Fearless Campaign Dissected
“Don’t fear change, embrace it,” penned writer Anthony J. D’Angelo.
That’s much easier said than done.
A striking new change in the College’s admissions marketing campaign has invoked a student dialogue throughout campus. As a part of the Strategic Plan, the shift adopts the bold word “fearless,” replacing the previous catchphrase, “Think one person can change the world? So do we.”
Across campus, students are “fearful” that this development will alter the liberal landscape, innovative thought and creative spirit that defines Oberlin by attracting a different type of student who may not be as individualistic to think that one person can change the world.
“We can understand the attachment,” said Dean of College Admissions Debra Chermonte. “We were very attached to it, and we still are…This [new motto] doesn’t mean that we don’t embrace that [previous] philosophy.”
“Fearless” is the creation of marketing consultant Mark Edwards, managing partner of the Boston-area firm Edwards & Company. While the Review has covered the change, this article will look at the goals of the Office of Admissions motivating the new campaign and the results of the work Edwards has done at various other institutions comparable to Oberlin in size and scope.
In his Sept. visit to campus, Edwards said, “What happens too frequently is that Oberlin gets skipped over…one of the challenges is making the place more well-known.”
According to Edwards, making the institution more well known lies in an effective marketing approach that can compete at the same level with hundreds of other schools. He redesigned the College’s student recruitment materials: the new view book features a black-on-black cover with bright colors inside, a strong statement made in order to attract the attention of prospective students who are browsing through stacks of brochures.
While some students expressed concern over the general appearance of the College’s new view book – that it was perhaps too strong of a statement – Edwards brought an important point to light: These materials are meant for a younger audience.
“The view book is targeted at 17-year-olds,” he said.
Along with the full-length view book, the Office of Admissions has also started to distribute what it calls a “travel piece.” With similar design elements, this brochure folds out to reveal important facts and figures about Oberlin that prospective students would find relevant.
The view book is meant “to begin a conversation and a relationship…[it’s] not meant to tell everything there is to tell about Oberlin,” according to Chermonte.
“It’s trying to offer [prospective students] something that will make them interested in Oberlin,” said Vice President for College Relations Al Moran.
What the Office of Admissions has recently found is that students looking at various colleges today often depend heavily on the Internet as a resource.
“All the pieces that we’re producing…[are] designed to have people come to the web,” said Moran of the site, oberlin.edu/fearless.
Miami-based agency Dotmarketing, Inc., which specializes in web-based solutions, is implementing the first part of a three-phase plan in strengthening the College’s website. Known as the discovery phase, the purpose is to evaluate the current website and to conduct research concerning what prospective students and parents look for; this should be completed by mid-December.
After collecting this information, Dotmarketing, Inc. will combine their results with the research that Edwards has done, brainstorming recommendations to improve the website near the end of January. Phase three, which Moran predicts will take approximately a year, will be to make all those changes and launch an entirely new website.
Before “Think one person can change the world? So do we,” there was “A place to thrive.” Oberlin’s most recent student recruitment materials had been in place for eight admissions cycles, already “twice the average life span,” since typically, colleges would revamp their images after four or five years, according to Chermonte. After almost a decade, a change was needed to put Oberlin on competitive footing with other schools in the market.
According to the O ffice, the idea of one person changing the world is no longer innovative, as a number of other schools have adopted similar catchphrases.
“There were so many takes on that message…it just wasn’t unique [anymore],” said Senior Associate Director of Admissions Leslie A. Braat.
Right now, the College is in its prime recruiting season. The admissions staff has traveled across the country and around the world with the new Edwards-approved brochures.
Braat has been to college fairs and given a number of presentations, where other admissions representatives have praised Oberlin’s bold new endeavor, and students have been reeled in by the glossy publication.
She has seen students linger on the new publication. The previous booklet, while chock-full of important facts, was not as effective in a small square with words printed in a tiny font size.
In addition to Edwards’s work, Steven Roth, OC ’77, who works with an outside consulting group, is “help[ing] us look objectively on how this is being received,” according to Chermonte. Focus groups are being assembled to determine the effectiveness of the view book. From this information, the Office will assess and make minor changes as necessary.
Fearless Not Meant for Athletes
Some students have been speculating about an ulterior motive, a plan to attract a larger number of athletes to Oberlin in an effort to increase the strength of the Department of Athletics.
However, in an interview with the Review, Edwards said that while he did meet extensively with the deans, faculty members and the Office of Admissions, he did not speak with the Department of Athletics.
