How to Build a Brand

How to Build a Brand

Marketing took the Ivies to the top, but can it keep them there?

Published on February 17, 2016

In his office at Trinity School, Larry Momo pulls a pile of brochures from his bookshelf and spreads them across the table. They’re the admissions materials from Momo’s tenure as director of Columbia’s admissions department, which lasted from 1974 to 1993.

One cover shows students laughing against a green background; another features Low Library hidden behind a few stray branches; the oldest is a black and white photo of a student reading under a lamppost. It’s a small history of college marketing.

Half-consciously, I imagine the admissions brochure I received with my acceptance letter beside them all: a sea of blue interrupted only by a partial view of the Columbia crown. Unlike the brochures before me, which are all titled “Columbia: An Introduction,” it read, “Columbia Blue.” This strikes me as the ultimate show of brand power: to be able to advertise a school using its insignia alone.

The brochure I received when I was admitted also prompts an interesting question: Did I choose Columbia or its brand? Was it the school itself that swayed me or an image of Columbia Blue?

Columbia’s brand has become powerful—so powerful that its current standing seems inevitable. When I toured the campus three years ago, I envisioned 262 years of uninterrupted excellence. There was no residue from the crises that struck the University throughout the 1960s and ’70s, no hint that this institution once considered closing its doors. That’s because Columbia has marketed itself well, perhaps even impeccably.

When the U.S. News & World Report’s college rankings were first released in 1983, Columbia was in 15th place. Today, it sits comfortably in fourth. This is due to a series of moves made by the Columbia admissions department in an effort to raise its number of applicants and lower its acceptance rate. In an admissions landscape ruled by rankings, success is determined not by how good a college is, but how good a college looks. The quality of a brochure has come to mean everything.

Flipping through the admissions materials on his table, Momo comes to the most important one. The cover features a photo, out of focus and skewed to an angle, of a student climbing Low Steps. “This was the first book in the new iteration,” he says.

Momo is referring to a decision Columbia made in the early ’90s to begin talking about itself differently. At the advice of an advertising firm, admissions officers stopped referring to the college as just “Columbia” and started calling it “Columbia University in the City of New York.” It’s a branding move that helped take the college to the top.

End times

In 1972, Columbia College was no one’s ideal. Student riots had forced the campus to close down yet again. Walking down Broadway, the protesters chanted, “One side’s right! One side’s wrong! We’re on the side of the Viet Cong!”

They were responding most immediately to a speech President Richard Nixon had made on campus about the Vietnam War. Their demand, however, was the same one made during the protests of 1968 and 1970: immediate divestment from all stock in war-related industries.

Speaking to a reporter from Spectator in 1972, Michael Lacopo, the admissions director at Columbia College at the time, said that the most recent riots had seriously affected admissions numbers for that year. Of the 1,400 acceptance letters the college had sent out, it had received only 600 responses. Out of those replies, 235 were to say the student would not be attending.

Lacopo admitted that the admissions office would be drawing heavily from its waitlist. The situation was made still more problematic by the fact that student demonstrators had occupied the admissions office in Hamilton Hall—where the department kept its only copy of the waitlist. “I can’t see any reason why,” one admissions officer commented, “but if they wanted to screw us up they could.”

This decade was a low point—perhaps the lowest—in Columbia’s history. Dmitri Iglitzin, who matriculated into Columbia College in 1980 before transferring to Yale University as a junior, speaks of his time at Columbia as the survivor of a natural disaster might. “We were living in post-apocalyptic times,” he says. “The bad times.”

When Iglitzin dropped out, no one from Columbia called to ask why. He knew the administration didn’t care about him, but that last oversight made it more final for him. Alternatively, it might suggest that there was no need for anyone to ask. None of Iglitzin’s friends were surprised to learn he was leaving; they talked about transferring all the time.

In 1971, Columbia had a graduation rate of just 71 percent, which was lower than the average rate for four-year public universities at the time. Columbia’s dropout problem was largely because students like Iglitzin found the administration cold and impersonal, but it also had to do with the state of New York in the ’70s. During the time Iglitzin was at Columbia, David Berkowitz had captured the imagination of the city with a string of unsolved murders. New York felt dangerous and ungovernable, even though the crime rate wouldn’t even peak until 1990. One year, a citywide blackout ended in riots. At another point, sanitation workers went on strike, leaving the private hotels to dump their trash on 114th Street. At night, Iglitzin says, the rats feasted.

