Suffolk County Community College had a confused identity on their hands. Their three-campus community college was being represented by two athletics teams: the Clippers and the Longhorns.
Drew Fawcett, Suffolk's Associate Dean for Institutional Advancement, tells us the story of their journey to create a mascot to unify their campuses, while fostering school pride and a full, college experience to their Long Island, NY community college.
Convinced having a mascot isn't right for your school? Drew explains why he thinks every school should have a mascot, regardless of athletics.
Sure. Well, my career actually started as a journalist on Long Island for a small newspaper on the East End, called the East Hampton Star, and I was always interested in writing and communicating and story-telling. But it wasn't long ... And there were great people there, it was a great experience, but it didn't take long for me to realize that I was less interested in reporting on something that happened, than I was in trying to persuade somebody how to feel about what had happened.
And certainly in a career in journalism, you can eventually get to that track by becoming a columnist, but I had always had an interest in marketing and advertising as well. In fact, when I was a younger kid ... Most kids know the stats of their favorite baseball players, and I have to say I knew the stats for my favorite players on the New York Mets, but I also was kind of like an ad geek. And I knew, for instance, who wrote "Plop, Plop, Fizz, Fizz" for the famous Alka-Seltzer commercial, and I knew who wrote "You Don't Have to be Jewish to Love Levy's Jewish Rye," so I was always interested in advertising as well, so I segued from my career as a journalist into an advertising agency and started writing ad copy.
I eventually became a creative director for a series of agencies and vice-president, creative director for branding agencies. And many of those people who are in those positions come up through the design track. I actually didn't go to design school, I team up to the writing track, but I was fortunate enough to work with many, many talented people throughout my career, especially talented art directors and designers. So I started to have a better sense and understanding of how art can move somebody and persuade somebody just as much as great copy can.
I eventually wound up working for ... One of my accounts was a large healthcare-related account on Long Island called Catholic Health Services, which was a series of human service agencies and hospitals. And the vice president who handled communications for that account wound up moving to Suffolk County Community College, and not long after that, she gave me a call and said, "We created a position here at the college, and we need somebody who understands branding and will help us shift perceptions and build our brand. Would you ever be interested in coming to the dark side and work on the client side?"
You know, it was a very intriguing possibility. I have to say that I honestly believe in the product, which was important for me because I had looked at possibly going to the client side at a few times throughout my career, but the things that those clients represented weren't really intrinsically interesting to me. But the idea of working for an institution of higher education whose main mission was about accessibility and affordability definitely was intriguing to me. So, I decided to take the leap. The principals of the agency that I had been working at as a creative director said, "You know, we want to give you the shot, but we'd hate to lose you, so if you're not happy at this six months, we'll take you back." Which was incredibly generous of them. But I never went back. And that was, you know, just about 12 years ago, which was just as the recession was starting to hit. And two years later, that agency folded up its tent, as did many branding agencies in our region just because recession hit them so hard. It was fortune, I was really lucky. And as I said, I got here, you know, a lot of 12 years ago. It's been a series of challenges, but great ones. And so that's how I arrived at the college.
I do, I'll have to say I'm fortunate that I work, again, with talented people. My resources at the college are very challenged in the sense that we do not have a big department. I know that ... I've seen a survey that was conducted by the National Council for Marketing and Public Relations that assessed how marketing and communications departments are staffed throughout the country, and it was an assessment of not how they wished to be staffed, but how they actually are staffed. Of course, everybody in any department, whether you're in the accounting department or the marketing department or the IT department, everybody feels that they need more. But the numbers came back that essentially, marketing and communications departments in the community college are staffed with one Mar-Com person for about every 1,750 full-time equivalent students, FTEs.
And if you did the math, considering that our college has about 27,000 students, and we have three campuses and two downtown centers, we should have somewhere around 16, 17 people in our marketing communications department. We are much slimmer than that. I have a director of publications in College Relations who reports to me, and then I have a part-time graphic designer that I get for about 12 hours a week. We don't actually even have a full-time graphic designer at the college. And then, we do have some support in other areas that are not Mar-Com areas, so we have some support. We have a videographer and a photographer who's in a media services role in a different area of the college, but we get to utilize their skill set for somewhere around 15, 16 hours a week. And then we have a social media person and a PR person for the college, which is in a different area.
