Penn State Wears Prada

Glossy fashion spreads, contracts with reality shows, and intense teen promotions have increased interest in the university, but can glitz get you more applicants?
June 9, 2006

As with all of the Spiderman movies thus far, the plot of part three, anticipated for release in 2007, is a closely guarded secret. But one tidbit has seeped through. Producers of the film had requested that the marketing department at Penn State University make the student members of the institution’s popular Blue Band available to march in a dramatic opening scene of the upcoming film.

The idea fell through once it was determined that students would have to give up far too much of their time to learn intense new routines and music; shooting, too, could have ultimately interfered with their classes. “It just got too large to handle,” explains Cindy Hall, director of university marketing with Penn State. “I’m really disappointed in that.”

But Hall and her four-member team have guided several marketing coups over the past few years, which she says have more than made up for that minor glitch. Among their efforts: placing multiple-page spreads featuring Penn State students in popular fashion magazines; forging a contract with MTV for reality-based programs set on the State College campus; and leading a five-year “Integrated Teen Campaign” that targets high school juniors and seniors not through traditional viewbooks and brochures, but by talking to them individually and through market research.

While the approaches have correlated with increases in applicants over the last few years, marketing experts are divided on the impact of such campaigns.   

Graham Spanier, president of Penn State, has an answer for the critics. “You just can’t take anything for granted -- you have to continue to market the university,” he says, noting that the institution spends little on marketing compared to other institutions of its size and scope. Indeed, some of Penn State's coups have come through connections -- and haven't involved the bills often associated with mass market advertising.

“We’ve received over 90,000 applications so far,” says the president, adding that numbers are up not only on the main University Park campus, but also at many of the institution’s satellite campuses throughout the state. In 2000, the university received about 79,000 applications.

Hall says that the record-breaking number of applicants this year can be attributed jointly to strong sports and academic programs at the university -- in addition to the marketing efforts.

Much of the teen-focused campaign relies on advertising, with commercials appearing regularly on MTV, ESPN, and Comedy Central. Hall says that her department has used a variety of research methods that suggested it would be wise to institute a “cast” of Penn State students to appear in Web site promotions, posters, and on bus advertisements. Their research told them that the cast should look friendly, have wide-set eyes, have fuller faces, look like they “smile through the eyes,” and be better looking than average.

“These characteristics all translate well,” says Hall. “This is a time of tremendous pressure and students are wanting to fit in. Students say these kids look like they are friendly -- and they say they want to be around them.

“We dress all of our cast -- we don’t want students looking out of fashion,” she adds. The marketer, who’s been at the university for about 25 years, says that they are very cautious about showing too much sexuality in their ads, going for “style, but not skin.” The cast is also diverse, even more so than the general student population at Penn, she notes.

In addition to the focused “lifestyle” promotional efforts, some happy accidents have fallen into the collective lap of the marketing department. For instance, a 47-page January W magazine spread, entitled “All-American Chic at Penn State” -- which cost the university nothing -- came about as a result of a family connection with a staff member, says Hall. It featured a variety of students, of all shapes, looks and sizes, wearing fashion designs from the likes of Gucci, Chanel and Fendi. There were 30 racks of designer clothes brought in for students to wear, complete with police protection for the pricy garments.

Hall says that December’s two-page Vogue spread featuring the Penn State marching band in a whimsical Wizard of Oz-inspired scene, took root after editors with Anna Wintour’s magazine saw the band open Marc Jacob’s spring show during Fashion Week in New York City last year. “They were very interested in the classic look of the band wear,” she says. “We were all over it. We do consider this product placement.”

MTV also came calling, wanting to film a reality show on campus, as the network has at many Big Ten universities. Ultimately, Hall’s team and MTV worked together to hammer out a contract surrounding a program called “Crib Presents: How to Live Like a College Student,” which showed students living in their dorms, learning in their classes and participating in social activities. The main tenet of the contract required that any activities on the show could not violate the university’s code of conduct.
“When we first pitched [the idea] to the administration, the reaction was positive with a lot of caution,” recalls Hall. “[They were] happy that we were more media savvy than others might have been.”

Richard A. Hesel, co-founder of the Art & Science Group, a higher education marketing and consulting firm, has some concerns about Penn State’s advertising efforts. “This is a perfect example of ego-based marketing,” he says. “I think it’s kind of superficial. It plays into a sense of academic non-seriousness.” He notes that he has consulted for other smaller institutions in Pennsylvania that are none too thrilled with Penn State's growth in recent years.

Hesel also says that about 50 percent of the growth in applications can be attributed to sheer shifts in demographics. Research indicates that there will continue to be a steady rise in public high school graduates in Pennsylvania until three years from now, then a steep fall of about 15 to 20 percent over four to five years.

Tim Westerbeck, managing director and principal of Lipman Hearne, a marketing firm that often consults for institutions of higher education, also cautions against drawing statistical inferences between Penn State’s approach to advertising and their application and enrollment trends.

“No doubt this kind of outreach plays a big role in reaching and impacting the market, but trends in enrollment are based on a very complex set of variables that go beyond a marketing campaign alone,” says Westerbeck. “The challenge will be to make sure that this kind of marketing does not give inappropriate weight to the ‘social’ aspects of the experience over other critically important dimensions of the academic experience.”

President Spanier says that there was no one impetus for the marketing campaigns. The most important goal, he says, was to increase the visibility of an already visible university.

“I think we would be foolish not to be doing this,” adds Hall. “Time is moving on. We can’t afford to sit on our laurels.” She also says that research indicates that students with higher SAT scores have been more aware of Penn State’s advertising.

Several institutions have contacted Hall regarding marketing strategies, she says. Some have wondered whether these newer efforts all just amount to hype. “It’s a different day for higher ed advertising,” she responds, noting that she has teenagers of her own. “We’re not calling the shots the way we used to. A lot of schools are still sitting back.”

Eric Sickler, a consultant with Stamats, Inc., a higher education marketing firm that doesn't have ties to the university, supports Penn State’s approach, saying that “gimmickry, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.” “It falls to college and university leaders to draw the line between innovation and insolence,” he says.

“[W]e routinely encourage our clients to at least consider a few audacious marketing strategies and tactics,” adds Sickler. “We do this because our research suggests that predictable, generally static marketing programs do very little to pull schools out of the blur that most find themselves in today. And knowingly sustaining a best-kept-secret position in any marketplace is hardly prudent.”

Hall indicates that parents and faculty members haven’t raised concerns about the promotions. She says that many parents feel that there’s a “hot factor” going on at the university and that faculty members appreciate the research-based approaches that she’s followed.

Still, one parent with a child who will be applying to college next year says he doesn’t think that the advertising efforts will have too much of an effect on his son’s decision. “They might have an effect on my neighbor, though.”

The parent is Robert Baukus, head of Penn State’s Department of Advertising and Public Relations. He’s 99 percent sure that his son will attend Penn State.


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