UMD Fear the Turtle Brand Campaign

Deborah Wiltrout was account lead with the Stern Agency and played a critical role in their development and deployment of the ZOOM campaign for the University of Maryland. She was later hired by UMD as their Marketing Director and oversaw the team and creation of the Fear the Turtle brand campaign. Scroll down to learn more about the value of creating a truly authentic brand with the help of your internal team.


In October 2001, the University of Maryland launched its first-ever integrated branding effort, the ZOOM campaign. UMD hired the Stern Agency (now Redhead Companies) to take on the task of building pride and informing its broad constituent base of its rapid progress and value to the state.  Although the campaign was well received initially and showed some impressive results in terms of awareness, increased enrollments, and alumni engagements, its shelf life was short lived. It became pretty clear about a year and half into the ZOOM campaign that internal audiences were, let’s say, ZOOMED-out.

Even though UMD backed ZOOM with a fairly substantial budget and the agency delivered good creative and smart marketing, there was something lacking in the campaign that didn’t bode well for the long-term. There was a feeling that the ZOOM campaign was a bit slick and not authentic to the institution. Student, faculty, staff—and most importantly UMD’s internal marketing team—were losing interest in the campaign which meant they weren’t adopting and using it on their own which was critical to the success of the effort, especially at a large institution like Maryland.


It was time to evolve the branding effort and this time it was the job of UMD’s internal marketing department, headed up by Deborah Wiltrout. And this time around, with a lot less money and an in-house team that had never created an integrated marketing campaign. The internal team looked within the institution and landed on Fear the Turtle as its mantra. It was a term that came out of athletics years earlier, but had lost some steam and was no longer being used in any official capacity. The term gave us the opportunity to give a nod to athletics, but use the term to talk about the quality and progress of our students, faculty, programs, facilities and alums in a rather unexpected way.

UMD’s internal Marketing and Communication’s team, with the help of free-lance copywriter Tierney Sadler (who, by the way, gave the turtle its attitude and “roar”), was responsible for the creation of the Fear the Turtle brand campaign. Their efforts included: creative strategy and planning; production of all print, outdoor and TV advertising; media planning and placement;  website development and online advertising; and integration of the campaign within undergraduate enrollment, the colleges and events. These were certainly monumental tasks, especially for a team that had never worked on an integrated branding effort before.


The Fear the Turtle brand campaign was launched in fall 2003. And although it has evolved over time, it is still being used by UMD today (and still being deployed by their in-house team), which is a testament to the strength of the campaign.  An attempt to move away from the Fear the Turtle brand was thwarted in 2009 when students got wind of it. It is a campaign that hits all the right buttons: it was inherent to the institution and created by the folks who knew it best. It was distinct, captured people’s attention and stood out from the (lab coat and beaker) competition. It delivered serious messages with a sense of humor and an air of confidence. And mostly importantly, the messages stuck, helping to raise awareness, boost reputation, increase the quality of incoming students, engage alumni and boost the endowment.

The Fear the Turtle campaign was also recognized by industry peers receiving numerous awards and accolades including several CASE Grand Golds, CASE District II Golds and Silvers, and several video awards. The campaign also attracted the media’s attention and helped boost the profile of UMD’s Marketing and Communications Department throughout the institution and the higher ed community.