College mounts campaign to create a higher profile

Towson University is spending $390,000 in advertising to heighten its appeal


Towson University's sprawling campus is in a visible location in the heart of the Baltimore County seat, yet the university often feels somewhat invisible.

People certainly have heard of the university that began 139 years ago as a training ground for teachers. But the school hopes to forge a more intimate relationship with business leaders, politicians and others in the community with a new advertising campaign it is launching.

"You need your community to be a part of what you're doing," said Towson President Robert L. Caret. "You need to partner with your community so that they dream with you, so if anybody tries to tamper with your dreams everybody feels it."

Towson joins universities and colleges across the country that are increasing their use of "image campaigns" to stand out in a competitive marketplace for students, private donations and public support.

Towson is also trying to distinguish itself from numerous other colleges and universities in the area, including Morgan State University, Goucher College, Loyola College, the Johns Hopkins University and University of Maryland, Baltimore County. A recent survey by Towson found that while people viewed the university favorably, they weren't certain about its accomplishments or the programs it offers.

"The community, though they have high respect for us, they don't really know us," Caret said. "It's the `local university syndrome.' When you're the university down the street and been there for 140 years, some people never noticed that you changed."

Towson hopes the new campaign, put together by Owings Mills advertising firm MGH, will raise its profile. The $390,000 campaign, launched last week, is the first for the university in five years.

"It definitely increases donated dollars, recruitment and goodwill in general with the community," said Steve Kappler, executive director of consulting at Stamats Inc., a Cedar Rapids, Iowa, firm that provides consulting services to about 100 colleges and universities a year.

The radio spots, airing on WBAL, sound more like National Public Radio documentaries than commercials. The ads highlight Towson programs and include commentary from students and faculty.

One ad features senior fitness centers run by the university. A student talks about the hands-on training the centers provide while a senior citizen talks about the health benefits he is getting. Another focuses on a partnership the university has with the National Federation of the Blind to improve Internet access for the blind using technology that reads the content of Web sites aloud.

"They're trying to distinguish themselves," said Rae Goldsmith, vice president of communications and marketing for the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. Some consultants recommend institutions spend 2 percent to 3 percent of their operating budget on marketing.

The 43-week campaign also features heavy rotation of television commercials, which will air during programs such as Meet The Press and 60 Minutes, and during Ravens football games.

The theme of the commercials is portrayed by buildings without doors to communicate the message that Towson University's campus is open to the community. A professor in a gray skirt and sweater vest teaches a class as the doors are removed. In a separate scene, students stream out of a doorless Stephens Hall, one of the main buildings on campus.

There are also shots of buildings in the metropolitan area, including the Aegon building in downtown Baltimore and Montgomery Park in Southwest Baltimore, where construction workers are removing the doors. One shot is of a house in East Towson, where the door is leaning against the porch and one can peer inside to see a couple having dinner.

Towson University receives nearly 12,000 applicants a year for more than 2,300 freshman spots. It doesn't necessarily need more students, but an image promotion could increase interest from prospective students and thus more applicants, higher education experts said. Colleges are often ranked in various surveys of competitiveness and desirability by the number of applicants they reject.

"Colleges and universities are definitely spending more on advertising and marketing," said Michael Ditchkofsky, president of Yardley Research Group, a higher education consulting firm in Yardley, Pa. "You have to keep up. You have to appear more prestigious."

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