When Marketing Your College or University, Don’t Just Be Distinctive; Be Avant-Garde

In 1913, the American art world was rocked by a major exhibit that has come down to us as a pivotal moment in the history of American culture. Known as the “Armory Show” because it was held in the expansive rooms of the U.S. National Guard armories in New York City, the exhibit showcased work from American and European artists who were at the forefront of the twentieth-century avant-garde. It was seen as groundbreaking, even as it was happening. One critic prophetically noted that “the spirit of 1913 was an aspiration to transcend what most people accepted as ordinary and so inevitable” in art.

While it certainly was a definitive turning point for American modernism, art historians now see the Armory Show as the culmination of a series of international exhibits, beginning with the famous Impressionist Salon of 1863, which strove to promote different iterations of avant-garde art. What ultimately ties all of these exhibits together–besides the art, of course–is a promotional spirit that embraces a radical form of distinctiveness. The artists who participated in the exhibits that we now call “avant-garde” weren’t afraid of being precisely what we say they are: ahead of everyone else and ahead of their time.

So, how does this translate to higher education marketing?  

The gradual refining of what constitutes high-impact learning practices and distinctive programs over the last several years means that many colleges and universities are seizing on new research and institutional language to describe and market the programs they offer that match up with broader instructional trends. Many institutions use lists of features and outcomes to prove they offer experiences that are similar in kind and scope to those of their competitors. They present the requisite “specs” on their signature programs without any hint of what makes those programs distinctive, or why their academic experience should be the only one worth considering. As a result, it becomes impossible for prospective students and their parents to differentiate between one program and the mass of others who offer transformative first-year experiences, cutting edge research opportunities, or access to prestigious internships. In other words, few colleges are willing to be truly avant-garde in their approach to marketing.

Instead of mimicking Harvard or Williams College, institutions should market themselves as not only distinctive, but “ahead of their time.” They would be wise to start by crafting a compelling and articulate position for themselves that doesn’t bury their claim as a “one-and-only” in mounds of vague statistics like “we have a 97% placement rate” (where?) or “74% of our students study abroad” (great, but what particularly about your study abroad program makes it yours?). Would we venerate Picasso in the way that we do if he hadn’t helped to invent a new visual aesthetic? Would he be just another figure in a long line of representational artists? A positioning statement should be more than just another still life with apples. Instead, and in order to be truly successful, it should depict your institution’s core experiences as a vibrant tableau that not only communicates facts, but also inspires.

Let’s take one step back: as noted above, the Armory Show wasn’t the only place where you could see avant-garde art in the early twentieth century. There were several venues worldwide that were showcasing figures like Picasso, Duchamp and Cezanne. But the difference is that the Armory Show was the single biggest display of avant-garde art that the world had ever seen. And, it was the first major exhibition that featured distinctively American modernists. It succeeded because it distinguished itself in key ways from other and previous exhibits and, as a result, we now think of it as the event that utterly changed the trajectory of American art and culture in the modern era.  

Back in 2015, Inside Higher Ed reported that many US colleges and universities would face closures over the next several years because of declining enrollment. Liberal arts colleges are especially susceptible to financial failure because they rely so heavily on tuition dollars to cover the costs of operations. How can these institutions thrive in a market that is saturated with programs that offer many of the same high-impact learning experiences? They need to be the Picasso in a sea of Rembrandts and copies of Rembrandts. Sure, the Rembrandts are masterpieces (and some of the copies are good, too); yet, they also use the muted color palette and neutral perspective that most of us expect from Old Master paintings. In a huge museum, after a long day of sightseeing, one might be hard-pressed to distinguish them from the Davids, the Caravaggios and the Courbets.

Throw a Picasso in a room of Old Masters and you simply can’t ignore it.

The bright colors and dynamic design are unmistakable. But, most of all, the Picasso speaks to you of the future, your future, in a powerful idiom that combines precision with just the right amount of emotion. Many colleges and universities want to be just like Harvard (Rembrandt) or Williams (Caravaggio). Yet, when you put all of those Old Masters side by side, they lose their distinctiveness. Prospective students, fatigued by their search for just the right college, will easily look past the institutions that try to simply blend in with Harvard; the ones that bury their lead. You can find many portraits, still life paintings, and landscapes amongst Picasso’s works, just like you can find high-impact learning experiences and distinctive programs in the course catalogs of many colleges and universities. Picasso was avant-garde because his paintings depicted distinct elements of familiar objects in an unmistakable, and even radical, way. For colleges and universities this means not simply posturing as “something new,” but invigorating the shapes, lines, and colors that comprise your institution’s distinctive academic experience.

At RHB, we can help you identify the distinctive programs and experiences that make your institution avant-garde. And our three satellites approach gives you the clarity and confidence you need so that you can hang your Picasso with pride.


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Amy Mallory-Kani

Amy is a Writer at RHB.