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The Art & Science of the Advertising Slogan

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Dennis Altman
Dennis Altman is an advertising consultant and a Professor of Advertising and Public Relations at University of Kentucky.


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AdSlogans.com -- Wise Words/17

Columbus Society of Communicating Arts
How To Write A College Slogan
By George Felton

I'm sure we've all noticed that colleges and universities these days are writing slogans for themselves and putting them in their promotional materials right next to the college logo, much as Volkswagen does ("Drivers wanted") or FedEx ("The World On Time") or almost anyone else who's in business. It only makes sense. If you're selling something, get the door open, wedge your foot in, and keep it there.

But we may also have noticed that college slogans tend to be-how to put this?-kind of lame. They sound like they were written by the admissions department or development folks on a Friday afternoon in a badly ventilated little meeting room.

All committee, no heart. To wit:

• University of Idaho. Tradition.    Change. Excellence.
• Oakland University. Think Success.    Think Oakland University.
• Defiance College. To Know. To    Lead. To Serve. To Understand.

As you see, they're dutiful and sane, but they've got no oomph, no razzmatazz, no get up and zing. If we're going to compete with the big boys, we need to do better. In the spirit of improving the breed, of getting in the game, I offer some modest suggestions, a few do's and don'ts, when creating that winning slogan for your school.

Make it fun.
Do this before you do anything else. Remember, by creating a slogan, you've entered that great American amusement park, AdLand. Students will judge your slogan against the best lines still echoing in their heads from the day's play: "Just do it," "Got milk?," and the rest. So be warned. Play to win. Hey, there's a slogan. Be good or be gone. Hey, there's another one.

Make it catchy.
To borrow advice from New York advertising agency Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners, you don't want your strategy showing. Too many college slogans hang so far below the hemline they trip on themselves. The windy laboriousness of this slogan, for example, gives off the whiff of too much homework: "Quinnipiac University. Challenging students to meet the challenges of the future." I have that headachy, overloaded feeling already. You too? Slogans solve problems, and I'd think the big problem here would be pronouncing the place. Try this: "Quinnipiac. Rhymes with Win A Free Mac.' And that's just what you'll do when you apply for early decision. Upon acceptance, we'll give you your choice of an iMac or iBook for school. Cool!" See how naturally the slogan leads to strong selling copy?

Honest is good, but too honest is bad.
A slogan could be seen as a chance to tell the truth, but when has that ever been persuasive? Iowa State University's slogan, for example, is "Becoming the best." Modest yet ambitious, perhaps even true. But like detergent boxes that say "New Formula! Cleans Better!" or frozen meals claiming "More Chicken! Improved Taste!" it makes you wonder what Iowa State was doing. They might as well have written, "Now with more professors" or "Pretty darned okay, considering everything." I suggest "Iowa State University. Why not the best?" It worked for Jimmy Carter, didn't it? (Besides, since we've forgotten the past and students never knew it, the line's washday fresh all over again.) Get in our face a little. Force the issue. Why NOT Iowa State? Well, why not? Give me one good reason. I'm waiting.

See the power here of a good offense? And you could follow it up in the brochure: "Can't think of a reason? Then give us a season." So think big. Say more, not less. Ask yourself, what might be true? Then keep on going.

Don't let common sense get in the way
Here's a slogan I admire: "Sarasota University. Now in California." Assuming Sarasota is only in Florida is exactly the kind of narrow-mindedness that cripples college marketing today. Properly viewed, Sarasota is wherever we want it to be, kind of like Superman. With distributed-learning centers and online learning, a college's brand is infinitely portable, so it has no excuse for not being ubiquitous. If I can get Starbucks on the corner, on campus, on line, at the supermarket, and out of the cup at my elbow right now, your brand ought to be at least as available. I should be able to suck down your school's brew without so much as a straw. So as your university expands everywhere, write a slogan that tells us about it. Possibilities? "University of Maryland. All Terrapin Station All The Time." "University of Arkansas. Pigs Fly!" Etc.

Exercise caution with regional appeals
With One World fast approaching, state universities need to remember that regionalism can appear to be provincialism. Mississippi State University, for example, promises "Leadership for 21st Century Mississippi." This simply won't do. It suggests that MSU grads, if not stopped at the state border for insufficient intellectual baggage, will at the very least find success unlikely in New York and points beyond. I suggest reworking it a bit: "Next Millennial Leadership for the Known Universe And Then Some." That may need a little tightening, but you get the idea.

Plagiarize where appropriate.
One time-tested creative principle is modeling. So borrow liberally from the best slogans out there. Students will hear the similarity, but as endless movie remakes and sequels testify, they actually prefer similarity. Should you want to capitalize on students' career anxieties, "Got milk?" could become "Got chops?" Or if your school favors innovation and design-your-own-degree programs, you might take Altoids' slogan, "The curiously strong mints," and turn it into "The curiously curious college." If you're West Point or Annapolis or maybe even St. John's College, with its no-nonsense Great Books curriculum, you might try "The school with seriously strong strictures." Again, take your position in the marketplace, peruse the great slogans of our time, then just plug and play.

Keep an eye out for cross-promotional opportunities.
Why sell one thing when you can sell two? Some product slogans are so good already they'd work perfectly in partnership with your institution: "Courage for your head: Bell helmets and Reed College invite you to 'A Weekend with the Classics." Or "'You've got questions. We've got answers. Radio Shack and MIT present 'Why We Talk Funny: The Mind-Mouth Mechanism."

Hide the sales pitch without obscuring it.
Sierra Nevada College can show us the way here. Their slogan is "A personalized four-year college experience in a unique alpine setting." Hmm . . . "unique alpine setting." Kind of teases the mind, doesn't it? And a quick check of location confirms the euphemism. What we've got here is as academic a way as possible of saying: "Tahoe, baby. Ski your shins off." They haven't said it, of course, but we hear it singing in the wires nonetheless.

Good sloganeering.
So find the key fact for your institution, its "human truth," as advertisers often call the real reason people buy a product. Then slip that into the slogan, elevate it to near but not total obscurity. Kids are hip to overkill, so suggest, don't state. Are they shopping for low cost fun? a stress-free, beer-soaked, cooling off period from the rigors of too much high school study hall? You could write "Putz University. Spend less. Party more," but you'd be bottom feeding. Remember, elevate: "Putz University. You can't put a price on happiness. Or can you?" It sounds good, it feels good, and best of all, beer and self esteem get to stay out all night.

Here's one last, and I hope obvious, piece of advice: Tread lightly on learning for learning's sake. Relevance and practicality are where it's at today. Too much academic navel-gazing leads to no job at all, especially if you do it well enough, in which case it literally leads nowhere: The holder of the advanced degree merely gets up, walks to the front of the classroom, turns around, and assumes the role of the teacher. Students know this. And for most of them it's simply not enough. The best part of getting into college remains getting out.

Many colleges couldn't agree more: "Columbus State Community College: Education that WORKS." "St. John's University: Real Learning For Real Life." "Hofstra University. We Teach Success."

Good directions, all, but with an undergraduate year now running between $20,000 and $30,000 at private schools and $8,000 at public schools, why not throw the parents a bone? A slogan like "Keep on toolin" taps at once into the nostalgia that kids feel for a '60s they never knew and their parents feel for a '60s they can't remember. It promises students valuable career skills while fueling parents' illusions that they're still hip-all in just three words.

The key here, as in all sloganeering, is simple: Know who's buying and what's really for sale.

© 2001 George Felton Used with permission.

AdSlogans.com -- Wise Words/17


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