“Excellence. Lives. Here.” The saga of taglines in higher ed continues.

We read it in many of the higher ed RFPs we receive: “final deliverable will be a recommendation for brand platform, identity mark, and tagline development.” The request is simply stated, as if all three things are of equal weight and relevance.

We’re quick to remind these clients that taglines became a popular marketing tactic in the 1950s, when jingles ruled the radio and brands needed a clever signoff at the end of their commercials. But today, their effectiveness can be minimal, confining, and even harmful to a higher ed brand.

What makes a great tagline, past or present? Good examples own a point of view or indicate a key benefit of the brand. They are short and specific, clever or inspirational, and above all else, memorable. Bad taglines tend to be trite or vague or wordy, or lean on phrases used by other brands. Here are some classic examples, old and new, that work hard and well:

Takes a licking and keeps on ticking. (Timex) 
The uncola. (7UP) 
The quicker picker-upper. (Bounty) 
We try harder. (Avis) 
Never stop improving. (Lowe’s) 
Shave time. Shave money. (Dollar Shave Club) 
All the news that’s fit to print. (The New York Times
What happens here, stays here. (Las Vegas Tourism) 

So, why don’t these brand sign-offs traditionally work for higher ed institutions?

Successful taglines are specific to their product. Colleges and universities are all selling a similar offer: an education, an experience, a community. Schools have a hard time differentiating their ‘product’ in major marketing campaigns, let alone in three to five words. The things that might set a school apart, such as location or history, quickly become too limiting, and sell the institution short of its bigger impact.

Additionally, colleges and universities often try to capture everything about their institution in a short phrase, which is impossible without being incredibly generic. In other words, by trying to say everything in a tagline, schools often end up saying nothing.

A quick search of higheredtaglines.com, a site curated by consultancy RHB, reveals:

  • 142 schools use the word “future” in their taglines
  • 131 schools use the word “world”
  • 432 schools use the word “your”
  • 220 schools use the word “here”

So if taglines are dated and trite for higher ed, what should these brands be developing?

Powerful brand platforms. A brand platform is the most distilled version of a brand’s strategy, told through a creative lens, in three to seven words. It’s an emotional translation of what the brand stands for. It isn’t a campaign slogan or headline framework. And it definitely does not get locked up with the logo. Instead it inspires communications, offering a filter to guide and judge future work.

The platform differs from a tagline in several other critical ways: it sums up a brand’s strategy, it gets the audience excited at the outset, it builds equity in the brand, and it works as a strategic call to action. While a tagline serves as a signoff, it does the lifting at the closing, often when it’s too late. It’s also a stamp of permanence with no flexibility, and merely a tactical statement used on communications, not a brand guideline.

Marketing needs have evolved greatly. Today’s thriving brands are living, breathing entities that connect to audiences through many different channels and experiences. The strongest brands today include many elements that work together: color palette, typography, voice, photography style, and experience strategy, to name a few. Taglines, however, are a one-size-fits-all marketing approach, which is the exact opposite of what higher education is about. If a higher ed brand is leaning heavily on a tagline, we’ve found it’s usually an indication of weakness in its other brand elements.

In most cases, we recommend avoiding the tagline crutch. Instead, develop a rich, robust brand, based on a powerful platform that can extend and translate in many different ways. We look forward to future RFPs that don’t place it on their list of must-haves.