The Chronicle of Higher Education

November 23, 2007

Your (Lame) Slogan Here

A good motto is hard to find.

Just ask the University of Idaho. Last year it dropped its motto "From Here You Can Go Anywhere" for a new marketing theme dubbed "No Fences," with the accompanying tag line "Open Space. Open Minds." The words were intended to evoke both the romantic landscape of Idaho and the boundless intellectual opportunities at the university. It was perfect.

Except no one really liked it. So recently both slogans were scrapped in favor of "A Legacy of Leading," which has tested better with alumni and parents. A spokeswoman says the new campaign, expected to cost $900,000 a year, will be "more impactful" with the institution's various audiences.

Impactful or not, does a college really need a motto? Quick: What's the slogan of your alma mater? An extremely informal and decidedly unscientific survey indicates that many people don't know.

But mottos do matter, at least according to the branding experts who get paid to think them up. The problem, these experts say, is with slogans that try to say everything and end up saying nothing.

Most slogans play it too safe, according to Andy Valvur, a senior brand strategist for Igor, a naming and branding agency with clients like Nokia and Cisco Systems. His agency has been working with a college, which he declines to name, that wants a new motto and a new name. The college's brand identity is "too generic," he says, and fails to "capture what they do well."

Not long ago, Motto magazine came up with a list of the top 10 college mottos. Rob Frankel, whose Web site proclaims him "the best branding expert on the planet," was not impressed with the selections. For instance, the magazine gave high marks to Stanford University's slogan, "The wind of freedom blows."

"No, that slogan blows," says Mr. Frankel, author of The Revenge of Brand X. He was equally unkind to Dartmouth College's motto, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness," a quote from the Book of Isaiah. "That just sounds like failure to me," he says. Perhaps not surprisingly, Dartmouth's president, James Wright, thinks the motto is a nice combination of historical resonance and contemporary relevance. Maybe biblical allusions are just a little too risky.

Mr. Valvur and several other branding experts agree that mottos matter less for name-brand institutions. Yale University does have a motto — Lux et Veritas, or "Light and Truth" — but its slogan might as well be "Yale." The brand needs no introduction.

But less-well-known colleges need to put more emphasis on their tag lines, according to Mr. Frankel. "A slogan is just as important for an institution as it is for a product," he says.

Indeed, the slickest slogans often belong to for-profit colleges like the University of Phoenix ("Thinking Ahead") and DeVry University ("On Your Way. Today.")

After being sloganless throughout its history, the University of Texas at Austin added a motto — "What Starts Here Changes the World" — just a few years ago. Dave Holston, director of design at the university, says that it was previously a victim of "accidental branding," and that its public image lacked a clear focus. A motto, he says, is "all about how we think about ourselves, and how we communicate that to the outside world."

Writing a snappy slogan is no mean feat, according to Allen P. Adamson, author of BrandSimple: How the Best Brands Keep It Simple and Succeed. Mr. Adamson, whose clients have included Kraft Foods and Procter & Gamble, says colleges need to try something different. "Otherwise you hear it and forget it," he says. "It's best if it's tied to a story, woven into your heritage."

That's certainly true of Cornell University's motto, which was rated No. 1 by Motto. It's a statement made by the university's founder, Ezra Cornell: "I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study." Still, that mouthful leaves Scott White, who runs the Web site Brand Identity Guru, nonplussed. "Wow. Okay. I don't know what to say to that," he says. "I think that's just awful."

There are edgier slogans out there. Plenty of colleges have unofficial mottos, which make their way onto T-shirts and coffee mugs. For instance, Reed College's underground slogan is "Communism, Atheism, Free Love." Students at Swarthmore College experience "Guilt Without Sex." And then there's "Where the Hell Is Grinnell?" and "The University of Chicago: Where Fun Goes to Die."

Some older slogans fared better with brand experts contacted by The Chronicle. Bill Chiaravalle, co-author of Branding for Dummies, digs Seton Hall University's "Whatever Risk, Yet Go Forward" and Carnegie Mellon University's "My Heart Is in the Work."

"I love the old ones," he says. "They speak of the longstanding culture built over many years. There's something wonderful about those rich lines."

Which goes to show that writing a motto is more gut than science. Whether they work often depends on which "expert" you ask.

Even Mr. Frankel, who tends to disparage most slogans as the products of pathetic hacks, has a soft spot for at least one — "Fiat Lux," the motto of the University of California, which just happens to be his alma mater. It's translated "Let There Be Light."

Says Mr. Frankel, "It worked for God, so it ought to work for them."