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Does promoting yourself as unpretentious make you, in fact, just the opposite?

Earlier this year, Whitman College rolled out a new one-sentence statement as part of its overhaul of admissions materials. And ever since, students and administrators have been wrestling with that question.

The statement, which is featured prominently on the college’s website and will be included with new admissions brochures, calls Whitman “the premier liberal arts college that combines academic excellence with an unpretentious, Northwest culture and an engaging community.” It’s aimed at prospective students and the counselors and parents who guide their college choices, meant to differentiate the liberal arts college in Washington State from similar institutions around the country.

But in the Whitman campaign, current students seized on one word -- “unpretentious” -- and provided an illustration of possible perils of branding. It’s not a bad description of the campus, the students say. But isn’t bragging about how unpretentious you are a little, um, pretentious?

“Honestly, on the most part, it really is pretty unpretentious,” Matt Dittrich, a Whitman junior who was recently elected student body president for 2011-12, said of Whitman’s campus culture. “But I do feel kind of pretentious saying that.”

Students applying to college can face a dizzying number of choices, and for colleges, differentiation can be the key to attracting students. It's common for colleges to seize on a favorite attribute as a starting point for promotions, said David Strauss, a principal with Art & Science Group, a consulting firm. "You look into your navel, and more into your navel, and then really deeply into your navel, and you try to determine what it is you love about your institution," said Strauss, who did not consult on the Whitman campaign and did not comment on it specifically. "It ends up being nothing more than an exercise in self-congratulation."

To be successful, colleges need to emphasize a quality that matters to prospective students and others outside the institution, he said. And it needs to matter enough to affect their behavior.

The best campaigns, Strauss said, identify features that make a college special and then work to make those qualities even more prominent. He cited Brown University as an example. When Brown developed its open curriculum in 1969, allowing students to direct their own education, it took a quality the institution was known for -- a free-thinking atmosphere with few strict requirements -- and made it the centerpiece of the institution, and became more competitive in the process, Strauss said.

At Whitman, emphasizing the "unpretentious Northwest culture" began in focus groups conducted by ZOOM Marketing, the agency working on the positioning campaign, said Ruth Wardwell, director of communications for Whitman. It was used to describe Whitman so frequently in discussions among students, prospective students, alumni, parents and guidance counselors that “the transcripts from those have the word ‘unpretentious’ underlined,” she said.

The word comes across as more ponderous when written down, Wardwell said. But the college decided to use the phrase because it came up so frequently, and because they believed it was a good reflection of campus culture.

“The Northwest culture, and Whitman, are in fact unpretentious,” Wardwell said. “That’s what people say -- let’s own it. Let’s use it as a point of discussion. And that’s what we’re doing.”

The full complement of new admissions materials is not yet finished, but the statement popped up on the Whitman website earlier this year. As well as mentioning the “unpretentious Northwest culture,” the site notes that Whitman graduates “ethical, unpretentious leaders” who “live and work on an unpretentious, residential campus that doubles as both an arboretum and an outdoor art museum.” (After all, nothing says “unpretentious” like an art museum.)

Students took notice, and The Pioneer, the weekly campus newspaper, ran a story that explained the positioning campaign and quoted several students criticizing the use of “unpretentious,” sparking widespread discussion on campus. One student later wrote to the university’s administration, asking them to change the tagline.

“If someone had asked ‘Is Whitman pretentious?’ I would have said ‘No, we’re not a pretentious school,’ ” said Josh Goodman, who wrote the story for The Pioneer. “I wouldn’t have chosen that word right out of the blue.”

Whitman, in Walla Walla, Wash., is a small, well-regarded liberal arts college. Many such institutions describe themselves in similar ways, emphasizing selectivity, small class sizes, and strong campus communities. Often they compete for the same students, and for each institution, setting itself apart can be crucial.

The culture of the Pacific Northwest, and Whitman’s rural setting, is one such distinguishing feature, Wardwell said. “In this location, in this geographic location, this culture -- it’s that collaboration that makes Whitman what it is,” she said.

Emphasizing geographic and cultural differences might be enough to change behavior for some prospective students, especially if they're looking at institutions that are otherwise similar but are in different settings, Strauss said. For others looking at several colleges or universities in the same region, it might make little difference.

Dittrich and Goodman described Whitman as a place where students are outgoing and friendly, collaborative rather than competitive. And they said many in the student body thought the campaign was unnecessary and maybe a little ridiculous.

But current students aren’t the target audience, Wardwell said, adding that if prospective students react the same way, the college will change the message. For now, they are trying to ride out the complaints and find the upside. “At least for now, we will own it,” she said. “And we like the discussion.”

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