University of Oregon scales back rebrand to academics’ delight

‘Bold move’ wins praise from one expert who says there is ‘excessive inefficiencies and waste’ in US higher education marketing

January 25, 2016

By Kellie Woodhouse, for Inside Higher Ed


The University of Oregon’s decision to cut back its multimillion-dollar branding campaign has many faculty at the institution cheering.

The university has spent some $5 million (£3.5 million) in a campaign to rebrand itself, and until recently had the intention to spend another $15 million.

But officials announced last week that the university is changing course. Instead of fund-raising for another $15 million to put toward branding – part of a far-reaching $2 billion fund-raising campaign underway at Oregon – the university is cancelling its existing contract with a marketing firm early and looking for ways to streamline and centralise its internal marketing programmes in an effort to save money.

Kyle Henley, vice-president for university communications at Oregon, said that the university’s original goal of raising a full $20 million toward branding is “not realistic”, and that many of the objectives for which Oregon planned to use outside firms can be accomplished in-house. However, that will require a much more coordinated marketing enterprise than currently exists at the university, where the branding efforts and staffs of most colleges and programmes are separate from the university’s central efforts.

“Working in silos can only get us so far,” he said. “We need to be structured differently, and we need to have more coordination and increased collaboration across campus.”

Henley and Michael H. Schill, who assumed Oregon’s presidency this summer, announced the change of course during a recent faculty governance meeting.

A donor had already contributed $5 million towards Oregon’s branding campaign. Much of those funds were used on a contract with marketing firm 160over90, which produced a campaign centred around the tagline “If”. The campaign aimed to get students interested in the potential opportunities of an Oregon education. The university opted to exit its contract with 160over90 early, which ultimately saved Oregon a few hundred thousand dollars, according to Henley.

The change of course appears to have built goodwill among faculty members, many of whom complained the “If” campaign was too generic.

“The original campaign was inane and insulting, and we were really disappointed that the Board of Trustees and our former president decided to spend that much money on advertising instead of addressing the university's real problems,” said Bill Harbaugh, an economics professor and president-elect of the Oregon’s university senate.

Faculty Input Key

For some faculty members, Oregon’s choice appears to be one that de-emphasises marketing and instead strengthens the core of the institution.

Henley says that while no existing funds are being shifted from branding or marketing to academics, streamlining the university’s communication arm will free up funds that can be used to strengthen academics. The decision, he said, comes at a time when the university is broadly looking at how it can align resources across campus to bolster academic and research endeavours. For example, a plan to cut 2 per cent of the university’s administrative costs is expected to save $3 million annually – money that will be put toward faculty hiring.

And not raising another $15 million towards branding will free the university up to raise more money for academic programmes and faculty hiring, although, as Henley noted, $15 million in a $2 billion campaign is a “drop in the bucket”.

“I’m thrilled with the switch to the focus on research and other academic programmes,” said Robert Kyr, a music professor and former leader of the senate. “I would prefer that monies that are raised would be directed toward research and for teaching and for new facilities as needed, rather than branding.”

Kyr noted how before Schill entered the presidency – and even into his first year – faculty began a strategic planning process aimed at refining the direction of the university. The faculty input in that process was crucial to developing buy-in for university goals, many of which are now widely supported because, according to Kyr, faculty feel that they were listened to and involved in the planning process.

“You have the agreement and enthusiasm and commitment of the faculty because they’ve been included along every step of the way,” Kyr explained. This level of buy-in, he and other faculty members say, was not sought as the university planned the former branding campaign.

“A branding campaign could be very helpful if it is directed toward the kinds of goals that the faculty supports in large measure. There would need to be a step-by-step process with the faculty to determine what it is that we would like branded,” he said. “For me, branding would have to tell our story in regards to the academic mission and goals and priorities.”

This, according to Harbaugh, was not the case with the former Oregon campaign.

“Nobody could figure what it was really about or what about it was specific to the University of Oregon,” Harbaugh said.

Elizabeth Johnson, a partner at the higher education marketing firm SimpsonScarborough, which advises colleges on branding issues but played no role in the Oregon campaign, said in an email that faculty engagement is “essential” to a successful branding campaign.

“They have to understand and appreciate the strategy and the goals otherwise there will always be questions and naysayers in the background that can ultimately lead to the dismantling of the effort. That's pretty much what we’re seeing here,” she wrote.

When Cutting Is Good

 Eric Sickler, a vice-president for client services at Stamats, a higher education marketing firm, which does not work with Oregon, said that many universities “have excessive inefficiencies and waste” in their marketing and communication activities.

“There’s too many buckets of marketing dollars spread across nearly every campus in the country,” he said.

He said that Oregon’s decision to scale back its branding enterprise and reimagine its efforts “is a bold move”. And though less money will be spent on branding, Sickler says that the university’s overall efforts don’t have to suffer.

“Everybody wins. Dollars that arguably have been invested in a wasteful way because of the redundancies across campus can now be funneled into what is the heart and soul of every college and university in the nation, and that is the academic programmes,” he said.

“There’s no denying that it’s incredibly expensive for colleges and universities to compete as marketing entities in the world today. Media is ridiculously expensive and marketing is really a time-intensive enterprise,” Sickler continued. “But if they increase their efficiency, then they don’t really need that much of an investment. That’s the bottom line.”

Henley says that Oregon’s decision to scale back its branding campaign is not an indictment of the branding work done thus far. He praised the current campaign, including the video and other work done by 160over90, as a “strong foundation”, on which he believes Oregon’s in-house marketers can build.

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