathroom. But you don’t have to paint your institutional tributes on the bathroom walls.
So my advice is to be cautious about relying on YouTube as a repository of your college’s reputation and messages.

Beedle-style Humor 

Humor — sarcastic, sophomoric humor as practiced by Andy Beedle and others, is not quite so easy to dislike. Wielded in an institutional setting, as part of an email campaign or website presence, this kind of humor can certainly distinguish your institution from the marketplace at the present time. Few colleges are willing to risk it, and the ones that do have perhaps enough to gain that they’re willing to take the risks that go with the territory.

Consider two examples from 2007 — the  Kettering Stickman series and the George Mason mascot series. Is that sort of humor “authentic”? Does breaking the mold, stepping out of the “dignified” and “moderate” speech patterns that colleges have always practiced, constitute a positive step toward honesty, authenticity, openness?  Obviously some folks think so, and there are some short term gains, it appears, at institutions that move in that direction.

Humor is fun, and I love humor. It’s a great way to get at truth in an accessible way. In fact, humor is essential to credibility, authenticity, accessibility.

I don’t think it’s possible to construct an effective fundraising or recruiting piece without authentic moments of self-effacing, natural humor.

Where I think humor can become dangerous is when it becomes sarcastic, caustic, or disrespectful. In my view this line may at times be difficult to recognize, but generally a cross-section of the institution’s members can see it if they give the matter a day or two to settle. For example, once I was working on a fundraising video and included a line from an interview that joked about how the college’s alumni are productive citizens, not landing in jail. It seemed innocent enough, and felt to me and most of the college’s review committee like an authentic moment of organic humor… and helped create a mood that turned warm and motivational just a few seconds later. But one member of the committee was unsure about it. She admitted it was funny, but it somehow didn’t feel right to her. The next day she called me and was able to verbalize why this wasn’t just a PC issue. Turns out the month before one of the college’s alums had been indicted and was awaiting trial in connection with the Enron scandal. So the joke would have gone sour in the minds of some alumni in the audience who knew and felt sorry for their discredited friend.

As a rule, humor that would burn someone should be thought of as acid humor. It should be avoided, or used with extreme care, because it is ultimately cut from the same cloth that produces disrespect, anarchism, nihilism, hate speech.

The kind of humor that works well is often confessional in nature. It doesn’t hurt anyone, and represents a refreshing candor on the part of the speaker, which many in the audience can relate to. For example in the current Cedarville admissions DVD, which won a Silver award in last year’s national Admissions Marketing Awards competition, after a series of short reasons as to why students chose Cedarville, I included a hesitant admission by one interviewee that she came there because her dad made her go there for a year. The whole comment is there; the double take, the moment of reflection, then the the smiling confession that she didn’t want to come there at all. When she was interviewed, she was still in the first year and had not yet decided whether to return. But I stuck it in the video because I knew it would be a chuckle moment for both students and parents, an acknowledgment that a lot of kids who want to gain the freedom of a college experience are pressured by their parents to attend a school with more structure and supervision.

In a fundraising video for the United Way, I included a humorous moment in which a guy said, “It don’t make a difference how much they take out of my pay… I mean, you know, as long as they don’t take too much…  Is that going to be on tape?”  It brought a sense of the reality that everyone struggles with finding a balance between their altruism and their personal and family goals.

Humor that works is refreshing, feels honest, doesn’t hurt anyone, and doesn’t cheapen or degrade either the people involved or the institution they represent. Humor that works may not be PC, but it also avoids throwing acid at other institutions or at the values and virtues that colleges and humanitarian organizations stand for. And that’s why I would urge colleges to be cautious before using some of the methods that seem to be proliferating right now.

Bottom line, humor that works well establishes an authentic brand of authenticity for the college. It remains true to the aspirational virtues and strengths of the college, while acknowledging the inconsistencies, diversity, and humanity that make that college as accessible and likable as it is strong and idealistic.

Whats your story by Dan Pink

December 22, 2007

Found this nearly decade-old article from Fast Company by one of my favorite writers. It’s about Dana Winslow Atchley IIIDana Winslow Atchley III, who by 1998 was developing a business client list by promoting brand identity with a combination of one-man theatre and digital video storytelling. Mr. Atchley founded a digital storytelling film festival in Colorado, which lasted 5 years. Mr. Atchley died in 2000 of complications of a bone marrow transplant.