I’ve been reading the recently released second edition of Differentiate or Die by Jack Trout, and there are some powerful (and timeless) messages there for all brands. Although the entire book is geared toward commercial brand differentiation, some of the comments relate directly to higher education marketing.

Trout takes on bland, meaningless product taglines with the same gusto I attacked college taglines that say nothing about the school in a previous Neuromarketing post. Here are a few of Trout’s ineffective tagline examples – see if you can match them up with their brand:
– “Your future made easier”
– “Yes you can”
– “Way of light”
– “Uncommon wisdom”
– “Shift”

For you advertising junkies, the correct answers are ING, Sprint, Suzuki, Wachovia, and Nissan. All of those phrases are so nonspecific they would serve equally well (or poorly!) for a college. (In fact, a little checking showed that “You Can” is the tagline for Calumet College of Saint Joseph in Whiting, IN, while “Yes You Can!” is used by Shenandoah University in Winchester, VA.)

These commercial examples exemplify the same characteristics as meaningless college taglines, like “Explore. Learn. Innovate.” To paraphrase Trout, you can spend millions to promote bad taglines, but they still won’t be memorable and they still don’t imply anything different about the brand (or college).

Trout even has a few words directed at college branding, and singles out one example of a college that has created a unique selling proposition:

Consider a college. The United States has too many colleges and universities: 3600 more than anywhere else in the world. They are similar in many ways, especially in their willingness to take government aid for grants and student loans.

Hillsdale College, 90 miles west of Detroit, has come up with a unique selling proposition to its conservative constituency by declining all of Uncle Sam’s dollars, even for federally backed loans…

Hillsdale’s pitch: “We’re free from government influence.” They reinforce this concept by positioning themselves as a mecca for conservative thought.

As one fund-raiser commented, “This is a product we can sell.” And they have the numbers to prove it.

That’s not to say other colleges should emulate the specifics of Hillsdale’s approach (which, of course, would be ineffective), but rather that staking out a unique selling proposition for a brand has major benefits. College marketers should look at their taglines and other branding efforts – if they could be used equally well by many other schools, scrap them! Bland branding, begone!