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What Does Your Tagline Say About Your Institution...Really?

Posted by Mary Hiers on 12.20.2013

Taglines can be strokes of pure brilliance or they can make people groan. 

But even the crudest double entendres can work for some entities. A pest control company can get away with the tagline "We make ants say uncle," but with higher education, puns aren't good, and double meanings must be intelligent. A great tagline effectively elevates and communicates a college or university's brand, distinguishing it from its competitors. A bad tagline adds little value, and can be a major distraction from the school's brand.

A school's tagline should be strong and succinct, and it should convey what you do and who you do it for. Taglines are challenging, because they have to pack a lot into as few words as possible. 

Should Your School Have a Tagline?

LIM-logoThe answer is yes, but only if it's a good one. A great tagline helps you communicate your school's unique value proposition. For example, LIM College's tagline "Where Business Meets Fashion," is brief and conveys clearly that the school is devoted to the business side of fashion. And it gives prospective students a value proposition: fashion is an art, and we show you how to make a living at it.

Ball State University's tagline is "Education Redefined," and it has served the school well for almost a decade. The school also uses its website to deliver on its tagline. One way it does this is by telling the first-person story of a successful graduate named Colleen Bormann who redefined (again, referencing the tagline) her own career path based on the education she received at Ball State.

Getting Taglines Right

Writing for, Steve Cody suggests starting with what he calls locating your North Star. He suggests interviewing stakeholders individually and off the record, asking for their honest responses to the following questions:

  • Who is ___ University?
  • What does ___ University do?
  • What sets ___ University apart from the competition?
  • What would students say about ___ University?
  • What is ___ University's vision?

Cody says, "You want the bald-faced, gut-wrenching truth that only anonymity can assure," and calls these anonymous answers your brand's North Star, assuring that eventually you'll arrive at an authentic tagline. He recommends one-on-one interviews rather than focus groups because, he says, "the alpha male or female in attendance will dominate the conversation and influence others' opinions."

If there's a gap between what people say and what you want them to think, you need to slow down, determine why the discrepancy exists, and make the changes needed to close that gap, because effective taglines have to ring true with their target audience.

Karen Marston of Untamed Writing suggests the following exercise for developing the tagline itself. First answer the following questions with a series of "brainstorm" lists, including good, bad, and even outrageous words:

  • What are the different names for what we do?
  • What are the different names for the people we do it for?
  • What are some descriptive words that fit with our values and reflect what we're all about?

The lists give you the raw materials to begin experimenting with different combinations. Taglines may go through several iterations before one feels right, but it should ultimately convey what you do and who you do it for, in a way that comes across as a value-added proposition.

Colleges and universities often struggle to communicate the biggest issue facing prospective students (and often their parents): how they justify the major investment of time and money required to attend their institution of higher learning. Only when a school knows its brand position can an honest, brief, and effective tagline be used to advance its story. And a bad tagline? It may be worse than no tagline at all.

Topics: Branding, Higher Ed Marketing, Featured

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