2009 Recruitment Season starts with an OUF!
Ken Steele’s annual field report from the Ontario Universities’ Fair, the largest postsecondary exhibition in North America, provides a sampling of guerrilla marketing tactics, new brands and university recruitment campaigns.
A good deal of the exhibits, campaigns, marketing materials and viewbooks of Canadian universities remain consistent year over year, so check out my field reports from the 2006 OUF, 2007 OUF, and 2008 OUF. This blog will just summarize what was new and interesting at the 2009 OUF, which ran at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, September 25-27th.
Although I don't have official numbers, rumour has it that attendance was significantly down on the Friday, when high school students used to be bused from school to attend. (Now, although they have a PD Day, they seem to be finding other things to do.) Nonetheless, on Saturday and Sunday, when many teens attend with their parents, traffic was much better, and in all the event drew about 116,000 people, according to one estimate. This makes it the largest post-secondary fair in North America by a wide margin.
University trade show booths represent a significant financial investment, so no wonder they are amortized over many years. Many Ontario universities use their booths just once a year, for the OUF. Some, like Wilfrid Laurier's distinctive all-purple exhibit, are veterans of the OUF and have seen a decade or more of use, albeit with some photographic updates from time to time. The past few years have seen quite a few new exhibits, and this year is no exception.
Newly-independent Algoma University, in Sault Ste Marie Ontario (formerly an affiliate of Laurentian University in Sudbury) appeared in its own booth for the first time at last year's OUF (accompanied by a mock-booth for fictitious "Colossal U".) This year, the Algoma brand has become more defined and the exhibit much more professional -- and somehow Algoma lucked out and was positioned immediately inside the exhibit hall doors, where they would be seen first by the crowd. They also distributed free laminated cloth bags emblazoned with the slogan, "The Great Green North."
The University of Western Ontario finally retired its distinctive faux limestone "castle" facade, and appeared in a much more contemporary exhibit this year. Featuring about 8 large LCD television screens, Western's booth may well have had the most visual stimulation of any at the OUF. The three UWO affiliates (Huron, King's, and Brescia) are much easier to spot in this new exhibit, as well.
The University of Toronto has always had a massive presence at the OUF, and its redesigned exhibit space affects the largest footprint at the Fair. As a proud UofT alum, I rather miss the trademark blue of the old exhibit, and find the new black-and-white approach a bit plain -- it almost makes me wonder whether a new brand dress is in the works and this is an interim step. Nonetheless, the new UofT exhibit space features flat-panel TVs, energetic typographic murals, and overall creates a much fresher and more contemporary look from the old, tired exhibit.
One of the nicest exhibit redesigns is that for Lakehead University. The new booth features 7 large backlit panels highlighting the natural environment of the two campuses, and gives equal weight to the Thunder Bay and Orillia campuses. The overall impression is that this exhibit is much more expansive, bright, and visually appealing. As in previous years, Lakehead was the only university giving out free T-shirts for the asking -- striking white on black designs that have been remarkably popular with Fair attendees.
Brock University launched a vibrant new exhibit in 2007, but this year integrated their new logo and brand graphics from the "both sides of the brain" campaign. Moreover, the exhibit space now incorporates a photo-booth in which prospective students can have their photo taken, and combine it with an image representing their "other side" -- see the contest below.
The Student Life Expo
As in previous years, outside the MTCC in the SkyWalk that connects it to Union Station, the Student Life Expo provided a forum for a variety of marketers to reach out to future university students. In addition to rather noisy exhibits for Sony PlayStation, Apple iTunes, and StudentAwards.com, a number of post-secondary institutions (that do not qualify as members of the Council of Ontario Universities) set up smaller, table-top exhibits to speak with prospective students and their parents. A handful of Ontario colleges were present (Niagara College, College Boreal, Confederation College, and Fleming College). I enjoyed the opportunity to chat with representatives from uSaskatchewan, uAlberta, uCalgary, uLethbridge, Trinity Western, uManitoba, uMontreal, uWinnipeg, Bishop's, Tyndale, Cape Breton U, Memorial, and St. Francis Xavier University -- whose gigantic foam "X Ring" stole the show and couldn't be ignored.
As in previous years, the OUF saw quite a few institutions try to capture lead information through contests -- everything from paper ballots, to laptops (usually MacBooks), to iPod Touches as the means to enter personal contact information. York University encouraged students to text in to win free tuition. uOttawa and King's (at UWO) had draws for iPod Touches in order to capture contact info. Ryerson, Lakehead, Nipissing and Brock had draws for a free laptop, most often a MacBook Pro. Trent University had a (possibly last-minute improvised) draw for a Beatles "Guitar Hero" game.
Carleton University caught media attention with their "money booth" outside the MTCC on Front Street, in which prospective students donned goggles and attempted to catch the magic red ticket that would entitle them and their parents to an all-expenses-paid trip to Ottawa to visit campus. The booth, filled with pages torn from university textbooks, exemplifies the new Carleton campaign slogan, "Anything but Textbook," which sounds like it will emphasize community-based research and experiential learning.
The OUF organizers have pretty strict regulations about permissible behaviour in the MTCC. I haven't seen the document, but exhibitors have certainly explained to me over the years that there are rules against loud music, cheerleading squads, football mascots, and the like, to maintain the dignity of the event. But this hasn't stopped enterprising student recruiters from thinking "outside the box" and taking their message to the streets surrounding the MTCC. In previous years, Lakehead University has ensured that its colourful SmartCar was seen driving around the block, and York University had some sort of bicycle contraption doing the same.
This year, street teams have reached an all-new level. I'm sure I didn't hear about them all, but I did hear that Lakehead had breakdancers out on the sidewalk, Carleton had the "money booth" described above, Bishop's had sidewalk chalk art created, and St. FX was almost certainly not the only out-of-province university handing out postcards on the street outside the MTCC. King's University College (UWO) and Niagara College went to the added expense of buying illuminated advertising boards in the SkyWalk to Union Station.
That's what I noticed was new at this year's OUF. In a few days I'll post a summary of what this year's crop of viewbooks tell us. Meanwhile, please do add a comment if you saw other things I've missed!