Sometimes it makes sense to make fun of your brand

Wearing a t-shirt that reads "Cornflake U"
Cornflake U t-shirt

A few years ago, when I was working as the Director of Public Information and Marketing at Kellogg Community College, a fellow employee who had an interest in marketing came to me with a question about a particular t-shirt being sold in the bookstore. The t-shirt read “Cornflake University” and was a spoof on the Kellogg part of our name. He was concerned that it violated our branding standards and made fun of the school. He wanted my opinion.


I’m a huge champion of branding and consistency (see Addressing the question: Why branding is important), but there’s a part of “the brand” that he wasn’t considering; the brand “personality.” Our brand had a lot of personality characteristics, including personable, approachable, and fun. Considering that, we both agreed that the shirts really didn’t violate our brand, they enhanced it.


To this day, one of the most popular items in the bookstore is the “Cornflake U” shirts. I wear mine proudly.

Was my masters degree worth it? Yes, but not how you think

A person's feet walking on newspapers. A quote over it that reads, "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance." by Derek Bok
From Flickr Creative Commons: Celestine Chua

Disclaimer: I was one of the fortunate who had my masters degree almost fully-funded by the organization I worked for. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t cost me; I still had to put a lot of time into my schoolwork and my classes were held an hour from my home, so there was a lot of driving involved.

I often speak to professionals who are torn on whether or not to go for a higher degree. In most cases, a higher degree in the short-term (5 years) probably won’t result in a raise or a promotion. So, they often ask, is it really worth it?

In aggregate, the higher the education level you attain in the U.S., the lower your employment rate and the higher your income will be. So, generally speaking, even if you don’t see a short-term gain for earning a higher degree, there is most likely going to be a long-term gain for you. But, when I think back on what I learned most from my masters degree, what makes it ultimately worth it for me are the tools that I now use in all aspects of my life.

The first main tool was how to look up good information. As one of my colleagues (a financial analyst) put it, “The thing I learned in my masters degree that I value the most is knowing how to look up corporate data.” Knowing where, and how, to find data is incredibly helpful in most careers and in your personal life. Want to know how much the CEO is paid of the stock you own? I can find that. Interested in the graduation rate of your local high school? No problem. Curious on the latest studies about caffeine? Give me a few minutes, but I’ll get it to you.

The second, and even more important thing I learned in my masters degree was how to tell the difference between good information and bad information. This is a combination of knowing where to look and  how to look. For example, a family member told me about a major controversy that resulted in the firing of the local superintendent about three months prior to him telling me. The problem? No record of any firings could be found in the local newspapers and the school’s own board meeting notes showed no change in the name of the superintendent that was supposedly fired.  Or seeing a study about how a certain food is good for you, but when I look-up the study, I found out the major food manufacturer for the food conducted the study, meaning it is biased to fit that outcome. Or a study on health that does seem legit, but doesn’t control for other factors that might be affecting the results or has a very small sample size.

The two skills above, as the examples show, are not only useful in my professional career, but also in my personal life. It’s made me a more-informed citizen and voter, it’s made me a more discerning consumer, and it’s prevented me from spreading false information.

So was my master’s degree worth it? Absolutely. And I’m convinced that I’m not done learning yet.

Do we really know what our product (service) is in education?

I’ve been in education marketing for approximately eight years now. It’s a very interesting field and one that I’m very passionate about.  But, as I’ve looked at education marketing over my years working in it, one question has haunted me, “Do we really know what our product (service) is?” 

Caveat: When I ask this question, I’m focused specifically on the “traditional” college student, defined as a 17-22 year old who is wanting to attain at least a Bachelor’s degree. We have a lot of target audiences in higher education, but for this post, this is the target market I’m focusing on.

Most would look at me with a funny look when I would ask this question. “We provide education, that’s what our product/service is” they would say. But I think we need to get a lot more specific than that and think about what type of education we are providing, what type of education our traditional students are looking for, and whether we emphasize our definition of education throughout the entire student experience.

Students moving into a dorm room with limited space and four bunk beds
“Dorm Style” from Flickr Creative Commons: Katie@!

Rite of Passage/Life Education

What I think traditional students are looking for from their education is “rite of passage/life education.” This includes the incredibly valuable education they gain in the classroom, but it’s so much more than that. When you think about other rites of passage in cultures and compare it with the reasons many students choose to “go away” to college in the United States, you will find some big similarities. Students choose to leave their family and friends, move somewhere they don’t know, surround themselves with total strangers and have to figure out a new social structure, and have to learn to do everyday life tasks (such as laundry) completely on their own. And, they do this voluntarily and with a great level of anticipation and excitement. 

