In Your Face
July 11, 2014
Each fall, Boston's population swells by a quarter-million. With 34 colleges and universities in Boston proper, and many more in the surrounding area - from Harvard University, the nation's oldest, to the Urban College of Boston, founded in 1993 - the city expands and contracts as students come and go.
With so many rivals close by, the city's colleges and universities must jostle for elbow room. Two private institutions - Wheelock College, an 850-student predominantly female college, and Suffolk University, a 9,000-student institution with working-class roots - have launched unusual marketing campaigns in a bid to grab attention. Both appeal to working-class students in the region, for whom any private institution may appear expensive compared to public options.
Wheelock has eschewed the well-trodden images of smiling students sitting on a grassy quad. Instead -- on its website, on billboards and on the sides of Boston buses -- the college has opted for black-and-white close-ups of unsmiling students, framed by the words: "Are you tough enough?"
Suffolk's strategy is more irreverent. One ad jabs at snobby students: "while most of our students don't have trust funds, they do have a work ethic." Another ad declares: "Suffolk students rely on their will to succeed, not their father's will."
Suffolk's marketing effort, which includes radio spots, TV commercials, outdoor billboards and print ads in The Boston Globe, is the university's first branding campaign in eight years. And the "Tough Enough?" venture is the first advertising campaign in Wheelock's history.
"[Wheelock] is a culture where they didn't understand marketing," said Stephen Dill, Wheelock's marketing manager, who arrived at the college in 2011. "We've never really done advertising. Word of mouth had been more than enough for 125 years."
Elizabeth Scarborough, the chief executive of SimpsonScarborough, an agency that did marketing research for Wheelock, said university-wide branding campaigns were a fairly recent innovation for higher education in general.
"Ten to fifteen years ago, most colleges and universities weren't even doing any marketing," she said. "They were doing a lot of communicating regarding recruitment and fund-raising. But they really weren't implementing comprehensive university-wide marketing campaigns."
The Boston institutions' forays into branding reflect not only the increased importance of reputation-based advertising in higher education, but also the accelerating pressure for colleges and universities to carve out niches and market themselves in unexpected ways.
"Most of the advertising in this industry is kind of mediocre in my opinion," said Ellis Verdi, the owner of DeVito/Verdi, the Manhattan-based ad agency that created Suffolk's campaign. "If your advertising looks institutional and boring, I would tell a student that's fair warning about the school. The advertising in and of itself is a presentation of who you are. It should be provocative, it should be smart, it should be witty."
Historically Female, But Not Delicate
Founded in 1888 as a training school for kindergarten teachers, Wheelock graduates a disproportionate number of educators, social workers and child advocates -- as the college's mission of "improving the lives of children and families" might lead one to expect.
But these are not strictly female professions, and Wheelock is no longer a women's college -- although it is 90 percent female.
"A lot of people had incorrect impressions of Wheelock," Dill said. "There were still people who thought it was a girls' school." Others confused the college with Wheaton, a liberal arts college in Norton, Mass.
The "Tough Enough" rebrand, which Wheelock incorporated into its recruiting materials in fall 2013 and extended off-campus in mid-March, seeks to change attitudes not just about Wheelock, but also about the child-oriented vocations the college emphasizes.
Since 2010, Wheelock had been using the tagline "inspire a world of good." Adding three words - "tough enough to" - marked a major shift in tone.
"What I knew is the materials that we used previously really didn't describe Wheelock," Wheelock President Jackie Jenkins-Scott said. "You'd see these wonderful photos of smiling blue-eyed blond-haired girls sitting in a circle with kids reading a book. It was one image of Wheelock, but not the only image of Wheelock."
Some people at the college, as well as alumni, initially bristled at the word "tough," Jenkins-Scott said. Some worried that the word connoted physical rather than internal strength, or suggested femininity was a bad thing.
"Tough for me means resilience, it means strength, it means character," she said. "Very often alumni who've been teaching in classrooms for 20 or 30 years, they'll say, ‘I'm a tough old bird.' I developed a comfort level with that word by listening to our alumni and how they described themselves."
The images, too, were difficult to get right. Dill said some of the initial imagery was "too grim, too physical."
"We realized that this was a subtle but important nuance," he said. "We couldn't have faces that looked mean. We couldn't have faces that looked depressed. We had to have just a little bit of a smile, just a little bit of a curve."
Wheelock's initial plan for the campaign budgeted 90 percent of its funds for offline marketing and 10 percent for online, said Jeremi Karnell, the chief executive of Beehaus, a marketing agency that helped the college develop its strategy.
"We flipped it around," Karnell said. So far, 70 percent of the campaign's budget has gone to online marketing, such as targeted ads on Pandora.
The campaign cost half a million, Dill said.
Wheelock officials credited the branding effort with increased enrollment for the coming fall. The 300-student class entering in fall 2014 is 35 percent larger than the class that entered in fall 2013, college officials said. Male applications rose 20 percent from last year. Web traffic and campus visits have also increased.
Adrian Haugabrook, Wheelock's vice president for student engagement and success, said boosting male enrollment was not the campaign's primary aim. Nonetheless, the university hopes to be 20 percent male by 2020, he said - and a new, grittier image might help.
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