Reflections on the University of Oregon Branding Initiative
Twenty-two years ago at the outset of my career I published an article in The Journal of College Admissions that would turn out to be a manifesto. The piece, titled Is Marketing Good for Higher Education?, argued that the expansion of higher education marketing was inevitable and that along with this expansion there would be a constant pull toward shallower and shallower presentations and a turning away from the core educational experience of a college or university.
The tendency in college marketing is to address those parts of the higher education experience that the high school student is already aware of – the social environment, the cultural richness and diversity of the campus, vocational outcomes – and to leave enigmatic the core experience of education as too complex to convey. This is good marketing practice. But, such a practice might have detrimental effects on the long-term health of our higher education institutions by highlighting too much the social functions of the university and leaving unarticulated its core educational functions.
I suggested a number of counter-measures: to have faculty representatives directly involved in their institutions’ marketing activities; to make sure administrators involved with marketing were involved in the academic life of the institution not just the administrative; and to commission market research that focused on the core academic experience of college life not just its trappings.
Here we are a little more than twenty years later and I don’t feel at all gratified by my prescience. More and more institutions are now turning to advertising campaigns that are reductive and attention-grabbing. The work is shallow. A case in point is the University of Oregon “If” campaign that the University just retracted at great expense.
My perspective really hasn’t changed much in two decades. I would only add this to what I wrote then: Because of the overriding tendency of higher education marketing toward more sizzle and less substance, it has become a completely viable counter-position to not move in this direction. Institutions have the opportunity to distinguish themselves from the pack by finding creative ways to express the academic function at the core of their institutions. This does require a different kind of work and process. But rest assured there is still a substantial market for academic substance, risk, and rigor, even if many contemporary college marketers don’t seem to appreciate this.