Recently we spent several weeks at a small liberal arts college to take a measure of their leading cultural values. At the foot of a picturesque mountain and alongside its own mist-covered lake, we listened to students, staff, and faculty talk about what they believed made the school special and how that quality could be translated to the world in better ways—one of them through the ever-popular branding channel.
We also watched –eavesdropped, actually—a lot. As Yogi Berra famously opined, “You can see a lot by just looking."
And we saw and heard a lot. Among our observations:
The campus is set in the woods between a lake and a mountain; no one is walking into town for a pizza from here. This school is not for everyone. Even its most ardent supporters use the word “isolated.” That isolation has been a workaround topic for decades.
You would think this would be a drawback, but we saw it as a unique selling point. Let me explain.
A college campus is an experience environment, just as a neighborhood is – and needs to be seen and planned around that reality. This is where all the action happens (except for on-line remote degree-getting). For 1500 resident students, and the day-to-day interactions with their teachers and college staff, this is home, the stage where everything takes place.
The faculty may go home in the evening, but for the students, this IS home. It’s the setting of the overnight stay, which has been identified by marketers as a leading factor in the student’s decision to enroll. It’s the very inability to cross a street and stroll into town that turns a college campus into what it really is – a village with its own close sense of community.
As a selling point, that actually makes isolation important to incorporate into the brand. The most successful students are those who spent their growing-up years camping and hiking and climbing in just such settings—the value of the place is, for them, already sold, because they are already home. The same goes for kids from small and mid-sized towns and communities. They already know how to maximize limited resources and make their own fun—and they do it by building strong social bonds.
Add to that the urban kids who want to get away from the distractions and negative side of big- city life. Altogether that’s a pretty good-sized pool of potential students who would thrive in that environment.
For urbanite types and kids with their sights set on the big state schools, this isn’t a place they would thrive in anyway.
So don’t sell to them; they aren’t appreciators, and will never be converted. Target the 20% of the 80/20 mix who are already on board. This logic follows our advice to clients who ask “How can we drive sales?” to ask the larger question, “What are people already prepared to buy?” Good marketing is not about educating the consumer, or talking them into doing something they aren’t already predisposed to do. This is key to good marketing. This shouldn’t be a secret, but judging by much of the marketing work we’ve seen over the years, apparently it is.
Identify the function
This campus is not, as had been traditionally thought, a university with student housing. It is a village with a university. It supports all the fondest aspects of a small settlement –the cohesion, closeness, tolerance of differences, deep knowledge of its inhabitants and their personal business. There is a price to all this snug close living, of course – in privacy, ability to separate oneself, autonomy, metropolitan lifestyle. It’s about living within the boundaries of a small, and yes, isolated place, and making it your own – bringing it inside the circle of the personal. There are plenty of faculty who wish they taught elsewhere, someplace with a wider purview, restaurants, the theater, more intellectual choices, and a few more subcultures.
Yet, in the New England landscape, this was the original American settlement model, and living a college lifetime through its village strictures (or box) creates a toolbox of skills: the ability to work with and appreciate others at close quarters, to be entrepreneurial within a set of resource, space, and dollar limits; to be self-reliant outside city life, developing networks of relationships like those aboard ship, on the space station, or even in a research station like those in the Antarctic. There are developmental advantages to contending with sub-prime dormitories, harsh winters, limited menus, classrooms and equipment that are a tic behind state of the art. College X is the acid test to distinguish between what is fundamental to a great learning environment and what is window-dressing expendable luxury.
This is in fact the virtue of places we think about as “privileged” in livability because they are set apart from the mainstream, including gated communities, resorts, and exclusive residential enclaves within cities or in upscale suburbs.
But such places are also “un-linked-in,’ except by internet and the auto – and they need better infrastructure to provide those links, such as: 21st- century post office that takes Amazon deliveries, 24-hour cafeteria as the hearth of the campus, pool, track, and gym open late, places to have coffee (Starbucks islands), all-hours pizza (study groups and cramming sessions don’t respect the 9-to-5 clock). All these fixes are geared to promoting food, sociability, and the outreach we all crave as the highest-rank social primates. The rule here is that campus design in general needs to assume very high values for whatever is social and collegial.
These are the same virtues we seek out in our after-college lifestyles. As I walked the 60-year-old campus, bathed in the greenish light of a rainy June late afternoon, I noticed other things: facing benches and outdoor tables inviting dialogue. There is seating everywhere, providing venues for the original form of teaching and learning: the dialogues we spontaneously construct at unplanned moments of day or evening, those moments in which a community of two creates the true education, the kind wrapped in mutual respect of one mind for another. It’s the way culture is forged across thousands of years, linking us through the generations through the mind-melding that happens most iconically at college.
Beginning with preschool, this is the way people have always learned—far more than clocking classroom hours, which are more like check-in exercises to see how our book learning is progressing. As one of our interview subjects put it, “Here I was, walking and talking with my professor about something I was reading when it suddenly hit me—this is what college was supposed to be about.”
The faculty have another view, and it’s one they come by honestly—they want to be able to identify as sophisticates, whatever their discipline, and that calls for the traits of grading, filtering, and protecting their personal environment—consisting of faculty office, meals, meetings, classroom, library, and yes, parking. At more urban campus, my group was involved with design-upgrading a lab space into an art collection and faculty club. At a busy medical school, this was the single space where collaboration across specialties could be eased into happening. At this University, a club space would provide another kind of upgrade—to show status and support of leadership for colleagueship. This is something praised in catalogues but barely acknowledged on the ground, in real facilities.
We think that there are other tweaks and upgrades that can maximize the defined Village value – an operation outside athletics (for which the school is well recognized) – a mini-golf course right on campus. Maybe themed to the state or the college namesake, it can provide outdoor recreation on a very accessible scale for the whole community—almost anyone, including kids, can play. Eighteen holes provides about 90 minutes’ playing time, as a solid study-break for dating, collegial bonding, conversation (the primacy of dialog again), parents’ weekend, and even donor entertainment – Clemson University has discovered what a great investment their full-size golf course and club have been for fundraising. Study-Break Mini-Golf can be run as a project by interns in the business school’s Sports and Recreation program.
Just one more design question to be considered in the process of place-making. First, find out what business you are in – then, as Walt Disney put it, “plus it,” or what the theme park ops call Enhancement. But before you design, have a solid idea of what the design intention is, or decide what it could be. That’s the cultural piece, and it’s the basis, conscious or not, of every place that performs to or even above expectations.