“We’re hit much worse than we were in ’68,” Lacopo told the Spectator reporter in 1972. “Parents look at Columbia and see it was closed in 1968 and 1970 and now again in ’72 and they must wonder, when coming up with all that money, if the place is going to stay open.”

When Lacopo talks about the possibility of Columbia closing, it’s unclear whether he means for another year or altogether. Both were possibilities at the time. Indicating the trajectory of Columbia College during the ’70s, Robert McCaughey uses his hand to trace a downward slope in the air. “It was kind of a death spiral,” he says.

McCaughey is a Barnard history professor who specializes in the history of Columbia. He says that the University ran out of money after the riots in the ’60s. In its desperation to keep the doors open, Columbia considered breaking up the professional schools—all of which suffered from the reputation of the University.

At the time, Columbia College wanted to move to Rockland County, the Business School viewed its connection with the University as a deficiency, and the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory was threatening to leave. Columbia was at risk of coming apart. “When that starts to happen,” McCaughey says, “the reputation can really just plummet.”

McCaughey describes the potential end like this: After Columbia starts to lose schools, it becomes impossible for it to hide the crisis from the public. Foundations refuse to donate money, because they won’t fund a sinking ship. Finally, benefactors and alumni abandon the University.

“My sense is that it was a fairly close call,” McCaughey says. “When you think of the early large universities in 1900, a couple of them have fallen by the wayside. Had Columbia continued its decline in the ’70s and on into the ’90s, it’s imaginable it could be out of business.”

Columbia had been in a situation like this just once before: after the end of the American Revolutionary War when it was still King’s College. In 1783, classes had been suspended for eight years, the library looted, and the school’s building converted into a military hospital. These were all issues that made the prospect of reopening the school difficult, but the real problem was one of public perception.

Eight years earlier, Myles Cooper had been forced to flee his post as president of King’s College after narrowly escaping a mob of Revolutionary students. Cooper, along with the majority of the King’s College’s faculty, was a staunch Loyalist, a fact that became awkward after England lost the war and King’s College needed funds from New York state to reopen. The college only succeeded after revolutionaries like John Jay and Alexander Hamilton helped secure it a deal. King’s College could reopen, but only with a new charter that forbade practices like forcing professors to take religious oaths. The school would also have to change its name.

King’s College was problematic for obvious reasons. Namely, it would be impossible for the country to forget the school’s Loyalist reputation with a name that so clearly showcased it. In order to demonstrate its new goals, the school chose a new name: Columbia College in the City of New York. Columbia was a poetic, high-minded way of saying America. It made the school’s new allegiance clear to the public.

Unlike the new school charter, which required real change, this name was pure branding.

How to sell well

Most simply put, a brand is a company’s image. It can be thought of both as the image a company tries to project and as the image the consumer actually internalizes. When talking about branding, marketers generally refer to the ideal as “brand message” and the reality as “brand perception.”

James Heaton is the president and creative director of Tronvig Group, a branding agency in New York that offers consulting for businesses, museums, and nonprofits. He specializes in managing the complex network of signals and messages that play into a consumer’s feeling about a company.

“Your brand is, in my view, whatever is held in the mind of your brand consumer,” Heaton explains. “It’s what is meaningful to them such that it will drive behavior in relation to that brand.”

Last fall, Heaton took his daughters to visit colleges—a process that soon became a tour of brands. He and his daughters were consumers in the college market, and each school had about two hours and 30 minutes to make its pitch.

After every tour, one of Heaton’s daughters came up with a word to summarize the college. Though Heaton didn’t instruct his daughter to do so, he recognized her growing list for what it was: brand perception.

Every college has a brand; any student could leave a campus tour and write a word to represent the school. The question is whether the school is controlling what word ends up next to its name. Heaton’s daughter labeled Hampshire College the “free” school, not because it had a particularly liberal atmosphere, but because the tour guide kept referencing all of the free activities on campus.

During the two hour and 30 minute campus visit, a school has a prospective student’s undivided attention; it needs to differentiate itself from the dozen other schools on the student’s list. When branding is done well, a student leaves with a clear idea of what the college values and why that makes it unique among its peers.

