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Mindful Marketing
By Lynn Bolt Rosendale '85

 
 

Distinctively Christian. Academically excellent.

These two phrases have stood together for at least a decade now to describe the 125-year-old education philosophy that has always been in place at Calvin College.

Interestingly, to many people those two phrases appear to be in direct conflict with one another, according to Patti Crane, founder and president of Crane MetaMarketing, the communications organization hired by Calvin to advise the college as we look ahead to the 21st century.

"The perception out there is that that you either have to be an excellent, rigorous institution or a Christian college. You can't be both," she said. "And, in fact, that is the way it has gone historically. All of the rigorous private institutions—Harvard, Princeton, Yale—started with theological roots, but thought that they had to forsake their Christian heritage. It has been fully eclipsed by academic thinking only."

Calvin President Gaylen Byker couldn't agree more. "Being distinctively Christian and academically excellent is absolutely one of our mixed messages," he said.

Yet, it is this "mixed message" that stands at the very core of what Calvin does so well. "We need to occupy this unique niche of being academically rigorous and profoundly Christian," said Byker. "It's just very difficult to convey."

Getting people to see beyond perceptions is exactly what Crane and her team were challenged to do. "Some say that an 'academically rigorous Christian college' is an impossible category," said Crane. "But when you get to Calvin you meet people who make you say, 'Hey, wait a minute, that's not impossible; they're doing it every day.'"

Last fall, Crane and her associates spent several days on campus interviewing faculty, staff members and students about Calvin.

"The thing that people at Calvin—in an almost admirable way—seem to take for granted is the academic quality here," said Crane. "They have not recently compared Calvin with other similar institutions and are almost oblivious to the watered-down academic content being offered at other places. High standards are rare and, I'm sorry to say, are becoming even rarer. And then you come across a place like Calvin where they say, 'Of course we're going to do it this way.'"

Crane's findings on the "Christian college perception" fall exactly in line with another report, commissioned by the Council for Christian College and Universities (CCCU), released in December of 2000 by Maguire Associates, Inc.

"The research found that there are some negative connotations associated with Christian colleges," said Tom McWhertor, Calvin's vice president for enrollment and external relations. "One of those is that they are not academically excellent."
Armed with both the extensive CCCU report and Crane's findings, those working closest with Crane knew that there had to be a shift in Calvin's academic image.

"We don't want to be seen as just a 'great Christian college,'" said McWhertor. "We want to be seen as an excellent academic choice. We were told that we know how to speak to people who are looking for a Christian college, but what we are seeking to do is capture the attention of those for whom a Christian college would be a good fit but to whom it has a negative connotation or is a non-issue."

Thus arose the Crane-developed tagline for Calvin: "Minds in the Making."

"It came naturally out of our discussions with seniors at Calvin," said Crane. "We found seniors who knew what they thought and why they thought it. They owned their own beliefs and were not mouthing those of others. It was something that was absent from the discussions we had with freshmen."

Certainly, developing the mind is not a new concept to Calvin. It's what Calvin has always had as a central purpose. But the new slogan initially met with some resistance because of the lack of reference to anything Christian. Some would have preferred "Christian Minds in the Making."

"Our whole goal is to get new people to take a look," said McWhertor. "We aren't hiding the fact that we're Christian, or even saying that it's secondary. The research shows that even Christian people have the perception that Christian higher education is substandard—even some of our alumni think that. We want prospective students, donors and others to give us a chance without writing us off."

"All things" brochure - click photo to enlarge image
Calvin's "All things" brochure states the Reformed teaching of creation, fall, redemption.

The Christian focus of Calvin is immediately evident in the text of any ad, poster, brochure or marketing piece put out by the college.

"We know that there will always be Christian clarity in the text," said Crane. "At Calvin the premise is quite the opposite of institutions which have abandoned their Christian heritage: 'We couldn't be excellent without our Christian principles or Reformed worldview.'"

Banners displaying the new emphasis were unfurled across the campus this fall and were met with some criticism from the Calvin community.

A critique in the October 19, 2001, Chimes by Stephen Schultze '02 questioned not only the tagline itself but the need for it.

"The notion of a 'tagline' or 'slogan' especially frightens me," he wrote. "The first day that I saw the 'Minds in the Making' signs as I drove through campus, I wondered where my familiar maroon and gold heart-in-hand had gone….There is a feeling of intense need to tell people, especially prospective students, that Calvin is the place for them and to get them 'hooked.'…But where is the line between marketing glitz and accurate representation? If we attract people because of spin, do we even want them to come in the first place? Where do our traditionally expressed values fit into the mix?"

Schultze went on to suggest that the English translation of the words from the seal, "My heart I offer to you, Lord, promptly and sincerely," be considered as a source for the tagline.
A response by McWhertor was printed in the following issue of Chimes.

