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SOU unveils branding plan

ASHLAND — Southern Oregon University will be marketed for its "immersion learning," creative and original thinking and outdoor recreational opportunities, according to a branding plan unveiled Tuesday to staff and students.

It was put together by SimpsonScarborough, a Washington, D.C., marketing firm specializing in higher education, after eight months of research and meetings with local focus groups.

Chief Executive Officer Elizabeth Scarborough said while SOU is noted for many things, including its sustainability program, theater-rich environment and skilled faculty, branding demands that it focus on qualities other schools lack — and that make SOU stand out from the pack.

"The position statement (branding) drives the development of all marketing strategies, establishing a promise that the university fulfills, describing simple, accurate, relevant attributes that make SOU different," said Scarborough, adding that when people hear the school's name, these become "associations" in their minds.

All secondary qualities should be made to serve the main selling points, Scarborough said.

SOU's three distinctive qualities will be incorporated into recruiting literature, Web sites and any school publication by the start of fall term. Faculty, staff and student leaders will be instructed to sound the themes in their public contacts, said Christine Florence, SOU executive director of marketing and communications.

The concept of immersion learning will be emphasized in SOU's community-based programs, interdisciplinary degrees, internships and Internet or distance learning.

SOU's association with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which has enhanced the Theater Arts program, should be used as an example of the atmosphere of creative and original thinking that the university is known for, Scarborough said.

And instead of listing recreational opportunities in the area, these will be made part of a message that Southern Oregon's natural beauty and recreation are a lifestyle that is integral to the SOU educational experience, she said.

For its next phase, SOU's branding project will be taken over by Edward Sirianno, president of Creative Communication Associates of Albany, N.Y., for "creative concepting" — development of speeches, copy, images, photography and design.

"This statement (branding) provides the institution with the opportunity to distinguish itself from the market and we're going to take six to nine months to develop the Web site" and other materials, said Sirianno, who visited SOU Tuesday for the first time.

Branding is a two-edged sword, cutting out some of the market but vigorously taking in other people who respond to the message and want to be part of it, said Scarborough. She cited as an example the man who buys a Harley motorcycle, wears the shirt and tattoo and wants everyone to know it's his life and he likes the "edge" it gives him.

"You want that edge. Many colleges dull that edge and become watered down. You want to be powerfully attractive to some and not to others," said Sirianno.

Added Scarborough, "You have to be comfortable with who you are and wear it. You want your brand to repel the wrong kind of people and not be apologetic about it."

She cited the Virginia Military Institute, which considers its education an extreme sport and boasts, "We Dare You."

"To do that, you have to make sure you appeal to a large enough audience and we know, from our research, that SOU does," she said.

Deborah Myers, director of SOU student activities and leadership, said the branding is "extremely important and it gets across that we're more than just a great place to live."

Myers added that SOU "has struggled with who we are and there are tons of perspectives but this (branding) gets it across."

Retired professor Billie Raye Erlings called the branding strategy "the right direction to move, as it presents SOU to the world with a well-formed image of how we're different from the others."

To those in the audience who may have doubts about excluding some potential students, Scarborough said, "You don't have to worry about being different; you have to worry about if you're the same as the others."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.