Marketing über Alles

A report on the most recent meeting of trustees oif the University of Puget Sound included the following:

“Workshop: Brand Strategy Update

“Over the past year, Puget Sound has engaged in an initiative to strengthen its identity and visibility in an increasingly competitive environment. The goal of this work is to more clearly, accurately, and compellingly present Puget Sound to all audiences—internally and externally—in alignment with our institutional mission, values, and personality.

“In February 2012 the trustees participated in a workshop with consultants Maguire Associates and Pyramid Communications, who have been engaged to guide Puget Sound in the development of a brand strategy. During the May session, trustees reviewed a summary of findings based on a thorough analysis of previous research; interviews on campus with students, faculty, and staff; a comprehensive survey of current students; interviews with college counselors at private and public high schools; and an analysis of branding and positioning at six peer institutions. Trustees discussed opportunities for differentiating Puget Sound in an authentic way and reviewed next steps, which include delivery of brand strategy, positioning statements, and graphic standards during summer 2012.”

I begin with the obvious.  The marketing-speak and electioneering-speak of the second paragraph deconstruct and demystify the first paragraph.  That second paragraph depends on the reader’s credulity.  If amid the verbiage the reader accords the magic words “in an authentic way” the weight for which the experts in flim-flam hope and on which the bamboozlers depend — that is, that the word cloud of consumerist claptrap will shade some substrate of reality — then readers will not notice that actuality has been and will be overshadowed by appearances.  The “authentic” Puget Sound, whatever it might be said to have been or be, will succumb to “brand strategy.”

Interviews, surveys, and  analyses of peer institutions cannot yield genuine, sincere, and accurate views of “mission, values, and personality” as held by staff, faculty, and students.  Real, authentic, and objective information about individuals does not come that cheap, that quickly, or that facilely.  But read the release carefully!  The consultants can retrofit statements of our institutional mission, institutional values, and institutional personality to the brand strategy, positioning statements, and graphic standards that they are hawking.  The key word in that second paragraph, perhaps as important as the key phrase “in an authentic way,” is “institutional.”

The trustees, administrators, and consulting flacks control “institutional.”  Indeed, “institutional” seizes control from those who might imagine that they know something about “individual” values, beliefs, attitudes, or opinions.  Any authenticity thus generated is synthetic authenticity.  Any identity, personality, or essence that Puget Sound will be claimed to exhibit will be adjusted — sometimes subtly, sometimes grossly, and always mendaciously — away from the qualities of the individuals and toward the claims of the institution.

Please re-read that second paragraph.  Watch the authentic, the genuine, and the real enveloped by the artificial, the ginned-up, and the seductive.  Behold the import of the report of the trustees.

Only naifs would see the first paragraph as anything other than blather.  For our naifs, however, let us translate the first paragraph:

“Over the past year, Puget Sound has engaged in an initiative to strengthen its identity and visibility in an increasingly competitive environment.”  Translation: “To compete with other schools, Puget Sound must baffle prospectives and their parents.”

“The goal of this work is to more clearly, accurately, and compellingly present Puget Sound to all audiences—internally and externally—in alignment with our institutional mission, values, and personality.”  Translation:  “Puget Sound must transmogrify its image into something that sells better without wising up faculty and staff.”

Puget Sound is strengthening its identity, trustees?  What would that mean in plain English?  Might it mean that Puget Sound is adjusting its mission and values to suit new imagery and revamped propaganda?

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