Although there is not a connection between the shift in marketing strategy and campus athletics, the department has eased into the idea of “fearless.”
In a July 2006 letter to the general public, Director of Athletics and Physical Education Joe Karlgaard wrote, “In our never ceasing quest for excellence, the Department of Athletics and Physical Education has embraced the simple concept – one that you will hear in other corners of campus this year as well – of fearlessness…no word better defines us than fearless…In the arena of athletics and physical education, the need and necessity to be fearless holds just as true…Fear has no place in a department that is striving for excellence.”
During the question-and-answer session following Edwards’s presentation in September, a student said the notion of “fearless” implied, “being courageous without thinking,” a trait that seemed to align with the stereotypical jock in his view.
“I find that whole notion so offensive,” Chermonte said when informed that some students believed “fearless” was meant to attract more athletes.
“It’s ludicrous to create a marketing piece to attract one group of students to Oberlin,” echoed Braat.
Both were dismayed to discover that this idea had been running through veins on campus. Chermonte cited a goal of the Office as one to create a community.
“It’s a holistic process to us…We think about whole people,” she said.
She said that the admissions office does not bring grade point averages, people from a certain area or of a particular characteristic to Oberlin.
“I would expect more of an Oberlin student than to think this way,” said Chermonte.
Edwards Finds Success at Other Schools
Last Sept., Edwards mused about what “prestige” meant. He felt it was best explained by a student who once told him that it was “the look on your friend’s face when you tell them where you’re going [to a certain college].”
Fifteen years ago, Oberlin was ranked as 14th among liberal arts colleges nationwide in the 1991 edition of U.S. News and World Report’s America’s Best Colleges; the most recent 2007 edition places the College at 22nd.
In 1991, Grinnell was ranked two below Oberlin, but has now settled ahead by eight notches. Harvey Mudd, under the Claremont Colleges umbrella with Claremont McKenna, Pitzer, Pomona and Scripps Colleges, was not even included in the 1991 rankings, however, the school now places at 14th.
If, in fact, one of the College’s goals is to climb the numbers for a higher ranking, therefore earning greater prestige, then implementing an effective marketing strategy is key.
The Edwards and Co. website says, “If you are interested in affecting real and positive change for your institution, we encourage you to contact us.” As “agents of change,” Edwards’ firm has also worked with an impressive list of schools including peer institutions Hobart and William Smith, Macalester, Grinnell and Carleton Colleges, Wesleyan and Harvard Universities, as well as Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
In the 2001-2002 academic year, Skidmore College’s Committee of Admissions and Student Aid appointed Edwards and Co. to “help assess how Skidmore is perceived…[which would] guide the admissions process in the future.”
Skidmore’s campus was also concerned with the school’s foray into strategic marketing.
“Oberlin is not unique in having students concerned about the admissions office in changing its marketing approach,” said Edwards in an interview with the Review.
The new slogan, “Creative Thought Matters,” which debuted in 2004, quickly became “the butt of many a joke,” according to SkidNews features editor Rachel Silverstein. “Students were not involved in the decision at all.”
Skidmore’s Spring 2004 issue of Scope magazine printed a brief article about Edwards and the results of his research:
“Its [Edwards & Co.] research found that awareness of Skidmore is low among the high-achieving students it seeks to recruit; and those who think they know Skidmore often pigeonhole it…So Edwards sought a simple core message that would spotlight Skidmore’s distinctive strengths in liberal studies and the arts.”
The magazine also wrote that “hopes are high that the values behind that catchphrase will help Skidmore stake out a stronger position in its sector of the higher-education marketplace.”
“If we’re successful in communicating — and demonstrating — that creative thought matters, Skidmore could earn a position within our competitive peer group similar to the niche that Brown University holds in the Ivy League,” said Skidmore’s Director of Strategic Communications Gerald Schorin,
Edwards collaborated with the admissions office and director of strategic communications in designing new student recruitment publications. Their “Creative Thought Matters” view book and recruitment poster have received a silver award from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, District II. Other various materials garnered gold and bronze awards.
According to the 1991 U.S. News rankings, 5,013 students applied with 2,156 accepted; 2004 edition shows 5,606 applicants with 2,587 accepted. In a period of over a decade, Skidmore did not see a significant increase in the number of applications.
