Branding Demands Drinking Upstream from the Herd

 The University of Wyoming launched a new campaign aimed at appealing to out-of-state students, but the campaign’s cowboy reference has been panned as branding gone bad or, as cowboys would say, as drinking downstream from the herd.

The University of Wyoming launched a new campaign aimed at appealing to out-of-state students, but the campaign’s cowboy reference has been panned as branding gone bad or, as cowboys would say, as drinking downstream from the herd.

What could go wrong by promoting a university with a cowboy reference? Apparently, a lot.

The mascot for the University of Wyoming is Cowboy Joe, which happens to be a horse. That might explain why the University’s new marketing slogan – “The world needs more cowboys” – has met with a stampede of opposition.

According to the Laramie Boomerang, the college town’s local newspaper, criticism of the slogan ranges from sexist to racist to stupid because it is unlikely to appeal to out-of-state students, which was the express purpose of the new marketing campaign.

Associate Professor Christine Porter said the slogan harkens back to Western stereotypes and misrepresents the University’s current-day research and educational goals. She said the new slogan runs the risk of “embarrassing ourselves as an institution across the nation.”

Chad Baldwin, the University’s director of communications, defended the new slogan, calling it a redefinition of cowboy. “We’re basically throwing away the old stereotypes and updating what it means to be a cowboy and what it looks like,” he said. “A cowboy is not what you are, but who you are.”

That may be the way the new slogan was sold by the marketing firm that reportedly was paid $500,000 to come up with a campaign to recruit more out-of-state students.

A survey conducted by slogan critics produced some sarcastic alternatives, but also an intriguing one – “The world needs more trailblazers,” which seems like a better saddle to ride in redefining modern-day cowboys.

As the University of Wyoming campaign demonstrates, branding can be tricky business, even for a school known on sports fields as the Cowboys (and Cowgirls). Coming up with names, taglines and slogans requires, as cowboys say, not squatting when wearing spurs.

Branding experts start by gathering as much information and opinions as possible before plunging in. From all accounts, fact-finding didn’t occur in the creative evolution of the “cowboys” slogan. To quote another cowboy saying, that’s like digging for water under an outhouse.

Reaching agreement is hard enough when you have done your homework and is virtually impossible if you skip it entirely. Interviewing people doesn’t necessarily produce the perfect name, but it helps rule out the wrong choices. Interviews also offer clues and hints on the trail to the right choice.

Branding involves more than names and slogans; it rests on strategy. Communications don’t become strategic until they have undergone testing. Even a basic online survey of students from the target recruiting area could have warded off the “cowboy” slogan cow-pie.

As the University professor observed, ““I truly appreciate … the idea that who a cowboy is needs to be rebranded to be more accurate to the diversity of people who are cowboys, or who have been. However, you don’t do that with a marketing slogan.” 

It’s always wiser to drink upstream from the herd.

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.