So we all make it work. So, I guess, to answer your question, what I hope I bring to this department is a sense that we should always be trying to discover a better way to shift perceptions and enhance our brand. And I don't think that's unique to coming from an agency. You know, when I had the fortune of speaking with colleagues from other colleges at conferences, I find many of the people could be of the same suit, even if they didn't come from an industry background or a full-service branding agency.
Sure, that's a great question. So, the college has been around for over 50 years, and I guess about six years ago, we had a new president that came in. It was actually someone who had been at the college and assumed the position of president. And as I mentioned early, we have a fairly large-sized community college, about 27,000 students, we have about 10,000 Continuing Ed. students, and we have three, main campuses and then we have two, downtown centers. And that's spread through the county of Suffolk on Long Island.
Since the early days of the college, two of the three campuses had had athletics teams. One campus, our eastern campus, still does not have athletics at that campus, but those two campuses that did, which was the Michael J. Grant campus in Brentwood, and the Ammerman campus in Selden had athletics teams, but they were separate athletics teams. They were unique to those specific campuses. One were known as the Clippers, and the other were known as the Longhorns. And our new president, his name is Dr. Sean McKay, when he came in about six years ago, he said that, you know, really he envisioned the college not as three colleges, but as one college with three campuses. And in the spirit of creating a unified sense of college community, he wanted to create a brand new, unified, one-college athletics identity.
So, I co-chaired that committee, along with a number of other people that were on that committee that represented the various stake-holders throughout the college, you know, students, alumni, student affairs, academics, faculty, etc., and we worked to come up with what was going to be the new identity for this one athletics mentality at the college. And we went through a series of steps, and we actually also worked with an outside agency, an outside branding agency that specializes in developing athletics identities, especially on the collegiate level.
And we did that, as I said, through a series of steps, and it eventually came out. We opened it up to, essentially, the entire student population, which is on one hand, incredibly inclusive, and on the other hand, sometimes could be pretty scary because that's a lot of opinions out there.
And the only really stipulation that we had initially was that you could submit any name that you'd think would be appropriate, but there has to be some kind of rational behind it. You have to let us know why you feel that name is appropriate. It may be because it ties into the heritage of the college or it ties into geography or it ties into the fact that we're a primarily commuter school, we don't have dorms, or whatever it may be. And through a strictly transparent, democratic process, the name that the Sharks was the name that was most often submitted. And I'm not going to go through, get really into the weeds on everything on that respect, but we wound up developing a new Shark's identity.
And primarily the Sharks, I think, based on the rationals of the many people who submitted that as a name was because we are an island. You know, our college is located on Long Island, we're surrounded by water, and I think people generally consider a shark, especially a great white shark, to be a fairly intimidating presence, and I think that a number of the people, especially our students, wanted a sense of, you know, we are a moniker. We are an identity that is fearless, that is strong, that shouldn't be grappled with.
And that may be for a number of reasons. You know, we have 26 other colleges and universities in our attachment area. We have a fantastic, full-year institution right down the road from us, Stony Brook University, which is part of the State University of New York System, like we are. So, I really feel that there was a sense that these students specially wanted to create this new, strong identity.
So, when we developed the sharks, and we worked with the outside agency to develop the identity kit, which would include, the primary logo, secondary logos, word mark, web mark, all those things that you would expect. My sense was, "Well, the next logical step is we should have a mascot." But it took a little bit of time because we developed this identity following when Dr. McKay arrived to the college. We developed a identity a couple years after that, so it was probably around three, four years ago that we finished that process, and, as I said, my telling was, "Well, we need a mascot now." I mean, that makes complete, logical sense.
And I will say that there was a little bit of pushback from some quarters of the college, which I was not expecting. I thought people would embrace that idea fully. And one of the things that I had heard was, and I won't say where it came from, but the person who shared this with me, their intentions were good and strong, and they said, "You know, Drew, we often don't have enough people going to our athletics events to begin with. If we develop a mascot and have a mascot and nobody shows up, we're going to look foolish." And I had never really considered that, which is why it's important to talk to people, have different opinions.
