insights (2006-39)

SolUTion to UT’s Identity Problems?

If universities were ranked on the creativity of their advertising, UT would definitely get high ratings for the campaign unveiled last week that bears the university’s orange state-shaped logo as its centerpiece.

Ads that highlight evocative words like fUTure, repUTation and solUTions with the orange letters U and T emblazoned in the center will soon start appearing on billboards, in publications and on television screens across the state.

The TV spot is especially ingenious in the way in which it builds on UT’s pervasive identity as a football power. Viewers are greeted by fireworks emerging from an end zone accompanied by a drum roll from two marching band members. The voiceover intones, “Some say we’re fanatics when it comes to football… Yet most folks don’t realize how much that passion carries over into everything we do.” As the word neUTrons flashes on the screen, the narrative continues, “From our unique partnership with Oak Ridge National Laboratory to the only forensic program of its kind [with a flash-word sleUTh encircled by a microscope], we’re just as devoted to what we do off the field as on the field.” Then, as the campaign’s signature word fUTure appears on the screen, the message concludes, “The University of Tennessee. Changing tomorrow, today.”

The words in print are also chosen well to strengthen recognition of the university and its importance to the state. To wit: “The University of Tennessee is at the center of Tennessee’s future and is uniquely positioned to improve the lives of Tennessee’s citizens everyday. Through our statewide network, UT is the leading provider of education, research, and economic development, and our impact drives the state’s economic, intellectual, social, and cultural advancements.” And along with the big claims are catchy phrases such as, “We don’t just prepare students for the future. We prepare it for them.”

While there’s little doubt in my mind that UT needs to toot its horn and now has quite a bit to toot about, it’s less than clear to me how much impact this nifty campaign will have. Another word with both U and T in it is sustain, and it seems to me that that it will take a sustained effort to make a lasting mark.

Yet the $200,000 budgeted for medial placements in the state’s five major markets will only cover eight weeks worth of advertising. (Another $100,000 went for production costs and $50,000 to the BOHAN ad agency in Nashville, which certainly deserves kudos.) Hank Dye, UT’s vice president for government and public relations, is frank in saying he had to scrape to come up with even this amount, and that nothing more is planned and budgeted beyond the eight-week run. “Our purpose is to provide a jump start, and what we hope will happen is that each campus will then do something on their own,” Dye says. But he suggests that “they will be looking for other ways to continue to further that message such as trying to drive people to their websites.”

To sustain an ad campaign sufficient to have much lasting impact could take well upwards of a million dollars a year. And for an institution that remains starved for operating funds, it’s debatable whether advertising on this scale represents an optimal or even justifiable use of precious funds.

Arguably, such outlays could yield big dividends in terms of eliciting increased funding from the state legislature and private donors. A PowerPoint presentation of the ad campaign’s objectives lists legislators, business leaders and donors as the primary audience. Secondary audiences include current and prospective students, parents and the general public.

The timing of the ad campaign precedes the launch of what’s being heralded as a billion-dollar capital gift campaign over an unspecified number of years. Already, the university has realized upwards of $100 million in annual donations in three of the past four years. Yet if the data contained in U.S. News and World Report ’s latest rankings of universities can be relied upon, only 11 percent of UT alumni are contributing. That’s the lowest of any southern state university and little more than half the average of other SEC schools, let alone such highly ranked state universities as North Carolina and Virginia.

As Dye envisions it, the UT logo-centric lexicon of identity building words will also be incorporated into presentations to alumni meetings, civic groups and other oUTreach gatherings. You can also expect to see the fUTure on pens, mugs and other paraphernalia, some of which were distributed at a campaign kick-off assemblage at Thompson-Boling Arena last week.

Still, in the last analysis, the message conveyed by all these media will only be as good as the university’s ability to fulfill its lofty claims. With the stability that John Petersen has restored to UT’s presidency, and with the state’s fiscal condition much improved, UT really does seem poised to achieve the goals set forth in a strategic plan that Petersen presented to the trustees earlier this year. And their achievement truly would put UT in the upper ranks of public universities, not just the buzzword ratings.