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New initiative aims to attract great minds—and greater funds

Photo by Jesse Colautti

“Although no one is really embarrassed to have gone to (the U of O), it is rare to see a grad scream it at the top of their lungs,” said Matthew Conley, a University of Ottawa marketing graduate in a 2013 Globe and Mail article meant to help people choose a university in Ontario. The statement offered a simple yet revealing comment on his alma mater’s reputation.

On Sept. 15 the university unveiled a new branding campaign, with the mobilizing slogan “defy the conventional,” aimed at getting people screaming about the U of O.

“We’ve been a university that’s quite shy of bragging about itself,” said Louis de Melo, the U of O’s vice-president of external relations. But now, he said, there will be “much more of a strong presence.”

The quest to define the U of O’s brand began two years ago. “We started questioning ourselves,” he said. “Do people know us for what we really are and what we’ve become?”

Since being quoted in the Globe and Mail and graduating from the U of O, Matthew Conley has moved to Calgary. He remembers that while working on a marketing assignment he too had trouble defining the identity of the school.

“We had to come up with a marketing campaign geared to all students,” said Conley. It was a challenging thing because (in) my group, we all kind of sat around and said, well what’s one thing that really unites us on campus?”

A 12-year gap since the university’s last branding campaign had left it with a dated reputation. The university found that most people were unaware of the massive increase in enrolment over the past decade, the scope of researchers’ achievements, and the extent of our bilingualism.

The university plans to reposition itself as it showcases the achievements of staff and students. Over the next six weeks, the campus will be covered with colourful posters marked with “defy the conventional,” focusing on the surprising ways Gee-Gees are coming up with solutions to a multitude of problems.

The U of O will also attempt to increase its visibility by advertising in different publications, including the Fulcrum.

The next phase of the two-year initiative will focus more on specific accomplishments of members of the U of O community.

“We are going to start showing more human faces of the people behind the stories,” said de Melo.

Carissima Mathen is one of the people featured in the campaign, an associate professor specializing in constitutional law. She uses social media to explain Supreme Court decisions in order to make it more accessible to the wider public.

Mathen is pleased by the new campaign, which she said “takes advantage of a number of different kinds of media.”

The successful rebranding of a university is also vital to the success of its faculty, she said. “The work that I’m doing is enhanced by the strength and prestige of the institution where I’m situated.”

According to a recent study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, public funding of Ontario universities as a share of operating revenues has dropped from 79 per cent in 1991 to 55 per cent in 2011.

The new campaign hopes to attract the best researchers and professors—funds usually have a way of following them.

“Certainly, increasing your research capacity will increase dramatically external funding from the funding councils,” said de Melo.

Although the university recently signed a strategic mandate agreement with the provincial government to specialize in five areas, the initiative will highlight accomplishments in every faculty and service, he said.

Throughout the course of the campaign the U of O will monitor the progress through brand councils. The university also wants to include students, “to make sure they are engaged in the process,” said de Melo.

Conley said of his U of O degree, “It’s not something that hurts, but it’s not something that’s quite as recognizable.” He’s found the university’s Alumni Association to be not as active as other schools.

That’s why Conley was surprised when he received an email from the association on Monday. “I’m just happy that it is happening,” he said.