Tuesday, September 7, 2010

PR Fail: Drake University Scores D+ with Horrid Campaign

In the midst of one of the worst economies in history, universities are reassuring students and parents that they are the best at preparing junior for the job market. So it would seem bizarre and perhaps insane that a school would instead seek to position itself as hip and "ironic." It would look even crazier if that same college was marketing itself as barely above a complete failure. Enter Drake University and their woefully misguided "D+" marketing campaign. Drake is apparently a real school (we thought it was one of those things like "Chubb" or "ITT Institute" that advertise on the subway) with real ambitions.

We became aware of this PR trainwreck via one of our favorite sites, PR Newser, and we really couldn't have said it any better than they did:
Wow. Drake University has launched a new marketing campaign in which the school touts the value of its educational offering by promoting the "D+ Advantage." According to Yahoo! News, students and faculty have pointed out that a D+ really isn't the image a university might want to project. One would think the school or its outside PR help (!) would've thought of that. Nevertheless, the school is sticking with it. Good luck with that. 
The Gawker-esque snark is not misapplied in this case. It is pretty much incredibly shocking that ANYONE would think this was a good idea (the university "marketing" people or the PR agency that is helping them).

The Yahoo News story goes on to say:
However, Drake officials are standing by the D+ campaign -- which college officials crafted with outside PR contractors. Defenders of the ad blitz described it as "edgy and intriguing" in a letter to faculty and staff this week. The letter explained that the campaign "was designed to catch the attention of high school students who are bombarded with college and university materials to the point that they are often in information overload and unable to differentiate among the many institutions that have contacted them." The letter didn't explain just why an educational institution would want to attract a corps of students lacking the ability to distinguish among institutions of higher learning, but that presumably is the research domain of an equally edgy focus-group team.
The letter referred to is a desperate rationalization/damage control piece:

The Drake Advantage alone is not unusual, but the D+ graphic is distinctive because it's surprising and intriguing to prospective students. The D+ was not designed to stand alone or represent a grade. Instead, it was designed to be paired with prose and draw attention to the distinctive advantages of the Drake experience. 
Admission counselors using Drake Advantage materials in the field have reported that the campaign is generating extremely positive feedback from prospective students.  Our experience in the survey and in the field suggests that the kind of students whom we want to attract to Drake easily understand and appreciate the irony of the D+, and that it is having the intended effect of encouraging students to find out more about what makes Drake so special.
The school wants to stand out, we can understand that. BUT, to try and stand out by looking "edgy" (as defined by a university marketing committee and a PR firm, not the real world) is so far removed from sensible it's not even funny. In this economy, new world order and job market, shouldn't you maybe try to stand out by offering something reassuring from students about to dedicate 4 years of studies and countless piles of cash to your school? How about standing out by doing the best damned job preparing students to have successful adult lives? Or maybe that's just not cool and edgy enough for the geniuses at Drake.

Drake says they are looking for students who appreciate irony. All we can say is we hope current students/graduating into the job market students appreciate that the whole world is laughing at their school. Nice branding, indeed!

Thanks for reading.
Jonathan Gardner

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