We can talk all we want about Twitter followers and Klout scores, but in this age of “everything communicates,” some of the strongest personal branding is still low-tech and old-school (pun intended): college bumper stickers and sweatshirts.
Putting educational brands, from universities on down to grade schools (even—say it ain’t so—nursery schools), on our cars and our bodies helps us locate ourselves on our maps of the world. It lets us have starring roles in capital metropolises. Plus, it often unites families, building a family brand: Especially when a school of any level has high prestige, everyone through to Grandpa and Grandma want a slice of it, to salute the genius in the family (building their own personal brand in the process). Take this story from a friend of mine: “My dad was a Notre Dame alum. We could always find our family car in the sea of station wagons because it was emblazoned with ‘the dweeb’ sticker. I think I was 14 before I realized that you could buy sweatshirts, highball glasses or nightshirts that didn’t have the ND logo on them!”
Displaying our educational brands is way of announcing the company you keep. A U.S. News & World Report story in May reported on the school affiliations of top company CEOs: The universities that had granted degrees to the most chief executives were Harvard (65), Stanford (27), Penn (24) and Columbia (18). Even at a time when there’s a backlash against higher education, it’s little wonder that non-famous graduates of top schools like those would want to trumpet their ties, as if some of their peers’ affiliated glory might rub off. Who wouldn’t want to be part of the club?
We like logos with meaning, and school brands have deep meanings that are rarely affected by scandals (Penn State notwithstanding) or tarnished by discounting, and that make us feel proud.
The bragging school bumper sticker and window decal is a uniquely American phenomenon. When I moved to The Netherlands in the 1990s, I was shocked that the valuable real estate so often given to Yale, Dartmouth, Brown or, God forbid, No-Name College was being used by local car dealers to tell other drivers where the car’s owner had purchased or leased it. It’s very Dutch to be both humble and commercial (and to expect a small discount in exchange for using part of your car to advertise the dealer). And as a colleague there pointed out, the European education system is much more egalitarian, so many graduates have solid but not boast-worthy backgrounds.
Here in the U.S, we fought harder for our college acceptances, and we’d rather advertise ourselves than our car dealers, especially if school was costly (an expensive education is still seen as an investment, not a luxury). Plus, the social value of our alma maters—and our desire to broadcast it—can’t be underestimated. It provides conversational currency, can establish superiority or community, and can help break the ice. One commenter on the online college-bound community College Confidential wrote, “My car has back window stickers for both D (daughter) & S (son), both college & (private) HS. When my car gets replaced, there goes their school history!” It’s the car that tells the story, not the résumé or the knowledge.
Another parent weighed in: “I’m all for college decals! It’s no different than any other branding you may be pleased about or proud of. My girls worked hard to get in to their colleges; why not let the community know! And I think it’s good parenting to put a sticker of their college on your car, shows them you’re proud of them! We live in our times, and in these times everyone advertises their kids’ successes, so participating in that advertising is important to your kid.”
(But a little perspective is in order. Another commenter on the site wrote, “I remember reading a book called Class [that included] a letter (made-up, I assume) from a mother, concerned because as soon as her son was admitted to Stanford, he took the window decal, cut it up, rearranged the letters, and pasted it on the family car so as to spell SNODFART.”)
Curious, I polled my Facebook friends. Here are some of their more interesting responses:
“I don’t have one, but I will admit I notice it when others do and judge … the school. I make inferences about the people. If it’s a low-rent school, always wonder why they’re so proud. To me, that is like a participation trophy. Guess it’s just old-fashioned Ivy League snobbery.”
“I have a college sticker on our car—Hopkins alumni. It’s where both [my husband] and I went to school, and we bought it at one of our reunions a few years ago. Living in the burbs, car stickers and car magnets abound. I like having it there.”
“I think the college sticker says more about the person putting it on their Volvo/Subaru/Focus than it does about the actual school—yeah, it may be free advertising, but it’s also a big part of personal branding—college is as big a status game as anything else.”
No matter the alma mater, schools get more attention with this class of personal branding. So who should pay whom for this premium “advertising space”? That’s the SAT question for $800.