Oberlin students gathered in West Lecture Hall Wednesday evening to hear Mark Edwards, the consultant whose firm is behind the “fearless” campaign, describe the process that pointed him to this new motto. Students also came to ask questions — and voice doubts — about the word’s connotations.
The forum was organized by student Senator and junior Colin Koffel in order to give students the opportunity to share their opinions on a matter about which many students feel that they have had no say.
“If one is saying, ‘We are Oberlin. Fearless,’” said Koffel, “one should talk to ‘we,’ the students who make up this fearless Oberlin.”
Massachusetts-based marketing strategist Edwards devoted the first 30 minutes to his power point presentation, “Crafting an Effective Message,” to explaining “how we got to where we got.”
The call for a new marketing strategy sprouted from Oberlin’s desire to “attract the very best student body [it] can,” explained Edwards.
According to Edwards, there is concern about the way Oberlin is currently perceived by prospective students – one prospective Edwards polled described Oberlin as a “weird, music, freak place.” Additionally, Edwards suggested that many students who would likely excel here do not give Oberlin a chance because of the strong, often negative, associations they have with the college.
“Too frequently, Oberlin is skipped over,” said Edwards. “What can we put in the door [that the admissions office opens to prospective students] to keep it from shutting?”
Edwards noted the complications that arise when trying to describe an entire school in a single word or brochure. The goal, he said, was to most clearly communicate “the relevant and true” about Oberlin while engaging high school students and distinguishing it from other colleges.
Throughout the campaign, Edwards pulled from various focus groups. He heard from prospective students (high school students who had shown interest in Oberlin), guidance counselors, current faculty and students and alumni.
He added that special emphasis was placed on reaching out to African-American prospective students.
Edwards displayed his collection of phrases and words used to describe Oberlin. “Weird” showed up again, among other words such as “music,” “social justice” and “academic excellence.”
Edwards, referring to a power- point slide, said, “Academic excellence is the cake. Weird is the icing.”
After what Edwards described to be an extensive process of listening, categorizing, reframing, distinguishing the positive from negative and re-eliciting response, he arrived at these key positive words to describe Oberlin: “aspirational,” “intellectual,” “risktaking” and “personal.” These words were combined into “fearless.”
Edwards said that a similar process of back-and-forth criticism and revision was followed in designing the view-book, although current Oberlin students were not invited to participate in this process.
After his short talk, Edwards invited the audience to ask questions while two students from the Oberlin College Dialogue Center facilitated.
Oberlin students in the audience shared reservations about the new “fearless,” which were frequently supported by audience members through small bursts of applause.
There was a common concern in students that the word “fearless” misrepresents Oberlin students. Some suggested that “brave” or “courageous” might be more appropriate. College senior Chris Boyd was worried that the word “fearless” suggests “courage without thinking.”
Similarly, College senior Brendan Renne suggested that “fearless” might change the image of Oberlin and the people it attracted, creating a new or “macho” perspective.
Edwards replied that desirable students will come to Oberlin no matter what is on the cover of the view-book. Oberlin already has labels, he said, and to move from “weird” to “macho” is too big of a leap. He stressed that the new slogan’s aim is not to enroll a different type of student, “but it will help some folks out with ‘weird.’”
Multiple audience members expressed distaste for the new “fearless” view-book and what they perceived as its vagueness, both in the washed-out, “flashy, MTV-style” pictures and in the lack of informational text.
“If I were a prospective student, the view-book would make me feel that Oberlin thinks I’m dumb,” said Marshall Duer-Balkind, OC ’06, “that I can’t read more than a few sentences and that I like bright, shiny colors. And that deeply offends me.”
Edwards emphasized that the view-book is intended to be one component of a larger information system and not intended to be encyclopedic. He described it as a “15-second commercial,” which gives an idea of Oberlin, and inspires the prospective students to talk to teachers and guidance counselors to then find out what the place is all about.
Edwards said that tests of the old view-book showed that, rather than standing out, it merely dovetailed what other schools were saying.
“[We want] to get people to pay attention,” he said. “If we can get noticed enough so that we stay on the list of 20…ultimately the place needs to sell itself.”
College junior Dave Casserly raised another concern, objecting to Edwards’ listing the “tent-of-consent” and “transgender” in his power point as the “negative” connotations of weird that had cropped up in his research. Other examples were “broken toys” and “gay mecca.” Casserly asked why Oberlin would aim to attract people who might be uncomfortable with these ideas.
Edwards explained that these are part of the Oberlin experience, but not the entire experience.
“The tent-of-consent is not what it’s all about,” he said. “But this is becoming the Oberlin image, it will continue to spiral and we will end up in a place we do not want to be in a few years.”
Edwards explained that the marketing campaign is now just in its first stage. He predicted ongoing tests, feedback and development over the next one to two years.
“It seems like most of the evolution of the material will take place in reaction to the kind of applicants Oberlin considers for admittance into the class of 2011,” said Koffel. “I can promise that I will work with College Relations and Admissions to ensure that Oberlin students have a voice in this process.”