Selling is what selling sells/The lonely saints of the seven avenues/Could sell the seven hells!
—The Clash, "Car Jamming"
“The key to economic prosperity is the organized creation of dissatisfaction… If everyone were satisfied no one would want to buy the new thing.”
Thus wrote Charles Kettering, inventor and ersatz philosopher, in 1929. Kettering spent a goodly chunk of his professional life in the employ of General Motors as head of research; his work spanned a number of disciplines, including marketing. To American businesses, it was a potent, irresistible thought: if people are satisfied, they won't buy our things... so we'll just make them dissatisfied with what they have. This thought molted into consumer-focused advertising, now so familiar to us that we don't notice how pervasive and intrusive and habit-shaping it is. Some words from William Cavanaugh really get at it:
In fact, most contemporary marketing is based not on providing information but on associating products with evocative images and themes not directly related to the product itself. Non-commodifiable goods such as self-esteem, love, sex, friendship, and success are associated with products that bear little or no relation to these goods. The desire for these goods is intensified by calling into question the acceptability of the consumer, what General Motors’ research division—in a reference to changing car models each year—once called "the organized creation of dissatisfaction."
Products are sold to solve problems; Kettering's genius was to locate the problem in the person, rather than in the material situation. If the problem is that you don't have a car, any car (or even a city bus pass) will take care of you. But if the problem is your self image, your independence, your virility... well, this year's model has a bigger, throatier, more emotionally-fulfilling engine than that old thing you're driving, fella. This psychology bruntly manifests itself in the housewife hectored by her sister-in-law because of spots on her dishes; it is more subtly and appealingly deployed by Apple, the single most effective creator of dissatisfaction ever.
This is simply the way marketing is done now: aim the pitch not at the need but rather at that psychological pressure point, that emotional vulnerability, that underlying hunger that motivates all other actions. It's used on individual consumers, and it's also used on institutions. Higher education institutions have particular desires, insecurities, and goals that motivate them, and software is nowadays pitched as the panacea to nearly every problem—including these deeper issues.
As evidence, we proffer marketing quotes from a variety of education software companies. Read them, and ask yourself what they're really selling:
Prestige and hipness
- We provide a unique combination of innovative software, strategies, and services developed exclusively for higher education—ensuring our clients have the right technology, knowledge, and processes to be leaders.
- Build a course path, invite students and change the world.
- Offering exciting new approaches to learning while involving each student on an individual level. With solutions like these, we can build a better educational experience that will get everyone talking.
Relevance and community
- Proven Technology for Turning Your Constituents into Lifelong Supporters.
- Every contact you make with your constituents is a step along your journey together – a journey that should last a lifetime.
- The platform that enables you to transform learning. It’s a philosophy that makes sense to us: put technology on the side of the individuals who can use it to chart the future of learning.
- There’s never been an easier way to help keep your community closer, stronger and more secure.
Institutional identity and uniqueness
- Engage and educate students in your own way
- An institution of your size or complexity needs a flexible solution that connects schools, departments, and functions.
- You’ll meet performance standards, integrate systems and implement effective teaching and learning methods. You’ll have pride in your school, staff and students.
- This is a unique time for Higher Education. More than ever before, young people are searching for answers through education, looking to educational institutions to help them pursue their dreams, and achieve their visions of the future. Discover how we can help you.
All of these products solve certain problems for schools and educators—they track data, keep records, pull reports, handle grading, email donors, and so on. But look at where the copy actually tries to make contact with you. All of these quotes leap from saying some form of "this product does that" to "we'll make your school everything you wish it could be". "We build software that lets you... be a leader... change learning... be complex and unique... be the answer to all your students' questions..." and so on.
And just like what's promised you by that emotionally-fulfilling muscle car engine, those results are something a software program simply cannot deliver.
Populi is a tech company that serves higher education and solves particular problems for small colleges. But one of our fundamental beliefs is that technology cannot even begin to replace institutional vision, competent and committed faculty and staff, and most of all, meaningful communication with students. World-changing leadership, depth of community, institutional pride, and whatever else is implicitly promised in the above copy—these things take decades to develop, decades during which one year's Latest Technology will inevitably fossilize into next year's antiquated dinosaur.
Hopefully, then, our own marketing copy holds up to that belief. We try to stick to this basic story: Populi exists, it does these things, you get it for this much, so wanna try it out? In a lot of places, we have to strike a balance between describing the functions it performs and the more intangible elements—ease of use, visual design, and so on—that invite bloviated copywriting. Here and there we promise things like, "a more usable and accessible dataset that will do more for your college": we should perhaps soften that to, "...that can do more for your school...".
Our yardstick for our own writing: if there's anywhere in our copy redolent of Charles Kettering, we want it gone.
Populi handles critical operations for a school, and our customers depend on us to make sure a lot of essential things happen. In view of that relationship, we simply can't afford to over-promise regarding what we do. Matters of prestige, community, relevance, identity—software can help, but it can't make it happen. If you don't like where your school is at, Populi might help with your change of course. But it isn't that change of course itself.