A little while ago, I was part of a focus group sponsored by the University of Chicago. I was curious just how this was going to work. I've been in focus groups where I was asked to imagine myself as a certain brand of nasal spray and then describe the car I'd drive, or asked, "If you were a disposable baby wipe, which L stop would you get off at?"
In this case, we were spared the application of method acting to consumer products. It was just nice (free!) dinner conversation among strangers. The ostensible purpose of the meeting was to help put together a little brochure promoting Hyde Park living to prospective faculty and staff. We were asked what we liked about the neighborhood, and I agreed with most of it.
The University claims that "more than 60%" of faculty currently live in the neighborhood, which is apparently a lot compared to peer institutions, so I'm not quite sure what the problem is. But if the University even feels the need to do more to attract professors, that's telling you something right there.
Going into this, I knew that if you actually get out and talk to professors across the disciplines, it's clear that a lot of them would be living on the North Side if it weren't for the very powerful attraction of living close to work. Or getting their kids more conveniently to and from the Lab School. A lot of grad students take their stipends and scoot over to Wicker Park, Humboldt Park, or Logan Square.
That, in fact, is the essence of an observation reported in the opening salvo of this blog, Why Hyde Park Progress? "It's great for kids, but is basically boring."
Although the company was pleasant, the way the focus group itself shaped up, I must say, did not give me confidence in the prowess of the University to sell Hyde Park to potential hires. In fact, the little meeting managed to elicit a lot of the attitudes that make other Chicagoans want to throw rotten organic tomatoes at them. So I can only wonder how effective any promotional material will be that parrots the opinions of people already living here who just luuuuuuuuuv the place for their special quirky reasons.
They're already here, after all. The point is to woo the ones who aren't. Not to scare them off, which I'm afraid is what may happen.
It seems that the shrewdest thing to do would be to go find those people who could have lived here but don't, and ask them why they decided not to. Then you could really isolate and tackle your PR problem.
Enough generalities. I'll share with you the following (paraphrased) comments elicited in our conversation, statements that seem guaranteed to spook all sorts of potential recruits. I can't wait to see how the University uses these nuggets of stodginess:
"I like Hyde Park because it's not commercialized. I don't want a Home Depot on my block. I don't want a GAP. There are lots of little shoe repair places that have been here forever."
"I like Hyde Park because other people don't come here. I don't want to share my neighborhood with everybody else."
"I don't need much night life, because I'd rather stay in, or have dinner with friends."
"The Point controversy showed how the community is involved and really comes together about what it cares about."
So, if I were in the marketing laboratory and had these focus group transcripts dropped in my lap, what kind of advertising magic would I cook up for my client? Well, going strictly on this input, I'd have to tell my boss that if we want to sell Hyde Park based on the things people like about it, we need to hit these points: Hyde Park is reclusive bordering on anti-social, thread-bare bordering on tightwad, boring at night, and stubbornly resistant to change even when it's needed.
There's your promotional brochure right there. Can't wait to see it!
PS: I have to confess, as I did at dinner that night, that I do want a GAP. A big one, with cashiers in their headsets dancing to canned music, right over in the old Harper Theater building. I'll be waiting in line outside the day they open.