And when I heard that, you know, I said, "Mm, I'm not unsympathetic to what you're saying, and I really hadn't considered that, but on the other hand, you're not considering, I'm under no fantasy that developing a mascot is sort of a magic lantern for us, but, perhaps not enough people are going to our athletic events because they don't feel that there's enough excitement around them."
And in fact, many high schools have mascots and in some cases, community colleges are struggling with overcoming the perception that they're not a full-year institution or, more to the point, that they don't offer a full, college experience.
Yeah, it's a great question. And that's what I felt, that we really want to help potential students, and in fact, even the students who are already here understand that there is a full, college experience here for them, that they need to take advantage of it. And we could talk about different ways that community colleges, and in our case, Suffolk County Community College, offers a full college experience through the travel abroad programs and through the internships, and often, as is the case, students don't necessarily know about them. But since we're talking about the mascot right now, I thought that was really important because we want students to have a vested sense of pride in the institution that they've chosen.
And there are lots of reasons to feel that pride at Suffolk but a mascot is just emblematic, you know, and it's fun, and there's something very visceral about a mascot. If you've been to a major league sporting event or whatever, people, especially young people, want to touch the mascot. I mean they just ... It's a magnet, if it's produced well, which is probably we'll get into that a little bit in our discussion as well. But we really wanted to give sort of a sense of a rallying point for our students, and we were also cognizant that the mascot would not just be about athletic events. In fact, since we developed our mascot and started utilizing it over the past two years, we've actually used our mascot far more for college events and community events than even our athletic events.
It's a good question, and because there's not a mascot development company on every main street, you know? So, we knew that we wanted to work with a professional organization that knows what they're doing. And, to me, a mascot is not synonymous with a costume, right? You know, we lived pretty close ... Our college is not too far from New York City, and I grew up going to the city all the time, and even if people haven't been to New York City, they'd probably seen video and film of Times Square. And at Times Square you have these characters who are dressed in Elmo costumes or superhero costumes that they want to get tourists to get a picture taken with them.
And the people in those costumes always seemed really ... You can't see their actual facial expressions, but the costumes are really sad. You know, they're kind of soiled and they're kind of limp and they have no life, and there's no energy.
So, we wanted to work with a professional organization, and the way we started was, we started reaching out to other colleges, especially within the State University of New York System, of which we belong. But even schools that are not part of the city system that have mascots, to ask them about their experiences, and how did they get a mascot developed? And we also have a, sort of like a minor league baseball team in our attachment area here in Suffolk County, called the Long Island Ducks, and they have a wonderful mascot. It's a duck, as you might assume, it's name is Quacker Jack, and so I reached out to the president of Long Island Ducks and asked them about their experience with their mascot. How did they get it developed? What was the psychology behind it? Things like that.
So, we got some really good feedback, and then, of course we also used Google and just started Googling mascot development companies and trying to assess the different proficiencies that we found at different companies. And interestingly, we found that a number of highly touted and recognized mascot companies are from Canada. So, aside from Canadians being incredibly nice people and great hockey players, they also seem to have a little bit of an ability to develop world-class mascots. And in fact, we wound up going with one of the Canadian mascot companies called Maydwell Mascots, and they were based in Ontario.
Right down the street from us, I mentioned early, Stony Brook University, which is a great school, and we have a lot of partnerships with them, and they have a mascot that they had developed before we developed ours. Their mascot is a sea wolf, and they had used a different, Canadian-based mascot company that is also well-recognized and does a really good job.
Yeah, well, it's very interesting because again, we put together a committee who are the development of the mascot, and I chaired that committee. And one of the very first things that we did after we chose to work with Maydwell Mascots is they basically ... We all kind of went on the couch, figuratively, because as I mentioned early, there's a lot of psychology in the development of the mascot. So the mascot needs to evoke and reflect the key qualities of the institution. So, you know, there's a lot of kind of a self-assessment that takes place. And in fact, we actually had a self-assessment form in-session to better understand what the mascot should convey for us, both physically and emotionally.
