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Crane explains Grinnell’s institutional identity

Photo by Aaron Juarez

Founder and CEO of Crane MetaMarketing Patti Crane hosted two open sessions at noon on Thursday, March 6 and Friday, March 7, which welcomed all students, staff and faculty to Harris Cinema for the presentation of her firm’s findings about Grinnell’s institutional identity. Crane highlighted a series of contradictions and paradoxes that were identified as plaguing Grinnell and impeding forward progress in the “Review & Reflection Paper,” which can be found online.

The document represents the culmination of over seven months of collaborative interviews and meetings with students, staff, faculty and alumni. The presentation sessions were intended to serve as waypoints that allowed students to weigh in before the College moves forward, realigning its institutional identity and marketing strategies towards prospective students.

Photo by Aaron Juarez
Photo by Aaron Juarez

“It’s important that Patti report back and give us a chance to evaluate her observations, so that we can feel confident as a community that Crane ‘gets’ us,” explained Vice President for Communications Jim Reische in an email to the S&B last week.

Crane began by describing the process of identifying the “Category of One,” a term that she used to detail the methodology of pinpointing what makes Grinnell unique. This is done with the intent of helping Grinnellians describe the College with a so-called “elevator pitch” that can describe what distinguishes Grinnell from peer institutions without needing a verbal barrage.

The final product was set to three tests: relevance, authenticity and differentiability. Crane wanted to avoid the controversial precedent created by the self-branding “No Limits” campaign ended in 2010, which many felt was helplessly bland and corporate.

“The problem is that Grinnell has moved from a ‘No Limits’ campaign to no thesis,” Crane said. “However, before we developed this thesis, we thought it was necessary to identify some impediments to capturing the ‘Category of One.’”

Crane mentioned that one complication Grinnell suffers from is “genre-blindness,” which describes Grinnell’s lack of awareness of the identities of other schools. According to Crane, a “genre-blind” Grinnell is “extravagantly frugal, hubristically modest, parochially global and aloofly welcoming.”

“Midwestern modesty is one thing, but you have to be accurate about projecting what’s actually going on,” Crane said. “A tiger won’t change its stripes, but we need to embed a lot of signals into Grinnell visits, so that people can understand what it’s actually like to become a Grinnellian.”

Administratively, Grinnell’s genre-blindness translates into a stubborn mentality of institutional operations that must be conducted the Grinnellian way, leading to a lot of easily avoided failures, the “Review and Reflection Paper” claimed.

“Even when Grinnell recruited seasoned campus professionals credentialed in their disciplines to lead administrative areas, the inertia of obsolete systems and unimaginative processes kept administrative Grinnell naively driving prospective students away,” Crane wrote.

This transformation is intended to remodel everything from the “Grinnellian” identity to campus visits and the ways that students and faculty both think and act. Crane clarified what she was implying with a series of paradoxes, such as the notions of “thriving on the prairie/stuck in the cornfield” and being “global, but too local.”

“When it comes to location, you are who you are, not despite your location, but because of it,” Crane said. “Grinnell needs to change its language from ‘despite the cornfield’ to ‘because of the prairie.’ Grinnell is about the prairie in every way: prairie is a geoscape, prairie is a mental landscape.”

Crane suggested that this subdued Grinnellian pride leads to situations which have frustrated many Pioneers.

“The lack of identity awareness of the College is such that when someone asks where you go and you answer, they reply: ‘Oh, Cornell?’” Crane said.

Crane said she hopes to work with student tour guides and faculty in order to project this pride for student visits, which she explained are often disturbingly unsuccessful.

“Grinnell convinces fewer than half of the prospects who visit campus to actually apply, inspires only a third of alums to give even a small donation each year and makes the case to only 13 percent of undergraduates that a Grinnell education warrants full sticker price, placing the tuition discount rate at an alarming and unsustainable 61 percent,” Crane wrote in the “Review and Reflection Paper.”

The driving force behind this institutional identity project is to encourage prospective students from all financial backgrounds to apply and attend Grinnell, not just students with high-need, according to Crane. She deemed this the “gift of not giving,” which is the mentality that people act like the College doesn’t need any more money and should only pay out. Crane said that this conundrum plays out in two different ways: having fewer full-tuition students suggests that students don’t see the value proposition in a Grinnell education and the formation of an irrational hostility to those who do pay full price.

“We weren’t convinced that the value proposition was made as well as it was 20 years ago,” Crane said. “The value is there: now we must reframe the value proposition more compellingly and more memorably.”

Crane suggested that students who don’t receive financial aid often feel uncomfortable and unwelcome.

“There are subliminal messages of hostility to middle-class people, and it’s a form of reverse snobbism,” Crane said. “There’s an attitude that if you came from a nice prep school, why should we welcome you? Reverse snobbism is not helping this college.”

The “Review and Reflection Paper” was followed by the presentation of the “Promise Statement,” which presented a tentative thesis for expressing preliminary agreement on what the Grinnell promise is and summarily the marketing language that will be used in the future.

“Grinnell’s campus life hums at its own idiosyncratic frequency, as insightful staff mentors inspire students to test their limits, take on new responsibilities and grow in self-knowledge by navigating and shaping the College’s unique self-governing culture,” the document reads.

Now that Crane MetaMarketing has identified its view of what makes Grinnell unique and gotten feedback from the campus community, they will begin their next phase of crafting the College’s new identity.

“[The Promise Statement] is the last step before our creative conceptual work,” Crane said.

The full text of the “Review & Reflection Paper” can be found online at

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