This is the purpose of branding directed at prospective students, but a college has three other markets it must appeal to: current students, faculty, and alumni. These are the groups most likely to carry the school’s brand message to others, and it’s important that the message they give is a positive one.

The sort of juggling that goes into making a brand message that fits all four groups is unique to college marketing. It makes the process of creating and maintaining a brand more complicated, but, when done well, it can take a school from the bottom to the top.

Rules of play

According to McCaughey, there are a few ways a college can reverse a downward trend. Perhaps the most obvious solution is to restore the quality of its teaching by hiring talented faculty members. This, however, requires money—and by the ’70s, Columbia had a deficit. The University’s most immediate goal, then, became fundraising. It went about this in two ways: first, by taking advantage of a patent law change that allowed Columbia to collect royalties and second, by beating Princeton University’s football team at a homecoming game in 1982.

This game changed everything. For the past decade, Columbia’s relationship with its alumni had been strained, and it was largely because of the situation with the football team. In 1978, the team completed its seventh losing season, and Columbia’s deficit was $200,000 higher than predicted for that year.

By 1979, Bill Campbell, a former co-chair of the board of trustees who was head coach of the football team at the time, had given up. Though administrators reportedly begged him to stay, he refused. “I haven’t been able to get them to win,” he told Spectator in the days after the announcement. “They need a new lease on confidence.”

When the team broke its losing streak three years later, it was about more than football; the win was a way for Columbia students and alumni to reclaim their pride in the University. “There were a lot of happy alumni,” Bob Naso, head coach of the football team at the time of the 1982 win against Princeton, told Spectator. “I’m sure the success on the athletic field has helped donations.”

And it did. That same year, a fundraising campaign for a nucleus fund reached its $80 million goal one month early. By the end of the ’80s, Columbia was on a clear upward trajectory.

Perhaps this all seems rather implausible. Today, the average Columbia student is hardly aware of the status of Columbia’s football team; the Homecoming game could easily pass by unnoticed every year if the dining halls didn’t announce it with football-themed cupcakes. Columbia still has a losing team, and few are particularly bothered by it. In the ’70s, however, it was a problem.

For alumni, Columbia’s athletic status was an embarrassment, a mark on the school’s reputation. Though football was becoming less meaningful to the Ivies in the ’70s, most alumni had gone to college during a different era—when a football team’s performance was of vital importance.

The Ivy League, after all, was founded as an athletic conference. When people make note of that fact today, they mean to imply that the colleges united almost incidentally, that the Ivy League was created for a meaningless purpose. This, however, proves to be a misleading anecdote.

When the Ivy League was founded in 1954, athletic performance was important—so important that it influenced prospective students’ decision to attend a school and alumni’s decision to donate. Because football was meaningful to the markets with the most control over a college’s finances and reputation, it became of vital significance to the school.

This was a time when the perfect student was imagined as both intellectually sharp and physically robust. In an attempt to weed out the weak candidates, Yale invited its alumni interviewers to report the physical characteristics of applicants until 1965. With a similar aim in mind, Harvard used athletic ability as one of four major categories with which to assess applicants in the ’60s.

A football player represented an ideal, and the performance of a football team became an easy way to communicate where a school stood. Like current college rankings, athletic records created a clear hierarchy among schools for the general public: something numerical and vaguely scientific. The results of a football game spoke not just to the ability of the teams, but also to the ability of the schools. It was a kind of brand message.

Forming the Ivy League, then, was as much about marketing as it was about athletics. When the  the “Proposed Intercollegiate Agreement” restricted how a school could build its team, it also restricted how it could build its image.

By joining the Ivy League, colleges agreed to follow a special set of rules. They were no longer allowed to give athletic recruits privileges like financial scholarships and lower admission standards. Instead, athletes were to be reflective of the student body as a whole.

The Ivies had realized something important—they couldn’t be the best at both sports and academics. The agreement describes the problem as “one of avoiding the well-recognized excesses of intercollegiate football while retaining and enhancing the values which are known to lie in the sport.” By forcing everyone to follow the same rules, the Ivy League ensured that athletic performance didn’t distract from or replace what the universities saw as their true purpose: teaching students and advancing research.

