Sexy Names for College Courses

I’ve written often lately about college branding, but have focused on developing the external brand of the institution. One thing that’s clear is that as skeptical as academics may be about the idea of branding, a few profs are actively employing the concept to increase enrollment in the courses they teach. If you had to fill an econ distribution requirement, would you prefer to take “Intro to Macroeconomic Theory” or “The Economics of Sin,” a course taught by Jessica Holmes, a 38-year-old economics professor at Middlebury?

Boston College German studies professor Michael Resler went searching for a way to boost flagging interest in his “German Literature of the High Middle Ages’’ class a few years ago, and settled on the idea of simply giving the course a sexier name. The resulting “Knights, Castles, and Dragons’’ nearly tripled enrollment. [From The Boston Globe - Colleges find juicy titles swell enrollment by Peter Schworm.]

A few more fun names:
Achilles to Batman: Where are the Heroes? (UMass – Amherst)
Sacred Hoops, Sneaker Pimps, and Hoop Dreams: Race, Gender, and Consumerism in 20th Century American Basketball (Suffolk University)
Oh God 1: Concepts (College of the Holy Cross)

I’m sure there are many faculty members who find such pandering to student interests inappropriate. Indeed, a formidable course name might serve as a barrier to keeping out all but the most motivated students. In an era of declining enrollments in some departments, though, it’s hard to resist taking steps to boost student appeal.

The other risk is that the actual content of the course may not match up to the sexy title. Presumably, the profs who go the course rebranding route also take steps to ensure the product itself is palatable to the new crop of customers.

The neuromarketing takeaway here is that branding is for everyone – whether it’s a college course with few students, an underutilized corporate benefit, or anything else, rebranding can change perception. Wordsmith Frank Lutz is a master of that craft – as I noted in Priming by Order, doesn’t “energy exploration” sound a lot more desirable that “drilling for oil?”

Branding and rebranding may not solve every problem, but they would be at the top of my list for things to look at as part of a total solution.


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— who has written 984 posts on Neuromarketing.

Roger Dooley writes and speaks about marketing, and in particular the use of neuroscience and behavioral research to make advertising, marketing, and products better. He is the primary author at Neuromarketing, and founder of Dooley Direct LLC, a marketing consultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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1 response to "Sexy Names for College Courses" — Your Turn


John Bidwell
10. September 2009 at 3:25 pm

Excellent point, and professors can go further in developing their brands. Harvard professor Steven Pinker, author of “How the Mind Works,” has college Web real estate that he can personalize, which is to say brand. Other professors go a step further. Darryl Caterine, an old friend and prof at Le Moyne, has his own Web site. In these cases, branding is hardly pandering. It is offering prospective and current students clarity, differentiation, and more points of entry into an educational institution. Let’s hope we see a lot more of it.


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