If we think about what we offer to traditional students in this way, some of their choices make a lot more sense. Why aren’t traditional students choosing to stay home and get their education down the road? Why aren’t they taking most of their classes online? Why do they become so entrenched in the culture/pride of the school they go to? The answer is, because they aren’t viewing their education as solely an education. they view it as a rite of passage that requires separation from their current life and identification with a new life.

Changing our Marketing and Processes

So knowing that, how should our marketing change? It depends on what type of school you are and how important the “traditional” student is to your school. For example, community colleges have taken a great step in creating dorms and other student housing options that allow students, even if it’s small, some separation from their previous lives. For all types of schools, we need to find creative ways to talk about the “rite of passage” aspects of coming to our institutions. We show things like student life, but do we really emphasize that growing independence, that chance to start over with a new social circle? Not that I’ve seen.

This change in thinking also needs to change how we interact with the students before and during their time with us.  One of my former colleagues and I disagreed on how often and when we needed to communicate things such as deadlines to students. Her philosophy was that they “needed to be beaten over the head with it” (posters everywhere, daily social media announcements, announcements in class, daily emails, etc.). Her philosophy came from a good place and I respect her for it, I just had a different philosophy based on my “rite of passage” understanding. I definitely agreed that we needed to communicate deadlines in a variety of ways, but not to the point where we were holding their hand as a parent would. My philosophy was that part of their life education was that they needed to learn that they were the ones responsible for keeping track of deadlines. In reality, probably somewhere in the middle is the right answer.

Do you agree with the rite of passage philosophy? Disagree? What do you think we should be doing differently?


Why I support STEAM (adding arts to STEM) in education


For the past few years, the hot new buzz acronym in education has been STEM, which stands for the four disciplines science, technology, engineering and math.  Everyone from educators to politicians have been promoting STEM education as a way of pulling our country out of the economic recession and securing our economic future as a nation. Recently, there has been a movement to add arts into the educational mix to create an emphasis on STEAM vs. STEM.


Why I support STEAM (adding arts to STEM) in education

I come from a STEM family. The majority of family members are medical professionals and engineers. So, they had hopes that I would be too. And I don’t fault them for that; they wanted what was best for me and STEM jobs usually mean a good income.


I was taken to every “Women in Science and Math” and “Students in Technology” event that my parents could find. I would go, but I’d proceed to sit there and draw or flip through the program and mentally rate the quality of advertisements in it instead of paying attention.


You see, I like STEM; in fact, at one point I wanted to be a marine biologist. But the reality is, STEM isn’t where my strengths are.  I would do very well in my STEM classes, but I’m a marketer through and through, and no matter how much I was encouraged otherwise, I was still more geared towards the arts.


How adding arts improves the model

The STEAM model with arts included opens new doors for education, employment and innovation, and it recognizes people like me as having gifts that can help this nation move forward. One of the biggest false assumptions is that you cannot make a good income if you are in an arts career. The reality is, there’s value in those who can market and sell products and services and, because of that, my income is similar to many STEM jobs.


The other assumption is that arts don’t integrate with the rest of the occupations as well as the others do. This is also not true. I may not use science or engineering in my role often,   but I absolutely utilize technology and, as I pointed out to a marketing student recently, if you’re planning to work as a marketing director, you had better be very good at math.


Trevi Fountain in Rome Italy
A large portion of Italy’s prosperity (including tourism) can be linked to the inclusion of arts. From Flickr: cfwee

Allowing people to follow their talents

In addition, we should be looking at the natural talents of our people and matching them with careers that will utilize those talents so they can excel to their full potential.


I know of several friends who are in the middle of career transitions because they’ve come to realize that they aren’t happy with their work. In most cases, there is nothing wrong with their chosen career, it’s just not where their natural talents are, so they struggle in it and/or don’t find joy in it.  Imagine, as an example, someone naturally talented at engineering being a painter. I’m not saying this combination couldn’t work, but I am saying that, in most cases, the person geared toward engineering would struggle less, be happier, and be more productive in an engineering job. The opposite is also true for an arts-oriented person.


So, adding arts creates some opportunities for people to utilize their natural talents in a way that can benefit us all. That’s why I support the movement to focus on STEAM.

Cursive may not be “relevant,” but it’s important

The word cursive being dumped in a trash bin. To the side, there is a brief overview of the history of cursive and the current controversy of teaching it.
Graphic from Flickr: WilliamsProjects

I’m going to step out of my normal posts about marketing and public relations to discuss the news that cursive is no longer part of the new Core Curriculum Standards and, thus is being removed from school curriculum across the country including Hawaii and Illinois.

