There are no soft-lit photos of a palatial campus, and no candid snapshots of grinning students who seem to represent every conceivable ethnicity. Indeed, Drake University’s new viewbooks manage to avoid most of the tired tropes that have filled many college brochures for decades. Instead, there’s a startling image that reminds a lot of people of a report card they’d rather not take home to Momma. The logo for the “Drake Advantage” campaign is a big blue “D+,” and the graphic set the Internet abuzz Thursday with jokes about the subpar students Drake must be targeting.
Drake’s branding folks weren’t exactly seeking this reaction. When viewed in context, the “D+” is meant to be part of an equation, suggesting Drake + you equals something, well, awesome. That said, Drake officials aren’t running away from a campaign they say they knew was “edgy” for the very reasons some are now criticizing it.
“I’m not surprised by the buzz. Our intended audience loves it,” said Tom Delahunt, vice president of admission and student financial planning. “The 15- to 17-year-olds think it’s great. They get it, and I’m not surprised people are having a little fun with it too.”
“The point is to get that 15- to 16-year-old to dig a little deeper,” he added. “I’m not recruiting me, thank God – a balding, fat white guy.”
Welcome buzz or not, Drake has had to do a little bit of damage control. Some faculty have complained, and administrators sent out an e-mail Tuesday expressing regret that professors were “caught by surprise” when the campaign appeared online and in printed materials.
“The Drake Advantage alone is not unusual, but the D+ graphic is distinctive because it’s surprising and intriguing to prospective students,” the e-mail states. “The D+ was not designed to stand alone or represent a grade. Instead, it was designed to be paired with prose and draw attention to the distinctive advantages of the Drake experience.”
Jim Paskill, a higher education marketing consultant, said the ad “could raise some problems” for Drake.
“This certainly has a lot of negative connotations you can associate with it,” said Paskill, principal at Paskill Stapleton & Lord. “It’s that first impression [that matters]. What’s the first thing that comes to mind? It’s an academic grade, and not a very good one.”
Reactions to the campaign varied, however. Melanie Malnati, another consultant, said the “D” had an “obvious correlation” to Drake. She added that many colleges end up with watered-down campaigns because of risk aversion.
“I think it’s fairly common not to try to branch out, but I think the ones that stand out are the ones that do [branch out],” said Malnati, account manager with Stein Communications.
The “D+” graphic is part of a larger campaign dreamed up by Stamats Higher Education Marketing. The firm anticipated some might first view the logo as a grade, but the graphic was always intended to be paired with prose that would deliver a positive message about the Drake experience, said Fritz McDonald, vice president of creative strategy at Stamats.
“That [image of a failing grade] was never the intention,” he said. “We knew there was some risk with it, yes. But the concept doesn’t work that way.”
Before the campaign went public, it was tested with high schoolers who had a positive response to it, McDonald said. In an online survey of 921 students, more than three-quarters said the cover of the viewbook grabbed their attention either a little or a lot. Moreover, nearly 90 percent said the concept was unique compared to other college materials they’d viewed.
“Generally speaking, I think the students that are going to be completely put off by this are probably the students Drake doesn’t want," McDonald said.
And who knows what the future holds. Stamats has at least two clients whose names begin with the letter “A.”