July 8th, 2011
I’m back in Boston. The city is hot and hopping with tourists. My hotel, where I have stayed about four times in the last few years, is a shrine to JFK, who celebrated several State election victories and proposed to the future Jackie Kennedy here. People walk through the lobby just to breathe the air Charles Dickens and Ralph Waldo Emerson once shared. Henry James, who was famously hard to please, declared the hotel an architectural treasure. Around one corner is the gold-domed State House, around another the Freedom Trail blazed by Paul Revere, and around another the manicured green expanse of the Common on which as an undergraduate I once joined thousands of others to protest the War in Vietnam.
Yesterday, on my way to dinner in the Italian North End, I passed a few street people holding predictable homemade entreaties to throw some coin their way. You know what I mean; “I am a homeless Vet,” “Need food,” or “God Bless.” But one clever beggar held up some tattered cardboard on which he had written: “I like to drink alcohol, smoke weed, and listen to Aerosmith.” Wow—talk about innovative. I have been here all week for a conference on marketing graduate studies, and it occurred to me that this guy had a leg up on the marketing racket and was probably outperforming his fellow street mendicants.
Normally, I wouldn’t be at a conference like this. It’s not aimed at me. I think I am the only academic dean in attendance. Everyone else is working in marketing and/or communications and based in a US institution, small and large. Harvard is here, and so are some colleges I’ve never heard of. Of course, that’s what they say about Memorial—until now, that is. My colleague, the associate director in our own marketing and communications division, Michael Pickard, and I were invited to present our own marketing success story, more or less a case history of what to do with limited resources. We are a bit like aliens here in this sea of US managers and directors, and their examples always assume an exclusively American audience. It’s an odd feeling, but we can bear it for a few instructive days in this splendid city and in this marvelous hotel. It’s not so bad being exotic in Boston.
Indeed, I think our own Canadian/provincial story went over well. We were peppered with good questions and the vibe in the room was really upbeat. We told—and showed–the before and after story at Memorial: how we changed our web site in Graduate Studies, built a microsite, went live with chats, collaborated with several different units in the university, streamlined our online application functions, and did all that with sophisticated text and stunning photography. The result was a hi-concept design, appealing to the intelligence of the potential candidate. The measure of our success is evident in the astonishing rise in traffic to our site. Such attention has led, in turn, to a surge in the number of applications, and ultimately to a dramatic increase in the number of registered students. We are, as we boasted this afternoon, the most interesting university they’ve never heard of.
Well, as I said, they do now. Much of the talk here has been focused on analysis of how you go about branding, identifying your core competencies, getting people to be interested in your cause, aligning your strategies, building a better web site, and so on—all that marketing shop talk. But we haven’t really heard that much about the creative juice you need to take your mission to the next level—to distinguish your brand from everyone else’s. We all agree on what it takes. Getting there takes a keen awareness of aesthetics and a willingness to be bold with your ideas. Easier said than done, of course. This morning we heard from a very compelling plenary speaker based at Michigan who used the example of the Apple brand to illustrate an extreme marketing success story. There’s no denying the effect of the Apple ad campaigns but, as she pointed out, Apple actually has the product we all want to covet. The company has built what is now commonly called “machine love,” an attachment to a product you want to touch, play with, get lost in. Who says that about their PC? By analogy, everyone is claiming their graduate programs are the “best,” but what does that mean in such a saturated field? If the graduate experience doesn’t live up to those boasts then you’d better be prepared for the backlash. The point is to brand—be faithful to—what you are, what makes you different, appealing, and distinguishable from the Higher Ed institution down the street. Be the Apple of everyone’s eye.