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Tag! You’re It: Does Your Higher Ed Brand Need a Tagline?


Tag! You’re It: Does Your Higher Ed Brand Need a Tagline?

Apr 14, 2014By mStoner Staff

You’ve done a brand strategy project. You’ve done the research, developed the brand framework. Gotten agreement to move forward with creative development. And now you have to decide….

Are we going to have a tagline?

There’s no question that a great tagline can help a brand. Nike would not be where it is without “Just Do It.” Imagine M&M’s without “The milk chocolate melts in your mouth, not in your hand.”

The use of taglines in higher ed is complicated and fraught with peril. It can raise an institution’s profile, it can get everyone excited, but it can also create headaches, bad PR, and sleepless nights for the Marketing VP.

There is no right answer to the “should we have a tagline?” question, just a series of pros and cons to weigh. Here, as we see them, are the pros and the cons in the great tagline debate:

The pros of having a tagline:

  • A tagline can raise your institution’s profile. “American Wonk” raised the profile of American University.
  • A tagline can get people talking. Want to create buzz among your internal audience? Introduce a tagline.
  • A great tagline can make your marketing campaign work harder. No one will remember the fine print in your marketing campaign. But a tagline that’s memorable and encapsulates the core of your message? That’s likely to be remembered.
  • A great tagline can get everyone excited about the brand campaign. Let’s face it, it’s difficult for the average non-marketing person to get excited about positioning statements and brand attributes. But a good tagline can elicit excitement, pride, and energy around the brand.

The cons of having a tagline:

  • The tagline is an easy target.  We know that the tagline usually represents only the last 10% of the work of a brand strategy project. But if you have a tagline, it’s what people will focus on. And if your faculty or alumni don’t like it, they may discount all of the great work that went into the whole project.
  • It’s not easy to develop a distinctive tagline. Taglines present the same challenges that other elements of higher ed branding present: With a finite number of words to describe educational institutions, it’s not easy to come up with a unique tagline.
  • It’s difficult to describe an educational institution in four words or fewer. Education is a complicated business, offering many different “products” and services to many different audiences. How do you sum it all up in five words? To accommodate all of those audiences and products/services, the tagline often must be watered down so much that it’s not meaningful to anyone.
  • Taglines are difficult to get rid of. Introduce a tagline, and I guarantee that someone in some department somewhere will still have it on a coffee mug five years after the tagline’s been removed from the marketing materials.

If you are going to use a tagline, some principles to follow:

  1. Go all in. If you’re going to have a tagline, use it everywhere.  A tagline will work hard for you if it’s strongly associated with your school. So if you’re going to use it, use it everywhere. In your print materials. On your website. In social media. If you don’t, you’re sending inconsistent messages and not harnessing the power of your tagline to help your brand.
  2. Do the research. This doesn’t mean asking people if they like it. It means exploring whether the tagline communicates what you want to communicate about your institution to your key external audiences. It means finding any negatives associated with the tagline. Or whether there are possible interpretations of it you’re missing. Audience research will help you stick to your guns when people complain. (And they will complain.)
  3. Make sure you have the full support of your senior leadership. If your senior leadership doesn’t love it so much that they’re willing to defend it when the complaints start rolling in, don’t use it.
  4. Stick to your guns when people complain. Assuming you’ve followed principles one through three, don’t cave. This is a very difficult one. It requires thick skin.  But if you throw it way when you get push-back, you’ve wasted a lot of time and money, and potentially endangered your whole brand strategy initiative.


Higher education branding doesn’t have to be difficult. By understanding the unique dynamics — and the potential pitfalls that can arise – you can create a process that ensures that you get buy-in for a compelling brand positioning that will capture the unique story of your institution.

Want to learn more? We recently published a white paper that explores the specific challenges of higher education branding and gives you strategies for clearing the most common hurdles.