Two years have passed since Skidmore’s marketing change. A Skidmore admissions representative told the Review that the most recent admissions cycle saw approximately 6,500 applications. From around the time that Edwards implemented his marketing campaign for the school to the present, the number of applications have significantly increased. In addition, the acceptance rate has decreased by 7% since 2004, noticeable improvement in a fairly short period of time.
Skidmore’s view book is, in many ways, similar to Oberlin’s “fearless” view book. Both publications use bright colors, a graphic design technique called posterizing – an effect that reduces the number of different colors in an image – and puts bold fonts on top of dramatic images.
Hobart and William Smith Colleges
A new admissions strategy was also set in motion at Hobart and William Smith in the academic year 2001-2002. That year’s annual review of Hobart and William Smith discussed the progress in the institution’s goal to “commit to a comprehensive admissions recruiting plan.”
“Designed to appeal to 16-18 year olds, the new strategy focuses…to communicate the breadth of the HWS experience…creat[ing] a shortcut in the minds of prospective applicants that helps them distinguish HWS from its competitors,” stated the yearly report.
“Resulting research pointed towards using print recruitment pieces as the primary tool by which to attract students to the website,” according to campus newspaper the Herald.
HWS’ website advertises the slogan, “Ferociously and Totally Liberal Arts.”
Like Skidmore, HWS’ new view books won a national award from CASE in the print marketing category. The brochure also features, like Oberlin, black-on-black printing and bright, eye-catching colors.
In 2002, HWS Dean of Admissions Don Emmons predicted that “our new print pieces and website will be an enormous boost to our recruitment efforts and will more effectively integrate communications with prospective students,” in a Herald article.
By 2004, applications had increased by 28 percent and the acceptance rate had decreased by 9%. This semester, HWS enrolled the largest freshman class in almost twenty years. A projected number of 545 students were expected, but an actual number of 594 matriculated. Since HWS aimed to increase enrollment, this large yield “actually comes at a good time for us,” said Emmons in a recent interview with the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle.
“I think I’ve got more kids in my [applicant] pool that have us as a first or second choice,” he said.
And before Skidmore or HWS, Edwards consulted for Wesleyan. Their catchphrase, “Independent Ivy” started with its 1998-1999 view book.
“We want to place Wesleyan in people’s heads as an academically excellent institution of the caliber of an Ivy League school or one of the finest of the small colleges,” said Vice President of University Relations Bob Barton in a 1998 interview with The Wesleyan Argus.
On campus, students felt that “Independent Ivy” was not true to the Wesleyan spirit.
“If we have to come up with a catchphrase, why can’t it be something that comes from us, that has to do with Wesleyan?” asked Wesleyan Student Assembly’s then-president Bill Wilson.
The 1998 U.S. News rankings place Wesleyan at 14th, whereas the 2007 rankings have pulled the school up to 10th. Like Skidmore, the percentage of accepted students has also decreased from 32 percent to 28 percent in that time frame, with an increase of applicants by over 1,000.
Just this past Sept., Edwards launched a plan for Macalester, a project which is expected to be finished by Feb. 2007.
Macalester’s admissions office is “in an attempt to distinguish Macalester from its competitors.” The school’s materials have not been updated for fifteen years, even longer than Oberlin’s eight years.
What Edwards found in his research was that “nationally, people know little about Macalester,” according to The Mac Weekly.
The Mac also wrote, “high school students surveyed agreed that a campaign with strong visuals, supporting facts and limited text left the most positive impression.”
While Macalester is only beginning the process, Edwards’ successful history indicates that the institution will also see an increase in applicant numbers.
However, it seems that the research Edwards conducts at every college results in very similar results: the given school, while excellent in academics, the arts and student life, is not as well-known as it should be. In addition, all these schools mentioned above have similar goals of attracting a larger pool of prospective students, standing out among other liberal arts colleges, becoming more of a “household name” and moving aggressively onto the Internet.
In addition, the materials that Edwards revises for each institution show strong similarities in design. While this may be in part attributed to a personal design philosophy, Edwards seems to have found a fail-proof marketing strategy that can be tweaked for every school. At Skidmore, in the first year alone, website hits tripled and at HWS and Wesleyan, admissions statistics have improved significantly.
But maybe a marketing consultant who throws around numbers and compiles statistics can still understand the Oberlin experience.
“I don’t think there’s another school like Oberlin anywhere. I think it’s a very unique and distinctive place,” said Edwards.
“Oberlin is not going away and a marketing campaign or a new president or a new board of trustees will not change who and what we are,” said Moran.