One of the odd features of messages sent to us by our colleagues in administration is that their signatures are showing the work of some pretty committed corporate decision making to advance the brand in all circumstances, even in the very small print at the bottom of an email.  It’s a bit like academic colleagues who have taken to listing their latest publication and leadership roles at the foot of every correspondence, a move whose target audience isn’t entirely clear.

This passive branding belongs with bumper stickers that advertise your commitment to fishing and voting, or the fact that there’s a baby in the car.  I wish they’d stop.

In fact, I’m becoming nostalgic for the early email programs of 15 years ago (remember Eudora?) when signature blocks first appeared. After a certain amount of careful thought people put a small, poignant quote under their name, rather like the kind of thing they might put on their office door.  It’s a signature file after all, not a full return address with bibliography and inside leg measurement.  So with admirable brevity people customised their correspondence with a small moment of personal branding that said: here is something that makes me think—perhaps it will you too.

Those zen like days really have gone.  Several elements are now in the bulging undercarriage of an email from the corporate side. First, there’s a recommendation to think green and not print the email, and this is usually in green font of a particularly frugal font size to really kick the point home. Then there’s an exhortation to send feedback to the feedback unit.  There’s often a caution that the email you’re reading might be personal, confidential, subject to copyright protection and defamation law, and it may contain both defects and viruses. In fact, if you’re reading it at all, your personal threat level just went up a notch.  Finally, there’s a special space reserved for mentioning the university’s current position in one or other of the global university rankings, or the number of stars it gets for a particular performance indicator.

This is risky because, as they say to mum and dad investors, the stock market can fall as well as rise.

But the real issue is whether this level of self-promotion belongs in every single item of correspondence, the vast pile of which is delivered elsewhere within the same organisation. Alexandria Brown thinks it does.

I’ve heard some people who don’t use sig files defend their position by saying, “All my clients know my info—I don’t need toremind them with every e-mail.” Stop! You’re missing a perfect opportunity to promote your business, as well as do your clients and prospects a favor. When you think about how many e-mails you actually send a day, it’s probably more than you realized! Some people send over 100 a day. That’s a lot of mail— and a lot of chances to slip in your own subtle marketing messages.

Well, OK. Obviously, these messages do from time to time flutter down from the upper windows of the ivory tower and are read by an actual member of the general public, in which case of course it’s critical that we leave them in no doubt of our standing in the Jiao Tong.  But in general, they don’t, and our students aren’t reading our emails anyway.  Internal surveys show that company emails typically travel about 500m to a nearby building where they settle in someone’s inbox, until the reply makes its way back by the same channel but with a new signature containing the reminder that our position in the Jiao Tong is unchanged since this morning.  Don’t worry, we’re still fabulous.

But what does it do to our own sense of engagement with these rankings and accomplishments when we use them for passive branding in the context of internal marketing? I mention this only because a spot check of colleagues and students has revealed that only one was aware of the release of the new Jiao Tong rankings or had any idea of their global significance.  We’ve reproduced the mistake we make in supplying critical information in uniform templates to students, to whom it is immediately rendered invisible.

So, a word to the internal marketing department: if you want people to read something and really think about it, and perhaps even feel a tiny bit engaged with its significance, you need to vary or update it regularly. Rankings updated annually don’t do the trick.  Try something that fluctuates and that would really create an audience for something that we can improve together: say, our campus wide electricity consumption, or our water use.

Or just write SEX in big letters in the middle, and be done with it.


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