Did we want the mascot to be scary? Did we want it to be friendly? What do we think is indicative of the college, you know? Should the mascot have hands or should it have fins? You know, what color should the mascot be? Should the colors of the mascot be reflective of, for instance, a shark, or should it be reflective of the actual, school colors? All those questions that we needed to answer. And over the next several months of working on the project, the committee convened for a number of meetings and really even getting down to the minutiae, like choosing the fabric and the texture. And by that I mean the fabric and texture of the actual shark of the mascot, and also the fabric and texture of what the shark would be wearing. You know, what kind of apparel would the shark wear? Would the shark have socks, would it have fin feet or would it be in sneakers? What would be the height of the socks? What are the colors of the socks? What are the colors of the shoes?
You know, and so everything is really well thought through, and then there were some mascot design tips that people should be mindful of that I was unaware before starting this initiative. And that's that most mascot designs are not going to fit somebody whose 5'4" and somebody who is 6'4". So, most mascot costumes are in the 5'6" range to 5'11" maybe 6' range. So, you need to be mindful of that because you also need to be mindful of who are going to be the mascot performers.
A few of the things, tips that I would recommend is, you know, if your mascot is going to have shoes, I would always have them design more than one pair of shoes and purchase more than one pair of shoes right at jump street because shoes wear very quickly, and if you're utilizing the mascot like it should be utilized, the mascot's going to be on its feet a lot and it's going wear through their shoes most quickly. I would also consider developing accessories for the mascot. That gives the personality even more flair. Things like sunglasses or hat or a vest or something that the mascot can be holding. Maybe the mascot holds a walking stick or something.
The eyes are really key for conveying emotion, so there was a lot of time that was spent on the eyes because the mascot's face is a fixed emotion. So, while the mouth may be smiling or the mouth may be grimacing, the eyes have to really convey the soul of the character.
And another thing that we found in working with the company is we used video throughout the entire process so that we could remain apprised of how everything is coming along. Because sometimes, you know, especially when you're working with a committee, and especially when you're working with people who are used to having control, when something is being developed 1,500 miles away, it's not like that company can show you how it's moving along every five days or every seven days. So, they would videotape every stage along the process and then share that video file with us, and this way we could say, "Yes, this is exactly how we're envisioning it." Or in some cases we'd say, "This is not what we envision, but this is good." And in other cases we'd say, "You know what? We don't really like the way this is turning out. We need to kind of rethink this."
And so it allowed us to remain in contact and really make sure, assure ourselves, that we were getting exactly what we wanted. And then the last tip, I would say, they are many, but is to get an ice vest. It's something that I didn't think about, or any of the members of the committee, but people didn't realize how hot it can get inside a mascot costume, especially when someone's performing, so an ice vest is exactly what it sounds. It's almost like a life vest, but it's packed with ice, and the performer wears it under the costume to keep their body cool. But even that being said, there are things that people need to be mindful of. We have a rule, seems like, we researched it too ... It's sort of like a best practice that mascot performers shouldn't perform for more than 20, 25 minutes max, because literally someone could pass out. It gets really warm inside that costumes.
Yeah, we did. We put a lot of energy and a lot of time into developing the mascot, so we didn't want it to be a college breeze at 3:30 on a Tuesday afternoon, "Well, the mascot's here." Rather, we wanted to share what has happened with the committee and this new member, important member, of our college community in a big way. So, we started planning for an unveiling in the fall, on the first day of classes. We usually have what's called a convocation that day, and we invite our students and our faculty and our staff together for discussion and a presentation by the president about here are the challenges and here's the ways that we're going support you as students. And then we usually have a barbecue that follows, and we decided to dedicate that convocation, essentially, to the unveiling of this mascot.
But, we didn't want anybody to know what the mascot looked like other than, you know, the president and other team members of our administration and the members of our mascot development committee. So, we really needed to sort of keep it a mystery and tease people so that we would get participation in the convocation. If we're going to throw a party, we want people to show up, right?
