Too hard to understand. Grammatically questionable. And didn’t Gandhi say that?
When “Be The Difference” debuted at the start of 2003 as Marquette’s new brand tagline, Tricia Geraghty heard it all. “Such is the life of marketing,” she thought, while forging ahead as then director of marketing to coordinate the university’s new branding campaign. After a year of research and conversations with hundreds of people, she and her colleagues had a feeling it would stick.
Twenty years later, that assessment has been proved right, and then some. “Marquette University. Be The Difference” has endured beyond anyone’s expectations. This remarkable run speaks to the phrase’s authenticity, says Elizabeth Scarborough, chairman of SimpsonScarborough, a national marketing agency specializing in higher education. “Great branding is about finding an institution’s voice and sticking with it. This is what Marquette has done so well.”
The birth of “Be The Difference” was a case of the right idea arriving at the right time, say team members behind its creation. They credit teamwork and the role played by a staff member’s morning shower.
A few years earlier, as Marquette approached a new century, it had a sound enrollment-focused marketing program but nothing communicating its identity more broadly. Rev. Robert A. Wild, S.J., president at the time, wanted to change that.
The marketing team worked with an agency on a branding strategy, with a summarizing tagline being an essential element. It would need to speak to the campus and larger Marquette community, suggest the university’s value and be “close to Marquette’s emotional heart,” as Geraghty puts it, in ringing true to Marquette’s Catholic, Jesuit tenets.
Research, interviews and focus groups ensued, with insights sought from stakeholders — students up through leadership. What space in the world does Marquette claim? What is its personality? What’s most important to say about it?
Some themes emerged, such as service to the community, a rich student experience and the balance between a probing education and career preparation. Under Wild, the university was leaning into its Jesuit identity and seeking stronger connections within Milwaukee, which added depth to these themes. “‘Leadership in service to others’ was the phrase we kept going back to again and again,” says Geraghty, who served most recently as chief marketing and experience officer of Children’s Wisconsin.
A few early taglines were tested: “Experience for a lifetime,” which had been used on and off; “This is the place”; and “Make Your Marq.” None felt right, so the marketing team began brainstorming again, bouncing around hundreds of ideas.
“I remember it finally coming together in the shower, where all good ideas happen,” says Ben Tracy, Comm ’98, Grad ’04, then director of communication and now a national correspondent for CBS News. After toweling off one morning, he jotted “Be The Difference” in a notebook he carried to capture ideas on the fly. He had always liked the phrase “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” which is often inaccurately attributed to Mahatma Gandhi.
Tracy doesn’t remember any high-fives when he brought it to his colleagues at Holthusen Hall. But it did make it into a round of suggestions sent to then-Provost Madeline Wake. Her response was an emphatic “YES!!” remembers Rana Altenburg, Arts ’88, who oversaw marketing and other functions at the time and is now associate vice president of public affairs.
For Geraghty, Tracy and Altenburg, their work on the tagline remains a point of pride. They’re glad they resisted the naysayers who pooh-poohed the capitalized words, and they’re gratified that Wild’s successors embraced it.
Why is “Be The Difference” still working?
Nancy Hernandez, Grad ’02, a Marquette trustee and founder of Abrazo Multicultural Marketing and Communication, praises its alignment with university values and its suggestion that students experience something extraordinary at Marquette. “It creates an immediate emotional connection and invites the audience to an aspirational call to action,” she says.
“There is a before and after inherent in ‘The Difference,’” says Thomas Pionek, assistant vice president of marketing and a current brand steward. “That transformation is part of what we try to convey about the Marquette experience.”
For Scarborough, the answer is simple: “It has survived 20 years because it resonates with the Marquette community — students, faculty, staff, alumni.” Indeed, for many, the phrase transcended marketing long ago, becoming essential shorthand for Marquette’s role in their lives.
“I never expected 20 years later we’d still be seeing it on everything at Marquette from letterhead to banners to the notes you get when you make a donation,” Tracy says. That last example was fresh in his mind, having just received a gift acknowledgment from university leaders that read, “Thank you for being the difference.” Little did they know.