The Oberlin Review
<< Front page News March 3, 2006

New Image, Marketing Strategy to Be Considered
“Fearless” Theme is Not Yet Defined

Think one person can change the world? How about one fearless person?

At last week’s general faculty meeting, College and Conservatory professors saw a presentation by Mark Edwards, a Massachusetts-based marketing strategist charged with formulating a campaign to improve Oberlin’s image. After months of research, Edwards found that the message of “fearless” best encapsulated “the Oberlin spirit.”

Edwards emphasized that it was unclear at this point in the process how exactly “fearless” will fit into the reworking of Oberlin admissions materials and marketing campaigns. This consideration will occur at a later stage, should the project be approved for continuation by the Board of Trustees this coming Saturday.

At any rate, “fearless” will definitely not be used as a singular slogan for Oberlin, or as a substitute for its old adage of “Think one person can change the world? So do we.” Rather, it is a concept that will be incorporated into a larger reframing of Oberlin designed for those unfamiliar with its character.

“I don’t think we’ll ever see ‘fearless’ on its own,” Edwards said. “But from the audiences’ point of view, they will always see ‘fearless’ in images, ideas, descriptions, and words.”

“It depends on us to populate the word with what goes on at Oberlin,” said President Nancy Dye at a College Faculty meeting on Wednesday. Dye added that any use of the “fearless” theme will have to be placed in the context of Oberlin’s long history of fearlessness in thought, expression and action.

Edwards was hired in the fall of 2005 in response to a concern that Oberlin needed to speak with “one voice that is persuasive, distinctive and powerful in the marketplace” — as put by the project description from the Office of College Relations.

Edwards spent months on campus talking to students and faculty, investigating the mission statements of other “peer institutions” and interviewing over 200 prospective applicants and guidance counselors.

Edwards’s research also appears to have been in line with the goals set forth by the Strategic Plan, especially that of promoting diversity on campus.

“Oberlin has long been concerned about recruitment and retention of African American students, and it wants to put its best foot forward there, so that was one of the motivations behind this work,” Edwards said, explaining that he had spoken to many African American students, current and prospective, during the interviewing phase of his research.

In the end, Edwards concluded that indeed, Oberlin’s message did seem too vague or too similar to those of other colleges.

But despite what appear to be good intentions, some students and faculty have expressed concern about the new marketing direction in which Oberlin seems to be headed.

“What goes with ‘fearless?’ Fearless by itself is stupidity,” said Professor of Politics Ron Kahn. “‘Fearless’ is not a bad idea if the word is placed directly with the qualities that are true to Oberlin College. At the presentation, we got a good sense of what they have done to come up with the word, but a bad sense of how it’s going to be incorporated into a campaign.”

College junior and Student Senator Ezra Temko had similar concerns.

“I love the old motto, and that’s definitely what drew me to the school, and it makes me ‘fearful’ to change that,” Temko said. “I think it’s a disservice to this school’s foundation to get rid of a motto that people were attracted to.”

In particular, the notion of “branding” that Edwards used to describe the process of creating a distinct image for Oberlin struck a chord. “Branding” is a marketing term that is used to signify the delibrate evocation of certain ideas from a word or image.

“Many of us laughed nervously about the idea of ‘branding’ the College,” said Professor of Economics Ken Kuttner. “The word makes us seem too much like a box of soap.”

Student Senator and College junior Matthew Adler echoed, “It struck me as a little strange.”

There were further anxieties revealed at last night’s class trustees open forum among students who feared the arrival of a marketing expert indicated a broader effort to “change” Oberlin (see Students, p. 1). Administrators, however, are quick to offer clarifications that might quell these fears.

Al Moran, the vice president for college relations, emphasized that only part of the marketing measures suggested by Edwards incorporate the “fearless” message.

“A percentage of what Mark Edwards is proposing to the trustees is the resurrection of helpful communication vehicles that existed before and are now no longer in existence because of budgetary cuts,” Moran explained. “Of the remaining components, we have view books and search pieces and posters and postcards that are currently being worked on, and [Edwards] is helping to redirect the message on those.”

While this is the first time a marketing consultant has been brought in, Nicholas Jones, the Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, stressed that bringing in consultants of other natures is nothing new to Oberlin.

“There’s definitely more than usual this year in terms of internal planning,” Jones said. “Consulting is nothing new. We’ve had a long history of bringing in consultants. We can be rightly skeptical of outside consultants, but we need them so as not to be insulated.”

“I hope we can get the most out of this, and recognize the things we don’t have the expertise to accomplish,” he continued. “We cannot possibly see how people see us outside the College.”

Edwards added, “‘Fearless’ is just an idea right now; it hasn’t manifested itself into something real yet. A lot of questions people have will be answered later on.”

Edwards appeared tonight before the Board of Trustees to present his plan in preparation for their vote on Saturday. Moran described the presentation as “solid” and said that the board members seemed “very receptive.”

Today, the budget and finance committee will also have a meeting to discuss the funding of the next phase of the “fearless” campaign, should the trustees vote in favor of its implementation. Up until this point, all the work has been paid for by trustee donations, but should the plan get the green light this weekend, more money must be accounted for beyond these gifts.

Skeptics and supporters of “fearless” will have to wait and see if and how this concept will materialize and if it will be successful in showing people the “essence” of Oberlin. Edwards, for his part, is steadfast in his convictions about the message.

“From my point of view, I see ‘fearless’ 100 times a day here on this campus,” said Edwards. “I see it when a Conservatory student gets up and goes out onto a stage and performs a piece of music at a high level. I see it when students and faculty are working together in a whole range of disciplines. I see this attitude regularly, and there are lots of stories we can tell that are really part of the Oberlin experience every single day. An Oberlin education is what’s fearless.”


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