The new Western

October 5, 2010 4 Comments »

How feminine is Western? It’s not something most students would think to ask. But a massive rebranding strategy launched this summer intends to find out.

It’s part of a seven month, $265,000 study intended to overhaul Western’s brand using what some have called “unorthodox” methods. One part of the study was a survey sent out in July. It asked, in part, how feminine or masculine some universities are.

“Does it raise eyebrows? Yes. Does it work? Yes,” said Kevin Goldthorp, Western’s vice-president external, who has led the project since joining the University last year.

He called it the largest study Western has ever conducted into researching its brand. Past surveys asked about academics and student life. Goldthorp said this new approach gets down to an emotional level.

“None of us can define, in a sentence, what Western is,” Goldthorp said.

The research looks at rational and emotional opinions about Western. It also looks at feelings surrounding peer universities in Canada and the U.S. The cost of the project also covers international survey work, third-party sources and one-on-one interviews, according to Goldthorp.

The data will help Western form a kind of internal mission statement — an overarching “guide post” that will influence all of Western’s public messages, Goldthorp said.

“Every time we have to write a headline, write a story up for the Alumni Gazette, every day you visit the home page, we’ll make decisions based on the outcome of this research,” he said, adding everything from the tone of the words to the types of images Western uses will be influenced by these results.

The research and its price tag are being discussed just as Western is negotiating contracts with its largest faculty union, the University of Western Ontario Faculty Association. The group’s monthly publication, the Faculty Times, criticized the survey in their September issue.

They took a screenshot of the masculine-feminine question and asked whether this kind of information was worth the expense.

Faculty Times asks, are surveys like this really the place Western’s ‘scarce’ dollars need to go?” the publication read.

Rebecca Coulter, professor in the faculty of education and a UWOFA member, took Goldthorp and the administration to task at Western’s senate meeting last week, demanding to know the cost of the survey. She also wanted an explanation for the unorthodox questions, saying she received around 100 complaints from faculty and alumni.

“I think faculty originally treated it as just one of those ridiculous things that gets done. But as you begin to think about it […] it’s the principle of the thing,” she said after the meeting. “We lost nine people in the faculty of education in the last round of cuts.”

Goldthorp disclosed the $265,000 bill in a memo to the senate on Monday. He said the cost is an investment towards meeting Western’s fundraising goals.

“It will help us generate hundreds of millions of dollars more in this decade,” he said, referring to Western’s $500 million fundraising campaign, which launched a year ago under his watch.

But for UWOFA, the price tag carries a burden. Early in their negotiations with administration, UWOFA fired back against the idea that a salary freeze could be imposed on its members.

“Learning that [the survey] cost as much as it did is like putting salt on the wound,” Compton said. “What it indicates is that the University has money, they have quite a lot of it.”

Compton also criticized the research because the company hired to conduct the study has focused on the private sector.

He said it’s a perspective that doesn’t fit with the academic world.

“This is the type of survey that’s done to sell Coke,” he said. “It’s the type of survey that’s used to find ways to move product off a shelf. That’s not what we’re trying to build here with a world-class university.”

Western hired Toronto-based Level5 Strategic Brand Advisors to conduct the research from over 20 competing firms. Ian Madell, the managing director for Level5, said there are few differences between brands at public and private levels.

“A brand is not exclusive to the commercial world. Witness the clients we work with. It’s not just about selling. Products are not the only brands, services are also brands.”

He said Level5 has also worked with similar groups like Branksome Hall — an all girl’s school in the GTA — and the Ontario Government.

Like all Canadian universities, Western competes for government dollars, research grants and student enrollments. Goldthorp said the rebranding strategy can improve Western’s reputation with these groups, meaning more funding.

“Let’s be clear. We have to compete and justify our dollars every single day, just like every hospital has to justify its dollars,” he said.

Data from the survey will be combined with other research tools over the next several months. But Western has already collected some data and has uncovered a few answers to their original questions.

“Western is characterized by our respondents as typically more male in our behaviours,” Goldthorp said of the masculine-feminine question. “I would argue that it’s very important consumer behaviour, whether you’re portraying yourself as a feminine organization or a masculine organization.”

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