September 20, 2012

University of South Carolina tweaking its image

The University of South Carolina is shaking its tail feathers in a new marketing campaign aimed at boosting the national reputation of the state’s flagship college.

The “No Limits” slogan and the tail feathers from the Gamecock athletics logo are key features of the campaign, costing nearly $900,000 so far, that has started appearing around USC’s downtown Columbia campus and, eventually, will go nationwide. USC leaders think the marketing effort can enhance the school’s stature by doing a better job of sharing information about its academic programs and innovative projects.

“We are not only South Carolina’s flagship university; we want to be known as one of America’s great public university beacons,” USC president Harris Pastides said Wednesday in his State of the University address.

USC is trying to develop a stature that rivals the much-lauded universities of North Carolina and Virginia.

School leaders recognize they have work to do. Despite improving graduation rates and student-faculty ratios, South Carolina slipped in the latest college rankings by U.S. News & World Report because, in part, it received lower scores in reviews from other colleges. USC was the 55th-ranked public school.

A survey found that North Carolina and Virginia – both Top 5 public schools in the magazine rankings – enjoy better reputations than USC among its students, parents, faculty, alumni and community leaders, said Luanne Lawrence, the school’s vice president of communications, who spearheaded the development of the campaign.

The same survey found USC lagged in being known for innovation and giving personal attention to students. Lawrence blamed the innovation gap on perceptions of the Innovista research campus, which thus far has failed to meet initial expectations. Also, some people might think the school does not give students personal attention, she said, because enrollment has grown by 3,600 in the past five years to help offset shrinking state funding.

“Reputation is a difficult needle to push,” Pastides said after his address Wednesday. “It’s easier for us to know how to improve student-faculty ratios, graduation rates, faculty awards. Eventually, that word will get out. Success will not be measured in a year.”

A national rollout of the school’s new brand should start late next year. Pastides said part of the work could include him going to more “impactful meetings” with other university presidents and provosts.

To start, the marketing campaign will be seen on campus and in the state with banners on the Horseshoe, billboards in various cities and T-shirts sold at the campus bookstore. The effort also includes a new television commercial airing during Gamecock sporting events. The messages tout USC’s top-rated business programs and honors college, and shares students’ success stories.

“We have to teach the campus to brag on itself,” Lawrence said.

New programs also will be the focus of the campaign. They include giving students more real-world experiences that help build their resumes and offering more distance-learning opportunities for “a USC for you no matter where you live,” Lawrence said.

Some of the other work in the campaign included subtle changes to the university’s main logo and opening a university store on King Street in Charleston.

A three-year lease for the store will cost $280,000. The marketing campaign has an additional $300,000 annual price tag for three new personnel and other expenses that is in its second year, Lawrence said. USC has not started buying advertising.

“We will be monitoring every dollar we spend,” Pastides said.

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