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Oberlin Marketing Leads to Fearless Objections

Students at Oberlin stole this banner from the Admissions Office and rearranged its message.

TRAVIS AND NEWMAN: (laughter) I have never heard someone say, never heard someone say: Fearless, that’s me!
Absolutely! It’s awful!

That’s first-year San Maday Travis and her friend Rebecca Newman. They’re hanging out in the sun and listening to live bands with much of the campus on a recent Friday afternoon.

Like most Oberlin students, they were kind of baffled by the whole Fearless campaign. Maday Travis feared it was an attempt to change this quirky school.

MADAY TRAVIS: Many people perceived it as a way to bring in more mainstream people, and a way to bring in more high income people.

And, then there are those who feel that Oberlin students are anything but Fearless. Student Isabel Roth even wrote a song about it.

ROTH (singing): I’m not fearless, don’t pretend I am. I’m terrified of half a million things…..

It’s not just songs. There have been parody videos, protests, even T-shirts that replace the word Fearless with.. “awkward.”

Oberlin Students Melissa Wolfish and Rebecca Newman model their parody T-shirts.

None of that surprises Mark Edwards, even though he’s the one who came up with the slogan.

EDWARDS: Current students, obviously, are deeply loyal to the school they just attended, and are often not particularly persuaded by someone from the outside trying to describe the place they love and know so well.

Edwards has been through this before. His short-lived campaign at Wesleyan, dubbed “the Independent Ivy”, reportedly led students to plaster the campus with banners saying things like “Reebok, the Independent Nike.”

But Edwards is more amused than bothered by the Oberlin reaction. He knows this campaign is really for people like Amelia Valladares.

VALLADARES: I didn’t think it was silly at all.

Valladares is a high school senior, and she's deciding whether to go to Oberlin or a similar school like Smith or Bates. If she goes, she’ll enter the first class to get the full “Fearless” marketing treatment. She says it got her attention at least.

VALLADARES: I mean, I liked it, but it’s marketing and I know it’s marketing.

The overall marketing package is made up of brochures, websites, and posters. All have bold colors and fonts. David Gabriel is a high school student who’s been getting a lot of those materials in the mail. His reaction is mixed.

GABRIEL: The pictures are awesome and the description of the programs and what they offer but the fearless is sort of just bold and black and right there at you.

With high schoolers like David commonly applying to dozens of colleges, Oberlin Admissions Dean Debra Chermonte says a good marketing hook helps a school stand out from the pack.

CHERMONTE: It is harder to get your message across and I think that’s what this campaign is designed to do, to help bring some clarity to Oberlin’s message. A way to make sure our story is told through all the noise.

It’s too early to know if the strategy is resonating with prospective students. Consultants hired by Oberlin say it’s polling well in ongoing focus groups. But tell that to Maday Travis, who thinks anything would be better than fearless.

Students listen to live music on warm Fridays at Oberlin.

MADAY TRAVIS: We are Oberlin: Different. We are Oberlin: Unique, We are Oberlin, Powerful. But not Fearless, by any means.

Consultant Mark Edwards sees some irony in that kind of reaction to his campaign. To him, their bold challenge embodies fearlessness.

EDWARDS: The students were very vocal about it, they were really willing to express how they felt about it. They didn’t hold anything back.