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Does Carleton Need a Brand?

April 26, 2010 at 12:57 am
By Daniel Lindvall

Middlebury College recently announced it is investing $4m in developing a for-profit online foreign language program building on the expertise and renown of its foreign language school.  The program expected to generate significant revenue for the college, and help make the Middlebury name synonymous with learning a second language.

While the decision by Middlebury to lend their name and talent raises many questions about the future of private college, the part of the story that was particularly salient for me was the close association between Middlebury and language instruction.  Ask someone from Middlebury what most people say to them when they find out where they go, and it is more than likely, “Oh Middlebury, I hear they have a good language program.”  Ask the same question of a Carleton student and the response is probably, “Now where is Carleton?”

Creating a college brand may seem dumb, but when you look for jobs or apply to grad schools, that name recognition goes a long way.  When people know about Carleton, they tend to take you much more seriously than when it looks like you went to some no-name college in the middle of nowhere.  Personally, I have yet to get any job offers where the hiring director had not heard of Carleton beforehand.

Admittedly, Carleton seems singularly difficult to brand without doing some part of the community a disservice.  We’ve got great majors programs, but don’t really specialize in one academic field.  Our student body is active and intelligent, but there’s no way to sum them up except for the now groan-inducing adjective, “quirky.”  We've got Frisbee, but I don’t think even the Frisbee players want to go to “that Frisbee college.”

The administration seems to be equally frustrated in succinctly branding Carleton.  The headline for currently reads "Carleton College: A Private Liberal Arts College in Northfield, MN."  Exciting as that may seem, it doesn't give you any idea of what Carleton is.  Our president (and, it appears, his successor) are fond of saying that Carls always exceed expectations.  This may be true, but for the more cynical among us it seems pretty corporate and also maybe impossible.
Perhaps Carleton should look to the indie music world for inspiration, and make a brand of being impossible to brand.  It appeals to students looking to avoid being labeled as geeks, hippies, or bros and makes Carleton look dynamic and adaptable.  Is this better than an amorphous respect for Carleton as "a good school?"  Maybe, but I'd hate to make any real commitment to that.