Since 1954, the agreement between the Ivies has been rewritten multiple times. Today, it barely references athletic standards. Instead, the current “Common Ivy League Agreement” is concerned primarily with how schools contact and admit students—rules made necessary in the age of U.S News & World Report rankings.

The upward climb

When Momo talks about college admissions, there is the time before the U.S. News rankings and the time after. In 1983, when the first rankings were released, Momo and his colleagues saw them as a curiosity: something that might boost their pride if they did well, but wasn’t too important if they didn’t. No one cared that Columbia ranked 15th in 1983, even though it placed worse than any other school in the Ivy League.

Soon, however, it became clear to Momo that students and parents were taking the rankings seriously—to the point of gospel. U.S. News’ process, the first to use data to rank colleges numerically, seemed scientific and therefore unquestionable.

The very first ranking system, released in the early 20th century, had merely listed where prominent men had gone to school. Later systems grouped colleges into general categories like “more selective” and “less selective,” but you couldn’t put two peer schools side by side and say which was better.

With the U.S. News rankings, small differences suddenly mattered. A school might be in eighth place, but it wasn’t in fourth. A difference of four places didn’t necessarily mean anything about the absolute value of schools, but soon that didn’t matter. “If people perceive something to be true,” Momo says, “it’s true in its consequences, which is to say they act on their beliefs.”

Ronald Ehrenberg has been investigating the effect of U.S. News on college admissions since the late ’90s, when he stepped down from his position as vice president for academic programs at Cornell and founded the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute.

One of the institute’s first studies investigated whether a selective college’s performance in the U.S. News rankings could affect its admissions numbers. The case study was Cornell University, which had risen eight places in one year. Ehrenberg found that this sort of improvement should cause a college’s admission rates to drop by three percent and SAT scores of first-year students to rise by eight points. A Cornell admissions officer confirmed that their numbers had, indeed, changed by at least that much. Additionally, applications were up by 10 percent.

“Administrators say that they pay absolutely no attention to the rankings,” Ehrenberg says. “But they’re lying through their teeth, because the rankings are important. This study shows that.” If a college wants to grow, it has to climb to the top of U.S. News’ list.

Playing the rankings games proves difficult. It is not enough that a college teach students better; it has to improve by the metrics U.S. News measures when calculating its ratings. These measurements include: alumni giving (5 percent), graduation rate performance (7.5 percent), financial resources (10 percent), student selectivity (12.5 percent), student retention (22.5 percent), and academic reputation (22.5 percent).

As Ehrenberg points out, only one of these categories measures whether a student is made better by their college: graduation rate performance, which compares students’ projected six-year graduation rate with their actual graduation rate. The category is a proxy for achievement and accounts for just 7.5 percent of a college’s rating. Another 10 percent of the rating is determined by how much a school spends. The remaining 82.5 percent is directly related to branding.

The U.S. News ranking includes three markets to which colleges have always had to sell themselves: alumni, who the university must convince to donate; prospective students, who it must convince to attend; and current students, who it must convince to stay and speak well of the school. There’s also a fourth market that only exists because of the rankings: college presidents at peer schools.

Every year, college presidents receive a survey from U.S. News that asks them to rate other schools’ academic programs on a scale of one to five, one being marginal and five being distinguished. They send the surveys back, and U.S. News uses them to calculate academic reputation.

When Ehrenberg was the vice president of academic programs at Cornell, the process went something like this: The president would receive the survey, decide he didn’t have time to fill it out, and give it to the provost. Then the provost would give it to Ehrenberg. “Now, I have a list of institutions that I am supposed to rank,” he says. “And many of them are the institutions that we actually compete with. So what should I do when I evaluate the Ivy League institutions? Should I rank them higher than Cornell or should I rank them lower than Cornell?”

Even if Ehrenberg were to disregard his own stake in the rankings when rating colleges, he’s still a consumer—that is to say, he is just as susceptible to branding as anyone else.

Recently, admissions departments have started taking advantage of this fact by sending glossy publications to people like Ehrenberg in an effort to improve their academic reputation score. It’s one of a series of marketing moves made by admissions departments to attract prospective students in an era when application numbers can take a college from fifth place to fourth. Now, the admissions process matters more than ever.

