Branding, Independent, private schools

The Tagline Boomerang

I walked into my boyfriend’s bedroom for the first time. It wasn’t what you think, so if you’ve already gone there, you are going to be disappointed. It wasn’t what I thought either. The room was stark and minimal.  No clutter, no clothes on the floor; it was a monastic living space but for the few things hanging on the walls. Over his desk were framed pictures of the ocean, water falls, and snowy mountain peaks. Even closer I could read short quotations like “What you do today can improve all your tomorrows,” and “Failure is not falling down but the refusal to get up.” Motivational sayings. I hadn’t planned on that. Uh oh, I thought. Dan is a mantra man.

winston-churchill-the-pessimist-sees-difficultyI was a senior in college, English major, a determined intellectual. I loathed every cliche. Ironically, I’d met Dan in a romance novel, a study abroad program in Oxford, England, where we took long walks along the Thames, talked about history, life, and God as two coeds do to impress one another. And I was impressed. Dan was the complete package: handsome, smart, funny, and laser focused.

Unprepared for the motivational water falls, I should have known they were a possibility. Walk-on at the University of Georgia under Vince Dooley (a genuine Rudy), there hadwall_clock to be SOMETHING to pump the guy up. Deflated, I sat down on the edge of his futon, faced the opposite wall, and there it was–a National Organization for Women poster. NOW. Do you remember the logo? I couldn’t believe my eyes. I felt my heart rise in hope that despite motivational mountainscapes, I’d hit the ultimate guy lottery. Was it possible he was a feminist too? So I asked him, “Where on earth did you find that poster?” Distracted side glance, he answered, “Oh that one? Not sure. But every morning when I wake up, I look at it, and it says NOW! NOW, Dan. Wake up NOW!”

In a powerful moment I won’t forget for so many reasons, a national slogan took on pseudo-intellectualism in a boxing match and won.  NOW, after 25 years of marriage to Dan and 14 years in marketing, I have rejected snobbery and embraced the buxom power of what I lovingly call “the mantra.”

In the world of marketing, a mantra presents internal and external opportunities beyond what you might imagine. It might be a simple tagline, the single dramatic point that describes who you are, or it could be an expression that sticks to the bones of your employees, motivates them, and reminds them why you exist.

Let’s start with the tagline. A tagline is not WHAT you are; it is WHO you are.  For a school it isn’t “Best K-12 private school in Atlanta,” for example. Instead, a great tagline is short, sweet, and evocative; in very few words it presents all that you value as an organization.

It is Shipley School‘s “Courage for the doing; Grace for the deed.”  The Lexington School‘s “We Teach Courage,” Baylor School’s “Baylor Leads,” Presbyterian Day School‘s “Building Better Boys.”

Examples of corporate taglines help us understand too. I love games. Let’s play the “Sticky Tagline Game!” You identify the business associated with each of the six taglines. If you get them all correct, you get a HUGE virtual pat on the back. Here we go–

  1. Just Do It
  2. Because you’re worth it
  3. Melts in your mouth not in your hands
  4. Don’t leave home without it
  5. Breakfast of Champions
  6. Taste the Feeling

How did you do? Funny, there are app quiz games that now test our aptitude for taglines. That’s how prominent taglines are in modern media and marketing. So why don’t more independent schools use taglines?

They don’t think they need one.  Five years ago a school I know used a local marketing firm for rebranding. The firm “understood the culture and climate” of the local community even though they hadn’t marketed independent schools per se. The firm did nice work on a new logo for the school, but rather than building on a tagline, it told the school not to worry about it, that everyone already knew who the school was, no tagline needed. They said, “Harvard doesn’t have a tagline.” Gasp, I know. Reality check: the school is a strong independent school and the market leader in its city of about 400,000, known throughout the state but not across the country. It is not Harvard. The firm that steered them clear of a tagline and (even more important) the PROCESS that goes with building one gave bad advice. Here’s why:

  1. Taglines are proven to work for corporations, so why not non-profits? Nike, L’oreal, M&M, Amex,  Wheaties, and Coke,  (yes, the answers of the quiz above) use taglines in marketing to build and maintain their sticky momentum. It’s called branding, and private organizations are allowed (and now encouraged) to build a brand too.
  2. Building a tagline can teach your organization more than it already knows about itself.  Stakeholder feedback (focus groups, surveys) is essential to building a truthful core message.
  3. The process for creating a tagline will result in a deeper understanding of who the organization is, what values mean the most, which ones RESONATE emotionally for your current and prospective customers.
  4. Once you have it, a great tagline gives you a direction. It is a boomerang.  You can throw your stories out on a wide arch for admission and development, alumni relations, attraction and retention, curricular advancement, and faculty professional development, returning each time as the essence of who you are and what you value.
  5. If your tagline is right, then it will STICK. Be patient (keep it for 10 years), and you will become known for it. Your customers will say it, repeat it, write it, sing it, hashtag it. It will become your brand.

boomerangI resisted the mantra for many years until finally I gained the intellectual humility to recognize how effective that nugget of communication is. I should have seen it the day my boyfriend and I were moved in completely different ways by the same message. NOW I know the power of that boomerang, the tagline, and NOW I hope you will too.

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