Drake University hoped a bold, blue "D+" on a direct-mail piece and its admissions Web site would grab the attention of high school kids inundated with same-old, same-old college recruitment material.
What looked like a pretty bad grade was supposed to entice teenagers to take a closer look at the pluses of attending the school in Des Moines, Iowa.
Drake officials didn't anticipate their daring idea getting ridiculed on advertising blogs, angering alumni who complained on Facebook that their degrees had been devalued, or inspiring a local store to market "D+ student" T-shirts to amused Drake students and underachievers alike.
Consider it a cautionary tale for colleges embarking on marketing and branding campaigns designed to set themselves apart in the cutthroat competition to gain prestige and grab their share of a shrinking student pool.
Fifteen years ago, "branding" was virtually unheard of in higher education. The idea of selling college like a luxury vehicle or an expensive cup of coffee was viewed as antithetical to the academic mission.
The new challenge might be this, as Drake has learned: When everyone is trying to stand out, colleges no longer can expect to meet enrollment targets by playing it safe. And pushing the marketing envelope carries risks and rewards.
"Historically, folks really have taken a fairly conservative approach," said Robert Moore, president and CEO of marketing firm Lipman Hearne and author of a book on higher education branding. "We are seeing a bit more out-of-the-box stuff, and I think the jury is still out."
The D+ was intended to introduce a more conventional campaign touting "The Drake Advantage." As Drake officials saw it, their recruits are smart enough to recognize Drake's reputation is better than a D+ grade.
"The idea was to catch prospective students' attention with a symbol that was mildly ironic, that would create a little bit of cognitive dissonance and inspire them to go further with it," said Fritz McDonald, vice president of creative strategy at Stamats, the firm hired by Drake for the campaign.
While campus visits were up year-over-year and surveys showed it caught the attention of high schoolers, the campaign caught the attention of unsympathetic bloggers and alumni six weeks later.
Those who work in college marketing say branding is not a logo or a gimmick, but an identity — a distinctive personality based on core values and promises that can be delivered.
When American University in Washington approved a strategic plan in 2008, branding was part of it.
The team at American came up with the catch phrase "American Wonk." Being a wonk — "know spelled backward" — no longer means just being an insider working behind closed doors, but has broadened to mean someone who is smart, focused, and passionate, said Teresa Flannery, executive director of communications and marketing.
Students arriving back on campus this fall snatched up free T-shirts with 18 versions of the wonk motif, including Green Wonk and Global Wonk.
But not everyone was charmed. Complaints under an online article last month in the campus paper said wonk called to mind a goose being hit over the head with a shovel or a sexual act. Flannery said the university expected a range of reactions.
As for Drake, the reaction there prompted change. By the second week of "D+"-gate, Drake officials had heard enough. The school revealed that the symbol would remain on printed material sent to would-be students but disappear from the Web site where it first attracted wide notice.
"We are an educational institution," Drake president David Maxwell wrote in a Sept. 9 letter to the university community, "and we learn from our experiences."