Colleges Are Brands (And Packaging Is Everything)
Feel the bond of the paper, as it may cost more than the paper the government uses to print U.S. savings bonds and Treasury bills. Smell the paper, too, as it has the aroma of wealth, power, and prestige; as it has the scent of a rare and valuable book, which belongs to a private collector; as it has an air of exclusivity akin to membership within a club of, by, and for the few.
Even the boxes that contain these materials bespeak authority. They speak as advertisements of accomplishment—before the recipient has arrived on campus, if the recipient will attend that particular campus. They bear the Gothic script and maroon color of the school itself, as if each box is an item to behold. It is an item of inestimable worth to many; to more viewers than there are undergraduates at, say, the University of Chicago in which letters of acceptance pale beside boxes—the scholastic equivalent of expensive care packages—that beckon you to handle them with care.
Inside is the main attraction, including a maroon scarf with white lettering that spells (surprise!) Chicago, along with a handwritten greeting card, sundry letters of praise, a school booklet—and another package containing more swag: a hat, a sweatshirt, a sticker, and a letter lauding the recipient’s mother.
The excess extends to graduate schools, too.
The package from Harvard Business School, replete with a makeshift mortar board and tassel; that package has an engraved slogan about “Educating Leaders Who Make a Difference in the World,” alongside a pennant and a pop-up card that reveals the likeness of Baker Library, a Georgian brick icon of history, pride, and tradition.
In so many words, packaging is inseparable from how colleges and universities brand themselves.
What these schools do transcends symbols and logos.
What the University of Arizona does is boast—online—about its recruitment packaging, which features “exciting design and breathtaking photography.”
I applaud the school’s frankness, since it does not attempt to pretend otherwise. It displays neither a fig leaf of modesty nor a leaf of ivy to adorn its materials. Not when it is in a physical desert, albeit one with its own intellectual oasis of students, teachers, writers, researchers, astronomers, and astrophysicists.
Presentation is essential to how these schools attract, retain, and increase their appeal to applicants, students, and alumni. How else to explain the surreal-like atmosphere that motivates teenagers—and adults—to show the world what a package from Chicago contains or what goodies are inside a box from Harvard?
That an audience exists for this packaging, that the audience is diverse, that it includes not just both ends of the spectrum—of applicants and their parents—but those in between, that hundreds of thousands of people are curious enough to watch this stuff is enough of a sign that some colleges are brands as influential as any beloved consumer good; more sacred in some cases than a case of one’s favorite brand of brew.
Brand packaging is anything but academic.
It is an exercise in messaging in which the medium—the packaging itself—is the message.
That message serves to impress all who see or hear it, at home and abroad.
Janil Jean is director of overseas operations for LogoDesign.net.