When Provost Mark Sargent started preparing his fall presentation about Gordon’s distinctives, he wondered if he would be able to get the marketing jargon and agenda from the past decade out of his head. He told the faculty and staff who gathered for the special faculty forum, that what “saved” him was reading Wendell Berry. By exploring five key areas of distinctions, Dr. Sargent described Gordon’s unique qualities, using his recent encounter with Berry’s story, “Are You All Right?” to help frame his perspective. The text of his speech is printed in full below:
The Last of the Rowanberrys, or The Distinctions of Gordon College
By Mark Sargent
October 10, 2011
Not long ago the members of the Cabinet were in the President’s Office preparing for a conference call with the Board of Trustees, and we were scurrying around to insure that we had all the right papers and notes ready for the event, when we suddenly ventured onto one of the thornier philosophical topics we had faced in some time. Was it possible to taste the difference between Coke Zero, Diet Coke, and Diet Pepsi? While we are at it, why not add Pepsi One and some generic store brand to the mix. President Lindsay, like most of the others, seemed certain that he could identify the difference by taste.
So I asked Jerry Logan, our academic programs coordinator, if he would conduct a taste test this past week among the visitors to our office. We found what many studies have confirmed: That virtually everyone had a very strong preference among the five choices. Before they took a sip, they generally knew what drink they would buy if they saw these choices in the store. And yet only 13 percent were successful in picking that flavor simply by taste. You would have better odds if you rolled dice.
What this implies, of course, is a triumph of marketing. The actual distinctions between colas are relatively slight: this one has a few more milligrams of corn syrup or artificial sweetener than that one. But most all of us who have spent any time watching television have absorbed certain images associated with each drink. We may not fully realize how effectively Coca Cola has targeted Coke Zero at men and Diet Coke at women, feeding the absurd notion that a sweetener that comprises less than 1 percent of the volume defines the boundary line between genders and gender roles.
I tell you this to confess why I shuddered some when I was first asked to describe the distinctions of Gordon College. For the last ten years, when I have been engaged in earnest discussions about distinctions at Gordon, it has usually been part of a quest for that Holy Grail of sales: a market differential. In one respect, the term “distinction” should refer less to something precise than to something quite generic: we refer sometimes to a person of distinction as one with integrity, wisdom, perhaps even a gray-haired eminence.
To be fair, I am not fully discounting the need to find themes in our marketing that enable us to recruit students and to define our product. But I will confess to having listened to too many consultants and advisors on branding: Too many people who have pressed us to define our “brand” or our “brand promise” and then be sure that we conform our academic and co-curricular programs to match in order to secure our customer. Or too many advisors have told us to define reality by our marketing jargon. When I suggested to one marketer that MIT might quarrel with a tagline proclaiming Gordon now to be “New England’s best science college,” I was told I needed “aspiration.”
So I started thinking about this presentation about Gordon’s distinctions fearing that I would not get the marketing jargon and agenda out of my head. What saved me, you might say, was reading Wendell Berry. Continue reading