UF is all ears
Published: Sunday, January 9, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 9, 2005 at 1:51 a.m.
Will Mickey Mouse and Goofy join Albert on the sidelines at University of Florida football games?
But administrators at the state's flagship university believe they could learn a thing or two from the Walt Disney Co., a multibillion-dollar organization that has grown into one of the world's most recognizable brands.
Jane Adams, UF's new vice president of university relations - herself a former Disney public relations executive - is looking for advice on ways to showcase the university.
She has hired a colleague from her previous employer now working in his own private firm. She has also hired his partner, an advertising and marketing consultant, whose clients have included cereal giant General Mills, McDonald's, Pepsi and, of course, Disney.
While the marketing team's job will be to conduct an image makeover of sorts, don't look for a fantasyland transformation of UF.
The two men from Disney have been tapped to create a logo and a message that captures the essence of the university's far-reaching parts, including agriculture extension, the arts, biomedical research, engineering and sports, among others.
An effective marketing campaign could help push UF into the ranks of the University of California-Berkeley, the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor and the University of Virginia - the three top-ranking public institutions in the country as determined by U.S. News & World Report. The magazine uses a statistical formula plus a more-subjective survey of administrators to determine the top schools.
"It's about understanding the goals of the university for growth in terms of improving quality and moving up in the rankings of other universities," said Adams, who joined the university last fall. "And part of that is understanding that we are doing the best we can to communicate our strengths."
In a state with 11 public universities - all but one with Florida in its name - UF has struggled to distinguish itself nationally as a premier research institution, even though it is the state's largest public university and arguably conducts the lion's share of the state's cutting-edge medical, engineering and biological research.
With nearly 48,000 students, UF boasts the fifth-largest enrollment of universities nationwide and ranks 50th by U.S. News of all institutions, both public and private. At the same time, more than a decade of powerhouse sports teams have propelled the university into the national spotlight on a regular basis.
Despite earning bragging rights in certain areas, administrators concede, UF's academic reputation is hampered by classes that are too large, low faculty pay grades and an undersized graduate program.
Spending $85,000 on a marketing plan developed by folks who set Mickey and Goofy sailing on the new Disney Cruise Line will become one piece of an overall strategy to overcome some of the obstacles believed to be holding back UF.
Universities across the country are embarking on similar exercises as competition for cream-of-the-crop students heats up among top institutions. Higher education institutions are taking a second, and in some cases a third or fourth look at how students, educators and the public perceive them.
Universities are hiring professionals from the private sector to run marketing and communications offices. UF President Bernie Machen plucked Adams from Disney. UF trustee Dianna Morgan also retired as a Disney executive.
And they're seeking input from professional firms on how best to position themselves in a market chock-full of equally distinguished institutions.
In a parallel move, Shands HealthCare, the UF-affiliated medical system, launched in November a campaign designed to strengthen the public's understanding of the organization of hospitals tied to the university.
Like UF, Shands has had its own difficulties in developing a unified message and creating brand identity, officials at the university have said privately.
Television, radio and print ads for "UF & Shands" will continue for about two years, said Lance Skelly with the Shands marketing and public relations department.
Lewis Communications of Birmingham, Ala., was hired to conduct research and develop a plan. Skelly would not say how much Shands has spent, saying the information is proprietary.
The two men hired to help shape a singular identity for UF have 62 years of experience with blue-chip companies - firms so well-known to the average person that they're household names.
Howard Pickett, who formed the Lido Brand Strategy Group in Newport Beach, Calif., last year, held numerous marketing and sales leadership positions at Walt Disney World, Disneyland California, Disneyland Paris and the Disney Cruise Line, according to biographical information provided by the university.
As vice president of marketing, Pickett oversaw the launch of the Disney Cruise Line in 1998. Two years later, he was shipped off to Paris to help address a problem of lagging attendance there. A restructured marketing and sales strategy is credited with turning around a two-year decline in business.
His partner, Pete Hanley, worked his way up the ladder at various New York advertising firms before being appointed president of Arnold Communications in McLean, Va., in 1993. At Arnold, Hanley was credited with lifting the agency from 13th to No. 1 in the market in three years.
Money to pay the consultants is coming from the UF Foundation, the university's fund-raising arm, Adams said.
But will Pickett's and Hanley's successes in the private sector work in a university setting?
Richard Hesel, a principle in the firm of Art & Science Group, a firm specializing in strategic marketing for colleges, cautions educational institutions from jumping at a quick-fix plan.
"Investments in marketing have paid off for many colleges, but for others they have added up to a colossal waste of money," Hesel wrote in an article for The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Unlike big companies such as Microsoft and Coke, for example, colleges and universities don't have the resources to invest in effective campaigns, Hesel said last week.
Rather, a recognizable brand for a university is developed over a long period of time and encompasses a distinctive set of experiences and benefits available only at that institution.
"Harvard didn't do it by hiring a company to come up with a brand," Hesel said.
Universities are complex institutions serving diverse populations and extremely difficult to brand, he said.
Cornell University may be a case in point.
A corporate makeover of Cornell more than five years ago and outlined in Cornell's alumni magazine resulted in the creation of a new logo - something akin to J.C. Penney's solid-colored logo that encompasses the retailers name in block letters - and a characterization of Cornell as "elite but not elitist."
It garnered extreme criticism by students and alumni after the Ivy League institution dropped significantly in the U.S. News & World Report rankings.
The part-public, part-private university in Ithaca, N.Y., fell from 6th to 14th in the national rankings between 1999 and 2003. And a student group bent on restoring Cornell's traditional image mobilized to correct what they saw as a complete failure.
The findings were summarized in an 8,000-word report and asserted that the university had "an identity crisis."
The report and a new university president hired in 2003 set to revamp Cornell's image by drawing on more than a century of tradition but with contemporary flare, said Mike Powers, director of operations for communications and media relations at Cornell.
The "red box" logo with Cornell's name, which Powers said alumni complained was not "representative of an academic institution," was replaced with a more traditional looking crest last year. A new Web site showcasing Cornell's traditional architecture was unveiled in August, Powers said.
"We took elements of the old but the whole look of the thing is more up to date," he said.
He acknowledges the university has made strides to capture the essence of what Cornell is known for. But he said it is too soon to tell if the new look will have the desired outcome, helping Cornell rise in the U.S. News & World Report rankings.
'A very good product'
While a majority of Pickett's experience comes from private corporations, primarily Disney, Hanley lists among his clients Stanford University. Hanley also has been a member of the board of trustees for Marist College for the past 18 years, which lends him some "academic sensitivity," Pickett said.
"It's still about understanding the target audiences," Pickett said. "It doesn't matter if it's a university or another product."
Pickett and Hanley spent last week on campus interviewing faculty, students and administration to determine UF's strengths, concepts that can be capitalized on in a marketing campaign.
Pickett, a UF graduate, said his initial impressions of the university is that "it is a very good product."
"The university has great academics and a broad and diverse number of things students can avail themselves of," Pickett said.
Athletics, namely football, tends to overshadow branding efforts at many schools, including the University of Tennessee.
The Knoxville-based institution embarked on a public relations mission several years ago to improve its image. After spending $80,000, the hired consultant said the public primarily identified Tennessee with its sports teams rather than its academic and research assets - something some believe could be applied to UF as well.
In building a university brand, which is all of the component pieces of an academic experience, Pickett said sports can't be ignored.
The key, however, he said is to "be sure all the messages are getting out with the proper balance."
A proposal to highlight UF's academic and sports excellence could be unveiled by the end of the spring semester.
Janine Young Sikes can be reached at (352) 337-0327 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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