So, we did that utilizing a variety of our communications platforms, including social media channels, portal communications. We teased it throughout our freshman orientations, which take place during the summer leading up to the fall semester. And during that time, we developed a special mark shark, Suffolk Shark microsite, that would be launched during the actual unveiling of the convocation. Again, we didn't want to do that before, because then we would kind of be stealing our own thunder. But right after, I'm talking like seconds later the mascot was debuted at that convocation, the microsite went up. And the microsite then provided information about the shark and information about how the shark came into being, as well as details on a new, college-wide initiative, which was the "Name the Shark," contest, because now we have the new Suffolk shark, but it doesn't have a name.
And, then another initiative as to how to be the shark. Because as I mentioned before, we would need mascot performers, so that was really, really fun. The actual unveiling included, we brought in an outside, production company that specializes in theatrical openings with spotlights and music, and we developed a customized, audio track complete with the theme from Jaws, the famous movie, when Chief Brody says, "We're gonna need a bigger boat."
And then, merge that into the Metallica's legendary anthem Enter Sandman, and we had a customized dance routine developed by our cheer coach, and all the cheerleaders were involved. And the lights went down, and you know, there was all this momentum that was built up. And we had a big banner, breakaway banner with the shark logo on there, but not a picture of the shark itself of course. And then, at the right moment, you know, and at the crescendo, the new Suffolk Mascot popped out from behind the curtains and burst through that breakaway banner, along with our president. And music went up, lights went up, and the place went crazy. So, it was a great experience. The feedback exceeded my expectations. The students gravitated and embraced the new mascot immediately, as did our faculty, which sometimes the faculty and staff don't emote as much as the students, so it's really a win-win all the way around.
We had created customized shark fin, foam hats, which was a little hat that looks like everybody has a fin on top of their head, that were given out to everybody at the end of the convocation, as people filtered out of the gymnasium into the outdoor barbecue. And then we had an actual meet-and-greet with the mascot at the barbecue that just went over immensely well. It was a great day. And, in fact, our Vice President for Student Affairs, who has been to a number of well-known institutions before coming here a few years ago ... He was at Columbia. He was at Oxford University and a few others, and he said it was the most rewarding and most exciting event that he had ever been part of.
That's awesome. Did you guys put all this on YouTube?
We did, yeah. We have a link to it so that people who could not attend would be able to see it. And, even now, people still take a look at it. It was a lot of fun.
Yeah, great questions. So the committee in doing our due diligence realized that, you know, again, it's not just about creating a fun costume. There's so many arms and legs, no pun intended, related to this initiative, and part of it has to do with developing policies and how would the mascot be managed? And who would take care of it, in a very real sense. How would that mascot costume be kept and cleaned and kept out of the public, and who would manage the performers who would be in that costume? So, we realized that we needed a mascot manager/spirit coordinator.
And, so we developed a part-time position for that at the college, and it just coincided, it dovetailed, with our dance team. The person who took that position is also our cheer team coach and dance team coach, which was serendipitous because that person really has an understanding for what it means to perform and how to generate excitement. And she's also very, very buttoned up. She's a very responsible person. So we sat together as a committee and again went through due diligence and spoke to other schools, and again, not just schools, but professional sports teams and tried to get a sense of what should we do? What should we not do? And, of course, some of the things you just mentioned, like we don't let anybody know who the mascot performer is because that takes away from the mystique and the magic about that character.
The mascot's name eventually became Phineas, and we shortened to Finn, for short, and which makes sense because the shark has a fin. So, Finn is Finn. Tt's not like Tom Jacobson from student activities is Finn on Tuesdays, and Wendy O. Sullivan from the student club is Finn. No. Finn is Finn. So, nobody ever knows who is the performer. As you said before, we don't let the costume be photographed without actually a performer being inside it because that's where the life comes from. We also have, as I said before, those policies about not performing for more than 20 minutes straight to safeguard the health of the performer. And one of the things that we came to realize pretty quickly and that we're adamant about is that the mascot always has a handler, at least one handler. So, that's somebody who can help guide the mascot.
The way we designed that mascot head is that the visuals are pretty clear, but still it's not like not having some type of apparatus on your head where sometimes your peripheral vision is somewhat obfuscated, and so we have a handler and that, again, provides for the safeguarding of the performer, but it also helps too when we have a lot of people. Especially when we take our mascot to our high schools and our middle schools and even our grade schools. And as I mentioned way earlier, people just want to touch the mascot, so the handler acts as a sort of diplomatic, friendly bodyguard as well, to make sure that people don't rip the fin off the back, or do something, even under the best intentions, that could hurt themselves or hurt the performer.
