Six ways to keep your work fresh: Creative inspiration for higher ed marketers


Every single morning, I scream at my cracked reflection in the mirror, “Nathan Thornton, you are so lucky to work in higher ed marketing!” and I hope you do too, and say whatever your name is.

Because we’ve got so much great stuff to work with! All our clients are innovative. They all are part of a supportive community. You know they all offer boundless opportunities and valuable connections. And let’s not forget about all the hands-on learning they’ll do, the real-world experiences they’ll have, plus the ways they’ll hone their passions, build a better future, and be empowered to effect change.

It’s exhausting.

If you haven’t written one of those italicized words or phrases in the last week, you haven’t been higher edding hard enough. And the unfortunate truth is that all these things are true! Colleges and universities absolutely do all these things! But it doesn’t make for very interesting storytelling. If there’s three things that suck away our energy it’s having to say the same thing over and over again, having to say the same thing over and over again, and trying to say the same thing you say over and over again slightly differently.

Because we’re creative people! We want to create! And creating means making new things. And when things are new, people pay attention to them. They listen. They care. They’re interested! But we don’t always get to say interesting things. So we may as well say things interesting. Here’s five or six ways to say the same old thing in fresher, more interesting ways.

Find the central human truth. That’s what we’re really selling here. Higher ed is just what the pictures end up being of. Start by thinking: What’s the truest thing we can say here? What are people really getting out of this? How far can we push? Cars aren’t about transportation, they’re about freedom, or the thrill of speed, or the peace of mind that comes from feeling safe, or the closeness that comes from a shared moment on a road trip. It’s that sliver of gold that can come from anywhere on the emotional spectrum.

Similarly, higher ed isn’t about education, it’s embracing optimism, or making a comeback, or improving lives, or building community or earning respect or making sense of a chaotic world.  

Don’t ask “what’s unique about this institution?” Ask “what’s the truest, most human thing we can say?”

Make a framework, then get messy inside of it. Determine all the things you have to do (use the brand colors, follow the strategy, say the place is affordable, show the impact of research, etc.), and then figure out what’s in play. Set up your sandbox and then dig in. Sometimes the best way to make something that’s fresh and new is to keep almost everything the same and change just one thing. If things are 95 percent in place, crash through the window with that remaining however much percent. Follow almost all the rules. Do it a little bit backwards. Make everything pretty and one thing ugly. Put bacon on the veggie burger. Use only words. Use no words. Leave out a punctuation mark

The two things that make people the most uncomfortable are (1) the way things are, and (2) change. So do both.

Peek over the campus walls as often as you can. Out-of-category inspiration is always gold. Try other brands on for size. Write about the college like it’s a theme park, or a tech company, or an artisanal roasted chickpea snack company. Design the materials like a movie poster or Ikea assembly instructions or a video game. As much as you’ll want to stay up on what other educational brands are doing, the biggest mistake you can make is to follow them.

Create anything — literally anything — but higher ed communications.

Mind like a museum; heart like a library. If there’s one default setting that all creatives should have, it’s to treat your mind like a museum. Always be on the lookout for new acquisitions. Always be thoughtfully curating. Always bring in new artists, striking voices, and compelling works. Have a vibrant exhibition within you at all times. And when you need to create something new, always be willing to share it with the world. Lend it out like a library. Inspiration can come from anywhere, but it’s most convenient when it’s already inside you.

Be open to anything. Share everything.

Everybody cares about something (but nobody cares about everything). Most higher ed communications pieces are like trying to cram 50 people into an elevator. Nobody can breathe and the whole thing is going down. If you have one point to make, don’t illustrate it by telling the stories of an architecture student, and a chemistry researcher, and a soccer player, and an ag student, and a business student, just to make sure everybody is covered. Don’t let internal politics supercede compelling communications. Just tell one story and tell it well. People won’t remember all those stories, and you won’t care. Quick, what was the second one? Haha, see? Find interesting stories and let them breathe.

Don’t feel like you have to make an encyclopedic case for everything. Say one thing and say it well.

Be consistently inconsistent. If you have the right core — a big idea, a smart insight, a key theme — you can go buck wild. There’s no template for creativity. Be consistently interesting. Be consistently surprising. Be consistently meaningful. You don’t have to be consistent with process or approach or whatever else they told you at the 2014 Regional Yawning Conference and Lethargy Expo.

The best example I know of this is one of the most successful brands of the last quarter century: the Fast and the Furious movies (this example is from outside of higher ed). They start with a big idea: What if cars went fast and also blew up sometimes? They have a smart insight: Despite poor choices, it’s never too late to get back on track. And they have a key theme: There’s nothing faster or more furious than family. Those three things are the core. And they ran with it in gloriously inconsistent ways.

When you have a, let’s say, family of brands, you know how important it is that they have a consistent naming strategy. Which is not to say they have to be constricting. Let’s look at the names of the films of the Fast and the Furious franchise. Every single one follows an entirely new naming construction while staying true to the core.

  1. The Fast and the Furious. Great start. Alliterative, two “the”s, no guff.
  2. 2 Fast 2 Furious. For the first sequel, they drop the “the”s and replace them with numerals. Is this the start of a trend?
  3. Nope. The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift isn’t “3 Fast 3” anything. It’s got a colon and a subtitle! But it’s solid and takes things in a new direction, naming-wise. I’m sure we’ll see this construct again. 
  4. Not even close. Fast & Furious is the fourth film and it retains the two words that are absolutely critical — “fast” and “furious.” People wouldn’t even know what movie this was without both of these fundamental words.
  5. Fast Five is so fast it didn’t have time for a “furious” (blasphemy!), but it brings back the number. And it’s spelled out?
  6. Fast & Furious 6 I guess! Our pal the ampersand is back and so is a numeral!
  7. Furious 7 and they are using every part of the bison here. Some are fast, some are furious, some have numbers and some have “the”s, but it feels like we’ve got a pretty tight set of naming tools here.
  8. The Fate of the Furious and I don’t even know what to tell you. Is “fate” supposed to stand in for an 8?
  9. F9 I swear to you is what the next one’s called and at this point the series is so iconic that just one letter tells you what you’re strapping in for.
  10. Fast X. This one is just Fast X. “Fast” = the fastest word. “X” = the fastest letter (and used to mean 10 in Rome).

If this lack of consistency makes you furious, you haven’t been paying attention. Every one of these titles is perfect because it’s a consistent level of unhinged. A consistent amount of interesting. And it consistently delivers what it promises and makes us want to see more.  

Think of your brand like a porch light. Once it’s on, you can go off as far as you want in the darkness as long as you can turn around and see it lighting your way home. Just begin with the core, and start running. And for Dom, and Letty, and Brian, and Ludacris, and Ludacris’s one friend, and Hobbs and Shaw and you and me and the entire higher ed marketing landscape, that porch light is family.