What is Pomona College, really? How can the college distill its identity to a few introductory paragraphs on a website or in an admissions viewbook? How can it effectively communicate the essence of what makes it unique?
Three years ago, when Pomona hired a marketing firm to reevaluate its branding, these questions became the center of a massive debate over the heart of Pomona’s identity that embroiled the campus, spawning, among other things, over a dozen TSL articles and a Pomona Student Union (PSU) panel.
Pomona’s resulting brand can be seen today influencing nearly every aspect of the college’s operation. However, as the Class of 2016 nears graduation, the debate surrounding it teeters on the brink of being lost to institutional memory.
The tensions began on a sunny Thursday in April 2013, when Mark Neustadt, Principal of Neustadt Creative Marketing, gave an open presentation in Frank Dining Hall’s Blue Room bluntly relaying the results of his firm’s research on Pomona and suggesting a new brand strategy for the college.
Neustadt recently spoke with TSL via video chat from his Baltimore office. He said that the presentation was originally intended for Board of Trustees members and expressed regret that the administration was not more careful in rolling out the new brand to students.
“That definitely could have been handled differently,” he said.
In the presentation, Neustadt said, “To the extent that a narrative exists, it revolves around the theme of happiness, laid-backness, balance, and ease.”
This “ease narrative” created several problems in his view. For instance, “students do not follow through on passions and commitments because follow-through would interfere with the prevailing culture.”
It also created “a schism within the student culture, between those who believe they have more focus”—often students of color or low-income students—“and those who are more chill.”
For these reasons, he recommended that Pomona push back against the ease narrative and seek to replace it with a narrative that depicts the archetypal Pomona student as driven rather than laid-back.
This idea was met by harsh criticism in TSL’s opinions section. Emily Wasserman PO ‘15 mocked Neustadt’s prioritization of success over happiness.
“I foolishly believe that learning how to balance one’s academic pursuits with one’s social life, work, and extracurricular interests is an extremely important part of learning how to be a functioning adult in society,” she wrote. “I think, naïvely, that a pleasant and cooperative undergraduate experience can be a better preparation for life than four years of grade-grubbing and backstabbing. Just like a five-year-old, I like being happy, since I don’t understand the truth: Happiness is inversely proportional to success.”
A commenter who identified as Shannon wrote on a similar TSL article that “There’s a discrepancy between the priority system of these marketers—money and achievement—and the one that we currently have now—happiness, whatever that means to each individual student.”
While Neustadt noted that the concept of drive can apply to scholarly or intellectual rather than career ends, he does not believe it can apply to happiness.
“Think about how the phrase ‘drive for happiness’ would sound to someone from China…think about what it would mean to a Latino,” he said in his interview with TSL. He is a graduate of the University of Chicago and Johns Hopkins University, two schools known for their intense, often-stressful atmosphere.
Another aspect of Neustadt’s presentation that drew criticism was the marketing steps it recommended to implement the brand.
Then Senior Director of Communications Mark Wood was quoted in an April 20, 2013 TSL article assuring students that the rebranding was about communicating Pomona’s identity, not changing it: “It’s not so much about building a brand as it [is] understanding what your brand is…What we learn about our brand won’t change what we offer.”
Seth Allen, Vice President and Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid, echoed this sentiment in a recent interview.
“The brand didn’t change the college,” he said.
However, according to Neustadt, “one reason that you do this work is that you want to move an institution.”
Indeed, he included in his presentation two strategies for changing Pomona’s culture.
Firstly, he suggested various “internal marketing” steps, proposing that administrators use everything from commencement addresses to sponsor training to fight the ease narrative and promulgate the new brand among current students and other members of Pomona’s community. He recommended emphasizing three areas of Pomona that exemplified key aspects of the new brand: athletics (drive), the arts (passion), and community engagement (desire to create change). Some proposed marketing steps, such as increasing athletic recruitment budgets, involved changes not just to messaging but also to substantive aspects of the college’s operation.
Secondly, he identified admissions as an even more effective avenue for fostering change.
“In a remarkably brief period of time, one can inflect the community toward the brand strategy by bringing new students to campus with new expectations about their experience,” he said in the presentation.
Wasserman saw this as a betrayal.
“We’ve been emphasizing happiness and balance to our incoming students for years, so current Pomona students are pretty much done for, but when the newest batch comes in, we can get to work on their soft, malleable little minds. They will understand that they’re not here to make friends, or find a balance, or enjoy their undergraduate years. They are here to work, and work, and work some more, and then rack up some achievements that will look nice in 12-point Garamond on their chic, slightly off-white resumés,” she wrote.
Marylou Ferry is Pomona’s Vice President and Chief Communications Officer; her office is in charge of tasks such as managing the college’s social media accounts and creating content for the website (which helps communicate the new brand by, for instance, highlighting “driven students” on its admissions page).
She stressed the importance of authenticity in branding.
“You don’t try to make something what it isn’t. That’s a huge disconnect. It’s a huge disservice,” she said.
However, both she and Allen noted that branding should also be aspirational.
“We want to portray what Pomona actually is with a little hint of where it’s going in the future,” Allen said.
Ferry noted that, as an external source, Neustadt’s firm was able to see things Pomona could not have on its own.
“It’s really easy to get siloed in your own world and think you know what people are thinking,” she said.
Neustadt said that institutions, when left to their own devices, tend to place too much emphasis on internal audiences as opposed to external audiences (mainly because the former are more easily contacted to provide feedback), and that his firm was able to help correct for this bias. He ultimately felt that the project had “a great balance” between different interest groups. Allen added that contracting an external source also made the most sense administratively and budgetarily.
However, this approach also raised concerns about the advisability of allowing an outsider to define Pomona’s character. Mark Bailey, Pitzer College Vice President for Communications, Marketing and Public Relations, was quoted in a May 2013 article in the Claremont Port Side as saying “We’re not going to a third party source and asking them to tell us what the Pitzer brand is. We know what it is.”
Some students also questioned the extent to which Neustadt was able to understand Pomona after only a brief eight-day visit during which he relied solely on small focus group interviews to get to know current students (in contrast to alumni and prospective students, which he both surveyed and interviewed). Kevin Tidmarsh PO ’16 went so far as to conduct a student survey which garnered responses from one out of every eight students at the time. He found that, on average, they disagreed with the statement that “Pomona’s marketing focuses too much on the ‘fun’ parts and not enough on the actual education.”
There are limits to the extent to which Pomona is able to mold its brand. For instance, Ferry noted that the campus’s largely traditional architecture is somewhat inconsistent with its focus on the future. Being ranked by Forbes as the “Top College in America” in 2015 can also shape the college’s image in unpredictable ways.
Pomona will likely wait a few years before reevaluating its brand again, according to Ferry. She hopes to continue striving to reconcile Pomona’s identity with the image it projects of itself.
“The heart of Pomona is not something we’re going to change in communications. What we do is share that heart,” she said.