Inside Higher Ed: Changing the Conversation

February 18, 2016
Beset with federal and state investigations, decreased enrollment and declining revenues, the University of Phoenix is hoping people see a company on the rise.

Literally. Phoenix is embracing its name with a new ad campaign called "We Rise."

Apollo Education Group, the parent company for Phoenix, is working on rebuilding the university's reputation, said Greg Cappelli, Apollo's chief executive officer, during a call with investors last month.

"We believe these initiatives, along with our campus realignment and other actions we've taken previously will form the foundation for a stronger university with higher completion rates and improved student satisfaction, and will support our goal to transform University of Phoenix to a more trusted, focused, higher-retaining and lower-complexity institution," he said.

The company has been undergoing changes as it deals with a toughened federal regulatory environment and decreases in enrollment. Last week Apollo announced plans to be sold to a group of investment firms. And the move, if it goes through, would mean the publicly traded Apollo would become privately held.

"The reality for Phoenix and a lot of for-profits is that it's a sector under fire, from the federal government, from students, from prospective students," said Jason Simon, vice president of Simpson Scarborough, which helps colleges and universities with brands and marketing. "What's interesting is they're being bold and direct to counter those perceptions. They're directly going after those criticisms."

But Simon said advertising typically isn't done to counter negative publicity -- it's used to drive or support a business goal, or to acquire new students or highlight academic programs. For example, he pointed to Kent State University's decision to purchase local advertising time during the Super Bowl. However, Phoenix has long had a reputation for savvy advertisements -- it remains the only university to own naming rights to an NFL stadium, and Advertising Age reported that the company spends about $100 million a year on advertising.

The ads, which were created by 180LA, according to Advertising Age, focuses on working adults and negative perceptions. One ad features a modified version of the song "If I Only Had a Brain" from The Wizard of Oz, which plays as a diverse group of students finds time to study while caring for family or working. Other ads feature Phoenix alumni responding to online criticism of the institution and their degrees.

"Just look at the images, like with the 'If I Only Had a Brain' ad. They're showing how they serve various students and how they're valuable for those students," Simon said. "There are some powerful and striking images there about serving the nontraditional students, and that's a different way of communication for them."

Another new ad focuses on Muriel Duncan, who graduated Phoenix in 1979 at age 50, and how she continues to use her degree today.

The ads have generated plenty of conversation, although whether or not they will succeed in changing people's perceptions of the institution remains debatable.

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