catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 9, Num 22 :: 2010.12.03 — 2010.12.16


On being branded

At the mention of branding, my lip has long since learned to curl in disdain. Branding is a soul-less, cynical marketing tool, a symbol of everything that’s wrong with consumerism.  You may not be able to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, but branding will leave the sow’s ear just at it is, persuade you that it is actually a silk purse, and sell it to you for a commensurate price.  Or so I thought until I was branded. Rather, my employer, Goshen College, was branded, and G.C. is an institution my life has been so entangled with since birth (I came from the hospital to a G.C. dormitory, because my parents were resident directors) that the line between personal and institutional identity can get a little blurry.  So I/we were branded, and my lip uncurled, or at least my lip knows now that a reflexive curl is way too simple. It turns out that branding, at its very best, is naming well and honestly, and that can be an enlivening enterprise, even holy.

Of the thirty-plus Indiana colleges and universities, tiny to enormous, all but one have grown in enrolment over the past forty years.  Goshen College is the exception, having drifted downward by twenty percent.  The reasons aren’t too complicated. First, G.C. is a Mennonite* institution, and for half a century and more, Mennonites have been leaving their mostly rural and bounded societies and acculturating into mainstream U.S. society, even as they remain Mennonites.  While this is can be a creative and fruitful enterprise in some ways, there is loss in it, too, and the implications for Mennonite higher education are mostly grim: ethnoreligious solidarity no longer produces a steady and automatic stream of students; Mennonite teenagers have endless college options, and many choose other than Mennonite institutions.  Second, in a very red area of the U.S., G.C. is a comparatively blue institution, an identity that generates some local dissonance and makes G.C. a little harder to sell to local teenagers otherwise attracted to the college closest to home.

How to reverse this forty-year enrolment decline has occupied a great deal of institutional energy and anxiety.  Clearly nothing has worked.  In the fall of 2008, GC hired Mindpower, an Atlanta-based branding company, to, well, brand us. Their energetic team came to campus to take our measure, having evidently done a lot of background work.  They were nice people, but I despaired for them. They convened a variety of reference groups, and I participated in one faculty group.  We were our amiably fractious selves, offering analysis and advice that seemed to point in many and contradictory directions. A humility ethos joined with a fatalism born of repeated failure, and perhaps a touch of institutional self-pity, can be a corrosive combination, and so the Mindpower team seemed not to warm to the slogans I so helpfully proffered: “Try Goshen: you may be considering worse options!” The exclamation point provided a cheery touch, I thought. Or perhaps, “Try Goshen: many graduates report no lasting damage.” Well, it’s true. Mindpower tried another tack: If we’re interviewing a G.C. grad and a Generic Liberal Arts College grad, they asked, tell us why we should hire the G.C. grad.  But how would we know you should hire the G.C. grad?  What if the Generic grad is great and you got one of our weaker students? Sometimes Mennonites manage unlikely worst-of-both-world combinations, e.g., we’re good at self-righteousness and yet bad at bragging. I left unable to imagine what Mindpower could have gleaned from us. 

A few months later they were back to report on their findings and introduce their proposal.  We do not create a brand, they said, we try to discover it.  In the case of Goshen College this was easy: your brand is peace. The peace theme permeates campus life in a way we’ve seen nowhere else.  Everyone we talked to knows that your brand is peace.  All segments of the G.C. community know it, the town of Goshen knows it.  Those who warm to peace know it, those who view peace with suspicion know it. Those who know the college well and those who know nothing else know it. Your brand is peace.

I sat back in my chair, surprised and at peace.  It is a very satisfying thing to be known for what you are, for someone to see between, beneath and beyond the contradictions, diversions and nonsense and to name you well.  We all knew that Mindpower was right — we didn’t know what to do with it, but we knew they were right. And even as we knew they were right, we also knew that we would have been incapable of naming the peace theme so clearly and boldly.  It took an outsider with fresh eyes to do that.  If this is branding, I’m at peace with it.

For the past year and a half, Goshen College has been running hard with a marketing campaign based on the peace brand.  “Healing the World, Peace by Peace” has been a main slogan.  In a way the boldness to the point of presumption doesn’t suit us at all. Don’t you mean, Hoping to Do No Harm?  Who’s healing the world?  It’s God, not us; we just get to help a little.  But sometimes it’s okay to make the big, bold, aspirational claim and then back off and explain.  We don’t always have to start by backing off.  Another slogan speaks of seeking “Peace in All Its Forms.”  This is immensely useful to me as professor of peace studies in my campaign to counter progressive Mennonites’ excessive reverence for peace as resistance.  Resistance is as necessary to peace as a backbone to a human being, but it’s also very limited.  You can build nothing with resistance, you can heal nothing with resistance, you can reconcile nothing with resistance.  For building, nurturing, healing, you need the biblical shalom, the Pauline ministry of reconciliation, Gandhi’s “constructive program,” King’s “beloved community,” Vaclav Havel’s “living the truth.” You need “Peace in All Its Forms,” so that everyone, no matter their occupation or vocation, knows they also have a peace vocation. The “Peace by Peace” campaign has both named us honestly and challenged us to live up to our proclamation.

It’s way too early to know if a campaign based on the peace brand will succeed in increasing enrolment. This region hasn’t ceased to be flaming red, and G.C. still has a blue-ish tint.  The peace theme has always drawn the most wonderful students from other denominations, but each of their stories of finding Goshen seems sui generis rather than a pattern that might be replicated. And of course you can name yourself whatever you want and communicate it as well as you can, but then it’s out there and you have no control over what people hear.  We’ll work away, however, and there’s a certain peace that comes from knowing, whatever the consequences, you’ve made your case to the world as honestly and transparently as possible.  And for that we needed help to know and name our brand.

* Never heard of Mennonites? Unclear about how they differ from Mormons and Moonies on the one hand, and the Amish on the other?  Certainly that’s part of the GC problem.

your comments

comments powered by Disqus