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Comms & Commencement: How Marketers Can Shape the Social Imagination

Commencement: A Case Study of Shaping the Social Imagination through Communications

Over the past few years, my studies in marketing and theology have intersected at the question of how do we make and share meaning with one another? 

A key consideration to this question has led me to reflect on what shapes and sustains our social imagination, a faculty of our being that helps us understand and envision relationships between ourselves, others, and the communities we have in common. 

As marketers, we craft messaging that reinforces and even redirects the social imagination of our audiences, and this is why brands are capable of cultivating belonging and advocacy in their consumer base. In response to the work of marketing and communications professionals, consumers can say things like “I just can’t see myself here” or “This place looks like the perfect place for me to live and learn”. 

Though we may not be consciously aware of it, we send many messages about the character, customs, and cultures of the institutions we champion. The question isn’t if marketing shapes the social imagination, but how? And why does it matter? 

In this brief article, I will share three ways in which marketing professionals can capitalize on commencement season to positively contribute to campus culture.

1. Calming the Anxiety of your Audiences

Commencement signifies so much more than just a step across a stage. As I came to understand myself, it is a momentous occasion that can bring about lots of emotions, bringing about tears of joy or a sweaty brow from wondering if you are wearing the regalia properly, It is a long ceremony, which can cause eagerness to melt into antsiness and uneasiness. 

For many, especially first-generation students or those from underserved minorities, commencement events can be stress-inducing, sometimes even leading one to question his or her own accomplishments and aspirations. Accordingly, it is easy for there to be a gap between the expectations and reality of the day; this is where marketing steps in and steps up. For example, a recording of the commencement exercises can be made available to help graduating families (and even just students in general) mentally rehearse the occasion.

The social imagination is active when prospective students are seeking to “see themselves here,” whether through a campus tour or an open house. We know this, and we accordingly offer resources to help their senses grasp what life at the college or university will be like. Hence, we can help build belonging by simply offering a foretaste of the sights and sounds of commencement, consequently relieving the anxiety that comes with uncertainty. 

2. Commemorating the Lived History of the Institution

It is far too easy to be reductionistic when it comes to student storytelling. By this, I mean that it is tempting to tell the story of the senior with the dreamy job strictly from the angle of career readiness, or of the senior with an impressive enrollment at a graduate school from the angle of the research experience. 

So, what new angle could you possibly consider to avoid these tropes of education marketing? Let the lived experience of your students answer that. Too often, education marketers “see” with editorial eyes and “listen” with a soundbyte-sensitive ear. Get to know your students beyond the times you “need” a story, and they will be much more likely to fill you in on the evolving narrative of their personal and professional journey. When they do share their stories with you, truly listen and recognize which themes are repeated and reinforced, and why. The narratives often make sense of themselves in one way or another, since we have a tendency toward congruency and cohesion in stories. 

3. Cultivating a Legacy of Excellence

Commencement is an occasion that reminds students, faculty, staff, and alumni alike of two realities: first, that every good thing comes to an end, and secondly but more importantly, that every good thing comes to another beginning! 

That is why it can be said that commencement is truly a joyous occasion, because joy is in attaining that which one loves. In college, what could be more joyful than possessing that which you’ve held dear for some of the most important years of life: one’s friendships, one’s pursuit of truth, one’s attainment of that which they set out for? 

Marketing sees meaning and shares it; it gives voice, shape, and definition to the joy and hope students, faculty, alumni, and friends of the institution feel because of its very existence.  

Commencing a Career in the Advancement of Education 

With my own commencement in the rearview, it seemed fitting to reflect not only on the journey that has just ended, but the journey that I am embarking on next. But before looking to what is next, it is always important to look critically at where we are now. 

We are in a moment of pervasive polarization, not only in education but across the country and world. Our appetite for what is good, true, and beautiful is not satiated by the content we are compelled to consume, or rather binge: news of tragedy, suffering, and conflict. 

Amidst many notes that are low and dissonant, education marketers sing a tune that is high and harmonious, giving a voice and platform to stories that celebrate triumph, offer hope, and demonstrate the potential of a better tomorrow. The stories we tell illustrate that higher education is far from dead, but rather alive and well, teeming with portraits of promise. 

As the world of work, the worker, and the workplace continue to evolve at a rapid pace, so too does the world of education, the educator, and the institution; consequently, marketers – now more than ever – are responsible as guarantors of an institution’s identity, ensuring that it is not eroded or engulfed in the sea of sameness (see my previous article: Brand-building & Belonging: Standing Above a Sea of Sameness).

It is for this reason that I am dedicating my career to the advancement of education, transitioning into a role as an Advancement Associate at Bishop Stang High School (BSHS), a Catholic, college-preparatory school of 540 students located in North Dartmouth, MA.

In this role, I will be responsible for the cultivation, solicitation, and engagement of BSHS constituents to increase current and future philanthropic engagement in support of the Annual Fund and Bishop Stang’s mission.

In conjunction with this work, I will continue serving ERI as a Marketing Strategist, supporting the team as we help institutions of higher education articulate and illustrate the value they create at the individual, local, national and global levels. 

What we love, we preserve; and it is for that reason that this isn’t an ending, but a commencement: a beginning of a shared journey toward strengthening and supporting institutions as they continue shaping our social imagination of what is possible through the power of education. 

A first-generation college graduate who studied marketing and theology, Myles has proven his aptitude for critical and strategic thinking as an Honors student and Marketing Fellow at Providence College, where he earned distinction in the Poets & Quants ‘100 Best & Brightest Undergraduates‘ list. Learn more about Myles here: https://www.eridesignstudio.com/insights/meet-myles-forgue/.

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