When Branding Goes Bad

Suffolk University 6/14

Creating a brand’s image is the most difficult task a marketer will ever take on. What do you really stand for? What makes you different from other choices? And most importantly, what do people feel about this difference. It’s a huge responsibility. Creates icons when it’s right. But boy can it hurt when it goes wrong. Suffolk University in Boston found that out the hard way.

So here’s the scoop:

The Background: Higher education is big business. In Boston, you’ll find a total of 85 colleges or universities including the best of the best, like Harvard and MIT. But with simply so much quality, in recent years, marketing campaigns have become a necessity in order for schools to create a point-of-difference, to carve out niches and market themselves to prospective students.

Suffolk University: is one one those 85, with a 9,000+ student population in downtown Boston, with strong working-class roots.

The Challenge: How to be considered along with Boston’s most elite institutions, yet somehow stand out, all the while, continuing to appeal to working-class students.

So What Happened:

June 2014 — During the key “college shopping” window, Suffolk launches an edgy, new campaign developed by a “hot” New York Ad Agency know for it’s attention-getting headlines. It is the university’s first branding campaign in eight years.

It positions Suffolk as anti-elite — “Suffolk students rely on their will to succeed, not their father’s will” and “A university whose students have their nose to the grindstone instead of stuck up in the air.”

July 2014 — Negative reviews flood social media criticizing Suffolk’s campaign for dissing competitive schools and even its own students. Transit ads are vandalized.

August 2014 — Facing budget declines and enrollment challenges, Suffolk University president James McCarthy leaves abruptly.

September 2014 — New interim president, Norman Smith (credited for saving NY’s Wagner College from demise) halts the highly visible ad campaign.

February 2015 — Close to the admission application deadline, a revamped campaign is launched, developed by a new marketing agency, that totally shifts direction and takes the high road to position Suffolk as a “success story” using student and alumni profiles.

Accentuates a positive image and reputation. Tone and manner is closely aligned with Harvard and MIT — “Where one Boston success story can inspire another.”

What happens next remains to be seen…

Suffolk University 2/15

REALITY CHECK:  Be careful when you decide to be “bold” and brand yourself by taking on (READ: disparaging) the competition.  At $50-$60K per year, the cost of college tuition makes choosing a University a serious decision and not a laughing matter. Gotta ask, what were they thinking?!














This entry was posted in Advertising, Branding, Controversy, Marketing Tactics, Reality Check. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to When Branding Goes Bad

  1. Betsy Kent says:

    As usual, you get right to the heart of the matter…”What were they thinking?” Thanks for sharing this. Betsy

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