My oldest daughter is currently going through the process of selecting a college to attend next year, so I have spent much of the last year listening to colleges offer their pitches and lots of bubbly students showing us how tasty the cafeteria food is (the food had better be good for what some of these colleges cost).

Recently, at one of these universities, we were greeted with a wonderful breakfast and then led across the tree-lined quad to a theater where we were serenaded by the school’s a cappella choir. The president of the university then got up and gave a very impressive talk to the parents and prospective students, hitting on all the key themes (the school’s fine reputation, alumni network, safety, the good jobs awaiting graduates, and the adventure of the college’s experience — sort of an “explorer” archetypal experience).

He then told a nice story about a young woman who just a few years ago had sat in our seats, all the interesting things she had done and changes she had gone through at the college, and then how she had won a scholarship to travel the world for a year studying hiking around the world and reporting back on how hiking huts in Switzerland, Africa, Norway and South America reflect the underlying social structures in these cultures. Again, more “college as adventure.”
The branded experience they provided had the effect of changing my view of the school to put it firmly in my “considered set.”  They reassured me and even got me excited about the prospect of my daughter studying there. They made me feel something, and they backed it up with some solid “rational alibis.”

Colleges today are in a battle for students and are discovering the need for “branding” in a big way. High School students have thousands of options and the challenge is to differentiate the school in a relevant way, that connects emotionally with both the students (who attend) and the parents (who often end up paying for it.) Aligning with an archetype helps this branding effort because it forces the story to deliver a specific emotion. In the college visits with my daughter, we experienced a number of different archetypal pitches: mentor was the obvious one (wisdom and search for truth), but we also heard some compelling caregiver (nurturing), ruler (status and power), regular guy (belonging), innocent (striving for virtue), explorer (freedom and adventure) and even wizard (transformation).

After all the visits, I feel obligated to inform you that she ended up choosing a small midwestern liberal arts college — and deep down I’m pretty sure it’s because they had a Harry Potter Club and a snowboard team.  Oh well…

Are there any specific examples of college branding you have seen that you would like to share with us?