More is better

Prospective students begin their Columbia experience at Low Library, where they mingle with admissions representatives and wait for the information session to start. At some point, an admissions counselor or tour guide will mention that the Low actually held books once, though they had to be removed when the floors began to sag under their weight. Now, it holds administrative offices and the occasional campus event.

If a stray prospective student were to wander up one of the library’s winding stairways, they might find their way to the Office of Communications and Public Affairs on the fourth floor. It’s the place responsible for managing the University’s visual identity: ensuring Columbia’s various schools use the correct version of the crown, put the University’s name in the right place, and use the appropriate shade of blue in their publications.

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The office manages the brand message students, alumni, and regular visitors receive. It used to work with the prospective student market as well. When the University published its first campus guide in the early 1900s, the same publication served both prospective students and general visitors. At some point, however, the branding that goes into producing admissions brochures became too complicated for the university to handle internally. Now, admissions marketing is contracted out to a company in Brooklyn called Generation.

Generation brands itself as the liberal arts college of branding companies: It publishes weekly haikus and uses puns liberally. “We’re professional, but we’re not ‘professionals,’” its website explains.

The company specializes in marketing for academic institutions. Generation is responsible for products like “The Wellesley 100,” which lists 100 reasons to attend Wellesley College. It also does marketing for Amherst College and Harvard. Generation’s president, Tom Sternal, used to work for another marketing company called Jan Krukowski & Co.

That’s where the story of Columbia’s brand begins.

In the early ’90s, Columbia College’s admissions department consulted Jan Krukowski & Co. Though students had preconceived ideas about New York, Jan Krukowski & Co.’s research found that many of them weren’t positive. Prospective students needed help imagining what life in the city could be like. After that, admissions officers started talking about Columbia differently. Now, it was a college in the middle of the city: Columbia University in the City of New York.

“It’s interesting,” Heaton remarks, “because New York is a brand in itself.” By making itself the “New York school,” Columbia doesn’t say anything meaningful about itself. It simply tells its applicants where it’s located. When students choose to attend, the college doesn’t have to do anything to fulfill the promise made by this brand. Columbia is in the city of New York, that much is unquestionable. In this sense, it’s any easy marketing strategy to maintain.

However, there’s a problem with the New York brand. It creates a situation in which Columbia can never truly fulfill its brand promise. Every moment a student spends on campus is a moment that they aren’t in the city having the “Columbia experience.” What might be viewed as the real “Columbia experience”—going to Core Curriculum classes, spending time in the dorms—isn’t highlighted in admissions brochures.

“Columbia may feel that has less sex appeal,” Heaton says in reference to these other factors. While the Core might be more descriptive of the Columbia experience than being in New York is, it’s a more isolating brand. This, according to Heaton, is actually the purpose of good branding: to both repel and attract. A brand should narrow its market by defining its mission.

In the ’90s, however, it was important that Columbia’s brand attract as many students as possible: That’s how a college lowered its admissions rate and rose in the rankings. By 1992, Columbia had reached 10th place. Kathryn Yatrakis, the associate dean of the Columbia College at the time, told a reporter for Spectator in 1992 that she expected the college to continue to rise.

“When we think about Columbia being among the 10 best, it’s terrific,” Yatrakis told the reporter. “But I think that’s wrong, because we should be number one. The student body is increasingly selective, and alumni giving increased last year. I expect us to move farther up in the next year.”

Momo says that this was when the important shift in marketing took place. He doesn’t see the New York branding campaign as fundamentally different than the admissions department’s previous marketing. New York is good for a certain kind of student and bad for another; the campaign helped applicants determine whether Columbia would be a good fit. According to Momo, the really bad admissions practices start later.

Columbia’s application numbers went up after it created an effective brand, but it needed more. Today, colleges always need more applications. It’s the only way to have an admissions rate lower than their peers, and that number is important even without the rankings. “It has become a proxy for excellence,” Momo says.

As a result, schools were looking for new strategies to grow their application pool. Momo believes it began with Brown University in the ’70s.

Brown became one of the first colleges to adopt “counselor cultivation programs,” weekends in which the college invited counselors from independent high schools and boarding schools to review candidates from their schools on campus. “But, really, it was a little dog and pony show,” Momo says.

Around the same time, Brown also began a new admissions strategy. Rather than accepting the most academically qualified students, its admissions department sought out those with the most leadership and visibility—students who would be likely to pull others along with them if they came.