"Calvin has consciously decided to highlight, via the new tagline, that this is a place that takes seriously the life of the mind," he wrote. "And that is not spin. That is an accurate representation of who we are…. Now having said that, let me be clear about the next point: what we do here is provide an education that is different. And so all of our new materials go deeper in explaining Calvin to prospective students, alumni, parents and others…. All of the materials are meant to demonstrate that at Calvin we are pursuing a unique brand of higher education, one that is excellent in every way and based on a firm foundation of faith.

"One could suggest that the motto on the seal can be taken to mean we offer our whole selves, head too, to our God. But isn't it interesting that as a college we have been willing to assume that that's understood.

"Calvin is saying now that perhaps not everyone makes that assumption. Calvin is saying now that it's time we were bold about our mission as an institution of higher education…."

That being said, the Calvin administration also wants to make it clear that the tagline, "Minds in the Making," will be used for marketing or descriptive purposes. The motto of the college will remain "My heart I offer to you, Lord, promptly and sincerely," and the heart-in-hand seal, which is copyrighted with the U.S. government, will remain the "trademark" of the college.

A second major change is dropping the word "college" in promotional pieces. So Calvin College will be marketed as "Calvin: Minds in the Making."

"We recognize—and respect—Calvin's intentional decision to remain an undergraduate institution rather than pursue university status," reads Crane's Institutional Positioning and Marketing Summary. "But Calvin College desires a more national reputation, and a truth of the marketplace is that the one-word version of an institution's name not only implies wider repute; it also carries greater distinction.

"How often do people say Harvard University, Stanford University, Yale University, rather than simply Harvard, Stanford, Yale? Imagine one prospective student announcing, 'I'm going to Wheaton' and another saying, 'I'm going to Wheaton College.' Which student sounds as if he or she knows the school well? Which student assumes that the listener of course knows this school? Which sounds like a college of national reputation?"

Other elements of the marketing campaign include a color palette, font choices and a background which emits a sense of motion and change.

"One of the important things to convey about Calvin is that because of the erroneous assumption about academics, it leads to the presumption that there is less vibrancy here," said Crane.

"Our ideas came from Calvin's phrase: 'Always reforming,'" she said. "It proves that Calvin understands that constant, critical inquiry is not only appropriate, but essential," she said. "It's all a metaphor for the transformation that happens to a person at Calvin.

"In my youth I wasn't taught the powerful thinking behind the Reformed worldview," said Crane. "Having an understanding of that would have been very powerful for me personally. For Calvin to not only say that the intellect is central to its philosophy, but to believe that excellent intellect is required because of its Reformed theology is really amazing. That's what really sets this Christian college apart."

Byker is hoping that this message will be communicated to alumni.

"Alumni constantly have to have their enthusiasm renewed," he said. "I think this [the new marketing campaign] could help do that, but I don't want to leave it up to one phrase to do that. We need to continually remind alumni of our quality faculty who are regular contributors to local and national issues and professional journals. On any serious issue in the press, Calvin professors are regularly quoted. We have excellent, scholarly conferences and lectures like the Festival of Faith and Writing, the January Series, the Worship Symposium. With the grants to the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, we are to become a grant maker to churches and organizations around the country. These are all good programs that should make alumni very proud."

The college is planning a gradual rollout of the "Minds in the Making" theme.

"We are doing what a development office might do in a multi-year fundraising campaign," said Mike VanDenend, Calvin's director of alumni and public relations. "There's a 'quiet' or internal phase to fundraising campaigns, where those on campus or closely tied to the college are involved. The campaign then gradually rolls out to an ever-widening group of people."

An analysis of the materials as the rollout occurs is another step in the process, said Jeanne Nienhuis, associate director of admissions and communications manager for the department.

"We ask ourselves, 'Did we capture the institution well?' What we tried to do was hold up a mirror to see what Calvin looks like inside and out. But what is really important is making sure that the community owns it [the new marketing plan]."

Byker, for one, is pleased with the outcome.

"I like the message," he said. "I like the ads I've seen. I think it is a compelling way of stating what we've been doing for generations."

And that is the real key, said Nienhuis.

"We never set out to change the institution," she said. "We only want to accurately communicate what it is we're doing. What is Calvin? What is its place in higher education? What I appreciate about what has come out of this is that it has become bigger than when we first started. It started with the need to update our admissions materials and it turned into really looking at this place under a microscope. In admissions we offer a promise and a product to a student and this helps us review if whether what we are saying is really what we are doing."

According to Crane, there's no doubt about that.

"Selling Calvin: Mottoes in the Making"
Chimes critique, Oct. 19, 2001

"New Motto a Good Fit"
Chimes response, Oct. 26, 2001

Educating for Shalom: Our Calling as a Christian College -
by Dr. Cornelius Plantinga, Jr.

Complicated Communication
The seven mixed messages of Calvin

CCCU Findings
Enrollment trends: a study of attitudes and behaviors for prospective students and their parents

Institutional Positioning and Marketing Summary
Crane's report to Calvin (pdf format)

Alumni Response
What do you think? Does "Minds in the Making" accurately describe Calvin?

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