Yes, as many have pointed out, in some ways cursive is less relevant today and I definitely understand the limitations of our public schools to be able to teach everything that needs to be taught. However, I agree with those pointing out that, if our young can no longer read cursive, they won’t be able to read some of our founding documents, including the original version of the United States Declaration of Independence.

For me, however, it’s more about the art form of cursive. We know teaching arts in schools increases student success and cursive should be included. Cursive is also the standard for signatures. Will the new generation sign documents in manuscript? But, most importantly, one of the things I’ve learned in my career thus far is the power of a handwritten (in cursive) note.  I often encourage students to send handwritten notes and have seen a handwritten note change the tide or solidify a professional relationship. You could write these in print, but I don’t think it would leave as powerful of an impact.

As for me? Call me old-fashioned and unchanging in this instance if you will, but I’ll continue to challenge myself to write proper D’Nealian and cursive.

Considering conducting a survey? Remember that what people say they do or say is important to them does not usually match their behavior

According to the Community College Survey of Student Engagement (2012 Cohort), 73% of students say tutoring is somewhat or very important. But, only 29% of students participate in tutoring at their college.  So, students say tutoring is important, but that isn’t reflective in their behavior.

What people say they do or say is important to them does not usually match their behavior

This isn’t a new phenomenon and not shocking, but it does serve as a good reminder that what people say they do or say is important to them does not usually match their behavior. Why is this? There are a wide variety of reasons:

  • They understand it’s important, but it’s just not important ENOUGH. We have a limited amount of time and so many choices of what to do with our time. It’s not a factor of what is important to us, but what is MOST important to us. I may know that exercising six times per week is important, but, after a sleepless night, I might deem skipping my morning workout and getting some sleep as more important.
  • They may feel that a behavior is important for someone else, just not them. For the tutoring example, a student with a 4.0 GPA may truly believe that tutoring is important, just not for them. They may feel it’s very important for students who aren’t making a 4.0.
  • Sometimes, it’s not socially acceptable to say something isn’t important. As an extreme example, if you conducted a survey asking if saving the lives of starving children was important, I can’t see anyone saying no. But, in reality, there might be some people who honestly don’t feel that it is important. It’s just that they don’t feel comfortable expressing that view because it’s not socially acceptable to do so.
  • They don’t really know what their behavior is. We’ve seen this in study after study. People don’t know how many calories they consume or how much time they spend on Facebook. And, the infamous advertising question, “How did you hear about us?” they don’t know (for more on this, read Addressing the Question: Measuring Advertising ROI).

How this relates to conducting surveys

So, having people self-report what’s important to them isn’t usually the best way to conduct a survey because it doesn’t really reflect behavior.  Having people self-report their behavior is slightly better, but as I said above, it has limitations as well. The best way, and unfortunately usually the most costly way, to really understand behavior is to actually track behavior.

What this says to us in higher education

Well, the good news is, we’ve done a great job of telling students that tutoring is important. The bad news is, it hasn’t resulted in students actually taking advantage of  tutoring services. It’s time to rethink our marketing strategy.

What it says to us about our own lives

What’s really important to you? Do a time and money study and you will know. Track how you spend your time and how you spend your money for a month. I’ve done this before and trust me, it’s eye-opening.

A message from an overworked employee: Tell kids to stay in school

A young woman studying with a laptop to her right.
From Flickr:English 106

This week, I went to pick-up my car from an auto body repair shop after a minor accident. I remarked to the woman, who was my representative throughout the entire process, that she always seemed to be there and inquired what her hours were. She said she worked 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. and worked-through lunch by eating at her desk. “Wow,” I commented, “Just four days a week, right?” “No,” she explained, “I work Monday through Friday those hours, then 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays and then, depending on how busy I am, I come in some Sundays.”

After this, she paused, then said, “You work at the college, right?” I told her yes. She said, “Please do me a favor and tell those kids to stay in school; it’ll be worth it. It’s tough to get a job without an education. I’m one of the lucky ones in that I make good money, but I work a lot. It’s a tough job too. I deal with angry customers and get yelled at a lot. I actually have a song I made up and sing to my grand kids. In it, I tell them to study hard, graduate high school, graduate college, then get married and have kids. They are too smart to not go to school. I want them to have a good life.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself. Take her advice and stay in school. If you need further evidence it’ll pay off, check out this article, Education Pays, by Huffington Post.