Brown’s new marketing strategies went beyond brand. They didn’t communicate something about the college to prospective students. Instead, the new strategies manipulated them into applying.

This wasn’t about informing students or bettering the school—it was a numbers game.

The number of schools to which high school students apply today has reflected this shift. “When I first started working at Trinity 22 years ago, the average number of applications was six,” Momo says. “Now the average number of applications is between 11 and 12. Is that because students like filling out college applications?”

Most university presidents will tell you that they don’t approve of the current admissions situation: from the pressure it puts on students to the meaningless goals it forces colleges to pursue. Momo says that no one wants to play the rankings game, but it’s difficult for colleges to leave them. If their competitors keep playing, they have to as well. It’s the only way to stay in business.

Lately, some colleges have been talking seriously about how to end the rankings. In 1993, a group of liberal arts colleges founded the Annapolis Group. The group’s purpose was to promote the values of liberal arts colleges, a goal that was soon expressed through a campaign to end the rankings.

Much like the Ivies in 1954, the Annapolis Group was founded to preserve what they saw as the true purpose of college. And just as the Ivies were concerned that they were admitting students only because of their athletic ability, the Annapolis Group is concerned that colleges are doing things only because they improve their ranking. In 2004, the group published an article criticizing the rankings. Four years later, they sent a letter to college presidents across the country encouraging them to stop filling out their U.S. News surveys. The letter was signed by 130 colleges and universities, but it hasn’t changed anything. The rankings continue to be important every year, whatever they may actually mean.

The student consumer

Something dangerous happens when a company breaks its brand promise. Customers begin talking badly about it, and its reputation suffers. Paul JJ Payack envisions a world in which we hold colleges to the same standards as cars and potato chips.

Payack is the president and founder of the Global Language Monitor, a company that uses big data to track the use of the English language online. In 2008, it began publishing the TrendTopper Mediabuzz rankings, which use the number of times a college is mentioned online to rank its brand. The rankings’ purpose is to put reputation back in the hands of the general public.

According to Payack, the method U.S. News uses is elitist. “A big component is the peer reception,” he says. “In other words, what do the deans at Harvard and Yale and Princeton think of Columbia? That, by itself, makes it seem that it’s kind of a self-limiting way to rank a school.”

It’s true that the U.S. News rankings favor schools that have performed well in the past. When a school receives a good ranking, it improves in the categories U.S. News ranks, which means it ranks even better the next year. The system creates a self-perpetuating cycle in which it’s hard to pass the colleges at the top. By basing his ranking system on what people are saying at the moment, Payack is able to measure a college’s immediate standing. Often, universities will consult him to investigate their true reputation—the one outside U.S. News.

This process is enabled by the Internet, which Payack calls the biggest change in civilization since the Renaissance. “It evens the playing field,” he says. Now, students can fact check the claims made by colleges. And if they wanted to, they could go even further.

Rather than looking at colleges, prospective students could take an online course on physics. They could even get a degree at a fraction of the cost of going to a physical college. According to Payack, there’s only one thing stopping everyone from doing this: brand.

The college brand—the lore surrounding the experience of a physical college—is incredibly strong. “What you’re getting is essentially a brand,” Payack says. Because information is universally accessible on the Internet, students don’t necessarily go to Columbia to learn a discipline. They could theoretically do that from the comfort of their homes. Instead, students pay $65,860 per year for the brand on their diploma.

Today, students believe the Columbia brand is worth that price. Only marketing can determine whether they continue to do so in the future—at least, according to Payack. When I presented this theory to Momo, he was skeptical that online education could replace physical colleges in the near future.

In part, that’s because Payack envisions a world in which the consumer drives everything and the opinion of a student matters most. That’s not the world of college admissions today. “High school students do not make the rules in this particular game,” Momo says. “They are forced to play by the rules that are made for them.”

It’s true that the individual student doesn’t have real power in the college admissions office. The effect of one student’s decision to attend a college is minute in the context of its admissions numbers. The opinion of prospective students is only meaningful when taken as a group in statistics and data points.  

While writing this article, I kept looking for a place to add a student voice. It seemed wrong to write an article about how students make the most important decision of their academic careers without one. But every time I tried to fit a student in, it seemed unnatural. This is a story in which the students have a place, but a student does not.

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