SOU has spent the last two years putting together a new branding strategy that promotes three main points that make SOU different from other schools: location, creativity and arts and connected learning. The university is also rethinking its logo and community involvement.

Southern Oregon University hopes to establish itself as the public liberal arts university of the West in a rebranding effort that includes a new logo and renewed efforts to reach out to the community.

"What we are trying to do is focus the message," said Jim Beaver, director of interactive marketing and media relations at SOU.

That message is that SOU it is known for creativity in theater and art, it is known for connecting students to professors and material in a meaningful way that helps students learn, and it's located in a beautiful place.

SOU is one of two public liberal arts universities in the western U.S., Beaver said. The other is Sonoma State University in Santa Rosa, Calif. SOU's new tagline, "We are the public liberal arts university of the West," reflects that standing, he said.

By definition, liberal arts colleges or universities are generally small and provide a broad base of study in arts and sciences. Most of them are private institutions costing $30,000 to $40,000 a year to attend. SOU, by contrast, costs about $5,265 annually for 15 credits.

"What we'd like to say to people is you can get that liberal arts education at an affordable price," Beaver said.

The new logo emphasizes the "U" in a contemporary rendition of a traditional coat-of-arms, said its designer, Sheila Chambers, former vice president of creative services at Harry and David who started her own consulting business.

"I think it (the logo) is very dynamic and demands attention," Chambers said. "That is what a brand is supposed to do."

Though fall quarter doesn't start until Sept. 27, initial reaction over the new design has been positive, Chambers said.

"Quite a few people are pleased. Some people don't see the 'U' though," she said.

Chambers, a Rogue Valley resident for 20 years, said that before she was hired for the logo project, she had never been on the SOU campus. "It's so interesting that you drive around Ashland and hear more about the Grizzlies than SOU," she said.

SOU administrators spent two years meeting with students, community members and faculty to create the brand and strategies for marketing it.

"The research that went into it involved a lot of conversations. It was well vetted," said Beaver. The cost of the new logo design was $14,000, the lowest bid, he said. Stationery, T-shirts and other objects with the new logo will be purchased with funds already allocated for promotional materials.

"The goal was to bring all the graphics into one focused place — one family, one approach," Beaver said.

The new branding comes at a time when the business model has changed for SOU, Beaver said.

"Historically we were supported by the state," he said. "Twenty years ago, 70 percent was from the government and 30 percent was from tuition. Today it is turned on its head. Increasingly we are more dependent on private dollars than public," he said.

Community outreach is another part of SOU's updated marketing strategy. Jon Eldridge, vice president of student affairs, is leading a campaign to strengthen the relationship between the university and Ashland businesses. Merchants who want to be involved will display brochures and merchandise from SOU and in return the school will promote those businesses to students.

"We anticipate developing and redeveloping the brand with the community — re-introduce SOU as a local partner, Eldridge said. "It's really beneficial to our students to feel a connection to community."

SOU is also planning to display banners for many of the light poles between Mountain Avenue and Wightman Street, similar to what the Oregon Shakespeare Festival does in downtown Ashland, to provide more visibility.

"If you don't know there is a university here you can miss it. That is something we are working to correct," Eldridge said.

Reach reporter Johanna Thompson at 541-482-3456, ext. 225.