Alumni Column: Branded–A Unique Opportunity for Colgate



As the remaining prospective students shifted in their seats, anxious to shake hands with alumni and get back to their homework-filled Sunday, there was one final question. A father in the third row explained that this Colgate Connection event, held in mid-Sep­tember at a Brooklyn private school, was suc­ceeding in creating a lively and academically rigorous view of Colgate in his high school daughter’s mind. But just when we thought his question might not be a question at all and ac­tually more of a compliment, his tone became impatient. “What is it that really makes Col­gate different from other liberal arts schools?” he asked. In typical Colgate fashion, four other alums and I chimed in with well-said but relatively generic responses. We spoke of a passionate student body, approachable faculty and a beautiful campus. “But don’t all schools like Colgate have that? What really makes you different?” the father asked again. It was a clear question without a clear answer. I love Col­gate, and I’ve loved it since I stepped onto the campus with my mom seven years ago for the campus tour. I loved it throughout my four years there, and I continue to love it now. But expressing its difference – that one thing that separates us from the pack – is not a challenge of loving Colgate, but of branding it.

The business cards on my desk say “Brand Planner,” which make it sound as if this ques­tion of how Colgate can be “branded” would be an easy one for me. It’s not. As President Herbst said in a recent letter to an alumni group, “many [other universities have] a tagline or [are] will­ing to put one part of their school forward (e.g., ‘we have the third best veterinary school in the country’). In part, due to the nature of a liberal arts college and due to our uniform pride in the school, explaining Colgate is a little harder. Yet, if we are to extend our national reputation and at­tract students from across the country, much less the world, we must be able to explain our innate advantages succinctly.” While I absolutely agree that a better-branded Colgate should be a goal for the future, in thinking further about this issue I’ve realized that it’s exactly what makes Colgate great that makes branding it so difficult.

First, and most obvious, is the nature of a liberal arts institution. Like President Herbst wrote, our liberal arts curriculum doesn’t lend itself to the narrow focus that other universities can claim. Singling out any one discipline as the pinnacle under which the rest of the school re­sides wouldn’t just spark an outcry from other departments, it would also contradict the very essence of liberal arts and the well-rounded na­ture of Colgate students. If Colgate was branded the one and only school for science, would we still have attracted the budding musicians, jour­nalists and historians that sat amongst the eager prospective students at that Colgate Connec­tion event? And if we prided ourselves primar­ily on our arts programs, what about the future lawyers and mathematicians? Would they still want to go to Colgate? It’s true that by allowing ourselves to embrace the liberal arts we may be doing ourselves a disservice in terms of brand­ing, but the relative cost in terms of the quality of the student body is immeasurable.

So maybe branding doesn’t have to be defind as having a narrow focus. In the advertising world in which I work, a brand’s positioning doesn’t always need to be single-minded. Instead of having a single focus, many of today’s most successful brands “own” an aesthetic or attitude. Look at Target or Apple, for instance. Target isn’t known singularly for its paper towels or bathing suits. And Apple isn’t only about the iPod. To be well-branded, Colgate could just as easily “own” an emotional attribute or a characteristic that all things – be them students, faculty, buildings or activities – have in common. The key here is to embrace Colgate’s growing diversity while still establishing a distinct brand identity. As Col­gate’s student body further diversifies and stu­dents with varying life experiences and interests embrace Colgate, Colgate must in turn embrace them. And the common link that unites Colgate and expresses that ‘Colgate difference’ cannot be limited to those currently walking up the Hill, but must extend to all stages of the process – Colgate’s prospective students finding their way in the college search process, as well as the vast alumni network who wear maroon and white as they experience new cities, jobs and stages of life. Again, it’s exactly what makes Colgate great – our increasing diversity and extensive network outside of Hamilton – that makes finding this common ground difficult.

Needless to say, branding Colgate is a chal­lenge. While I wish I had the answer and could end this exploration with a conclusive idea for the Colgate ‘brand,’ I’m left even more per­plexed than when I started. For those of us who attend(ed) Colgate, the difference seems at once crystal clear and impossible to articulate. Col­gate is the books on my shelf, the sticker on my parents’ car and the friends I’ve had since ori­entation. But if I’d said that to the prospective student’s dad at the reception in Brooklyn, he would have rolled his eyes. It sounds generic, and even a bit sappy. Those of us who’ve crossed the Quad, found a cozy nook in the library or danced at the Jug know that Colgate is differ­ent. It’s unique and it’s uniquely ours. It’s now our challenge to express it.