Absolutely, yeah, we've had such great feedback and response when we've taken the mascot out into the community or invited the community members on to our campuses, with the mascot as an integral part of those events. So, for instance, each year we have a Halloween festival on our Ammerman campus, and we invite community residents and their young children onto our campus for it. Essentially, it's almost a day-long event, and we have all kinds of activities planned, the things that you would think about, face painting and treasure hunts. And, once we developed the mascot and brought the mascot into that event, the mascot immediately became the most exciting thing about that event for most of the people coming to that event.
Community residents have kids who are, say 10 and under, and they love the mascot. And, I mentioned before that our mascot coordinator, her name is Gina Kaputo. She is a great choreographer. And again, I don't know who the performer is, the performer is Finn, as far as I know, but it's not your typical mascot performer. The mascot performs amazing dances, and then goes out into the crowd and pulls the students in, our own students, or pulls community residents here, or like children of families in our communities and teaches them how to do the latest dances. It's really amazing.
We've also taken the mascot to various community street fairs and to community charitable events, and I mentioned the Long Island Ducks a few minutes ago. Long Island Ducks baseball is a big thing in our region from around this time each year through September, and they have a wonderful mascot of their own, and we decided to work with them. And a day was called Mascot Day at Long Island Ducks' baseball stadium, and they invite mascots from other colleges from around our region to come, and basically have a mascot fest. And that has been a tremendous amount of fun, and without hesitation, I'll say that our mascot has been one of the fan favorites.
So, yeah, it's a great thing to do. It's a great thing as community college. Community is in our name, we want to integrate ourselves into the community for various reasons, but from a marketing perspective, you know, just putting my marketing hat back on for a moment, it's great for us to have this wonderful, fun presence out there that young people are reacting to because the one thing that we can be assured of is that young people don't stay young all their lives. They become adolescents, and they become teenagers, and eventually they have to figure out where they want to go to college, and if we can start branding our college through Finn, that's just an added bonus.
Yeah, absolutely. We have a lot of great feelings about it, and I shared some of that in our discussion this morning. But, in higher education, everything's about assessment. So, it wasn't long after we launched Finn and the new mascot that we realized that we wanted to try to do some assessment. So, we actually went out with a survey and some focus groups for over 100 of our students to try to get a sense: has the presence of Finn changed their perception about the college in any way? So, it featured both qualitative and quantitative assessment. And I won't go through everything, but in short note, upwards of 93% of our students either strongly agreed or agreed that Finn has improved school spirit. More than 90% of the students strongly agreed or agreed that the mascot has helped foster a full, college experience, which was really important for me. That's what we were really trying to get at.
And then, it also allowed for some unsolicited feedback, to let them just tell us how they feel. And we had some really wonderful quotes ranging from, "Wow, I'm at college, and this feels like a real college." And other people saying, you know, that we had a student who had been here, and then stopped attending, and recently came back, and he said he felt a noticeable difference. And, it's been a real winner for us. And what I would suggest for any other community colleges that may not have a mascot, you know, I spoke with some colleagues at the recent NCMPR conference that I was at, and some of them had some trepidation about developing a mascot because they actually don't even have athletics teams. And I would say, don't let that stop you.
The mascot, again, you know, maybe intuitively, people think of a mascot being directly connected to athletics, but it doesn't have to be. The mascot, again, can just be an emblematic, energetic presence of who you are as an institution. And there's nowhere that the mascot should go or can go that doesn't evoke positive feelings. And, those positive feelings then are connected to your brand. And so I would really encourage anybody who doesn't have a mascot to think about it. It was a great initiative. It was a lot of hard work, but it was fun. It was, you know, I don't want to say, there are not many, but sometimes these initiatives and these committees that we're all on, they're important. I'm sure they're all important. But, sometimes they're not that much fun. This was fun, and to be able to see something built from scratch and then create a personality and have the kind of tangible effect that we've seen on our students and our community is something that I would really urge other community colleges to consider.
Yeah. I appreciate you having me.