Brand New Dilemma

Many colleges now see branding campaigns as a competitive necessity, but it's a tricky task that seems invariably to invite critics.
October 19, 2010

Hell hath no fury like an institution branded.

For every student or alumnus who embraces a new university marketing campaign, there are others who express confusion, apathy or even disgust when a college dares to define itself. Some variation on these responses has been seen in recent weeks at several colleges that have unveiled new campaigns, and the myriad reactions shouldn't shock anyone who has seen how worked up the process tends to make people.

“It’s not at all surprising. It happens every time I’ve done this, and it doesn’t predict” future success, said Teresa Flannery, executive director of communications and marketing at American University.

American’s recently launched “American Wonks” campaign made an early splash with a largely upbeat front-page article in The Washington Post. But the campaign, which drew upon a common inner-Beltway term to position American as a place where experts thrive, drew naysayers, too. Some students found it silly, and the university’s student government -- like a gaggle of political wonks -- decided to neither publicly endorse nor oppose the hot-button campaign.

Photo: Purdue University / Andrew Hancock

Teri Lucie Thompson, Purdue's vice president for marketing and media, poses with a banner promoting the "Makers, All" campaign.

Similarly varied reactions emerged this month at Purdue University, where the “Makers, All” campaign had some worried that the popular “Boilermakers” rallying cry was being replaced altogether. And a wave of negative responses to Drake University’s recently unveiled campaign prompted officials there to alter a controversial “D+” logo that some thought too closely resembled a near-failing grade.

Flannery found the response at American predictable, and she knows a thing or two about how these campaigns tend to go over. As former marketing chief at the University of Maryland at College Park, she watched stakeholders attack the “Fear the Turtle” campaign at its 2001 launch, only to find students and alumni “furious” when the university considered a new direction seven years later. That wave of reactions is all part of a process that plays out with any new campaign, and it takes time to help people understand the goals of a new marketing strategy, Flannery said.

“There is an arc to this, and it usually starts with the personal reactions, which are quite appropriate,” she said. “But then you try to move the conversation to what [the campaign is] designed to do.”

For Purdue, the new campaign's goal is to drive home the message that the university churns out “makers” of all kinds -- makers of stronger, faster, more artful things that advance technology and society as a whole. But Purdue apparently also makes critics. Upon the public release of the campaign, a Facebook comment thread quickly emerged as a virtual clearinghouse for everything just about anyone thought was wrong with it. For every one who gave it a thumbs-up, two or three people offered some variation on "dislike."

“Fail. Purdue. Can't believe you spent money on this crap,” one commenter wrote. “I'm a boilermaker!”

Teri Lucie Thompson, who helped design Purdue’s campaign, said the university has seen a lot of favorable responses -- in addition to some critics.

“We’ve had a really incredible response to the campaign,” said Thompson, Purdue’s vice president for marketing and media and chief marketing officer. “I think everything that represents a change, there are always some people who are vocal and opposed. I would be fibbing if I said 100 percent of the folks have been positive.”

Even so, Thompson says she’s been able to allay a lot of the concerns that have filled her inbox. The most consistent criticism of the campaign came from those who thought it would replace “Boilermaker,” which is the official nickname for Purdue’s athletic teams. Others thought “Makers, All” might have something to do with Maker’s Mark whiskey -- although it’s unclear whether that was a negative.

“We did know we would hear people talk about Maker's Mark, but I think the thing that has been most surprising to me is the allegiance to boilermaker and the fear this would supplant that,” Thompson said.

Photo: American University

American University hopes its "American Wonks" campaign will demonstrate there are wonks of all kinds -- even artists like Bob Dylan.

Brad Krites, Purdue’s student body president, said he’d heard some of the same criticisms.

“It may not have been effectively communicated what the ‘Makers, All’ concept is,” he said. “I understand it to be a new campaign that complements what is going on but does not detract or replace any of the existing Purdue branding, and I think there was a fear on the part of the alumni that we were dropping the 'boiler' in 'Boilermakers.' I think that was a fair criticism of the campaign, but I think it was just a misunderstanding.”

For some, however, the problem isn’t slogan-driven campaigns getting lost in translation -- it’s the campaigns themselves. Richard A. Hesel, who has decades of higher education marketing experience, said colleges are relying too heavily on quick and easy campaigns instead of transformational investments in areas like programmatic development that can be marketed to students and parents as value added.

“I’m watching these stories [about campaign criticism], and it’s what you would expect. It’s exactly what you would expect,” said Hesel, a principal of Art & Science Group, a firm in Baltimore and Durham, N.C. “When universities allow these things to be reduced to some stupid tag line, they deserve what they get. I think it’s idiocy. It’s really idiocy.”

While it’s understandable for universities to try to define themselves in a positive light, some of the more recent attempts seem to miss even that mark, Hesel said.

"They want to be more wonky [at American]; what kind of aspiration is that? Does it mean they will be more like the University of Chicago? The University of Chicago is trying to escape its wonky position," he said.

The campaigns of today, however, are hardly born out of thin air. Indeed, Purdue paid SimpsonScarborough about $193,000 for market research, and American used the firm as well. Elizabeth Scarborough, the firm’s chief executive officer and partner, said the firm looks for themes in the responses of students and alumni who are asked to explain what makes an institution unique. That information is passed along to the institution, which may produce a campaign in-house or with the help of another firm.

SimpsonScarborough encourages colleges to use research to adopt a “positioning strategy,” which will begin to define them among their competitors. Following such advice, however, requires a college to take a position, and that’s “going to turn some people off,” she said.

“If you want to say nothing, don’t worry, you won’t offend anyone,” Scarborough said. “Frankly that’s what the large majority of colleges do, and why they are so horrible” at marketing.

One of the key difficulties for colleges is that they are often aiming at multiple constituencies, and what appeals to parents, students and alumni may not be the same thing, said Jim Paskill, principal and creative director at Paskill Stapleton & Lord, which helps colleges with student recruitment marketing. Moreover, many college officials are under the misimpression that they can develop a brand overnight, he said.

“You can have a tragedy on campus or you can win a national championship; that will do it,” Paskill said. “Otherwise, it’s a slow burn.”


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