Wednesday, November 2, 2011

A Higher Education Rebranding Interview

Earlier today, I was interviewed for a publication regarding Long Island University's rebranding initiative. The interview is as follows.

Can you share some insight on university/college rebranding history?

Actually schools in the United States have been rebranding throughout their histories. This is not a new trend as you will find that many institutions have rebranded several times. Often, this occurred with merger with other institutions; at other times, it changed along with the change of a school's mission.

Most “State Universities” were formerly “State Colleges.” Before that, they were known as “Teachers' Colleges,” and prior to that, they were known as “Normal Institutes.” It only appears that it is on the rise (and certain aspects are - such as the college to university name change), but you will be hard pressed to find many schools in the US that have not changed names at least once in their history.

Can you share some insight on the rebranding process?

That really varies from institution to institution. Usually it is based on the goals of a key individual - such as a president looking to divorce the school from its previous role or mission. Sometimes it is a system chancellor, such as what happened in Georgia in 1996, when most of the state institutions were rebranded to fit into one of five categories.

Schools, who were of a similar nature, were provided name designations that matched their mission. Only the Tier One and Two schools did not change. Tier Three, schools with graduate education but no doctorates, were named "state universities." Tier Four, the four year schools without graduate education, became "state colleges" and Tier Five, the two year schools, were named simply as "college." Some schools did well with the change and others are still bitter about it 15 years later as it was forced upon them by the chancellor.

What are some of the main reasons/goals why universities/college rebrand themselves?

It would be an alignment to its mission and the institution's overall marketability. Colleges will often become universities to match their current mission; however, sometimes the addition of "university" is also a marketing ploy as "university" provides a level of esteem that is not present with "college."

Schools with a large international base of students will move away from the "college" identification. This is because "college" is used for prep schools and not for institutions of higher learning in most of the world.

Sometimes it is because of other negative factors concerning the current name. The College of New Jersey (which was Trenton State College) felt that they needed a change because Trenton, NJ (as a city) had a bad reputation regarding crime and there were two other institutions in the region with similar names (Trenton State Prison and Trenton State Mental Hospital) that had negative connotations.

Are universities/college more successful after they rebrand themselves? Why or why not?

Typically, from my research, they have not been, as it is not a magic bullet for success. I can be, if the school puts resources in promoting and marketing itself and demonstrates that the name and mission are aligned. Most schools change names hoping for a greater student base and they actually have a corresponding drop in enrollment. Calling a dog a cat doesn't simply make the dog a cat.

Rebranding seems expensive, how have colleges/universities you've researched funded their rebranding initiative?

Most have not spent great deals of money on their name change. State based institutions who desired to change were usually not provided funding for the rebranding process. So signs and stationary were the primary outlay of finances. In most cases, old stationary was used (with stickers stating the new name) until it was exhausted.

There are many free avenues of promotion that institutions' marketing departments have not taken advantage of which would have helped in the promotion of the name. I would say the majority of the institutions I have encountered spent less than $1000 on the name change.

How does rebranding help the school? Can it potentially hurt the school?

It can do both. If it allows the school to be able to market itself better outside its region or become more selective and charge more for tuition in the process - it can be a boost to the school's reputation and revenue stream. In this case, it is not an overnight change - but a concentrated effort to better an institution prior to a name change - usually years before the rebranding occurs. These are the most successful schools.

Truman State University, formerly Northeast Missouri State University, spent 20 years retooling their institution before changing their name. It is one of the more successful state college rebradings to date - but it was associated with eliminating unsuccessful programs, becoming more selective, and building their overall reputation. The name change, which was needed, was secondary.

It can hurt as well when certain stakeholders are alienated. Under the initiative of a new president at California State University of Pennsylvania who was seeking funding from the Eberly Foundation, he decided to proceed with a plan to change the name to Eberly State University. The community revolted as they felt that this rebrand was based solely on money - the motivation was transparent. The Eberly family told the school not to use their name as they had received so much bad press over it. It probably hurt the school in receiving future Eberly dollars in the long run.

Three years later, Penn State Fayette changed its name to Penn State Fayette: The Eberly Campus. This was viewed positively in the community, as Penn State Fayette's presence in the region was based upon a large initial gift by the Eberly family in the 1960s; that gift provided the impetus for the campus to be built in the first place. The Eberly name made sense for this institution, but not for California State University.

Case-Western Reserve (formed from the merger of Case Institute of Technology and Western Reserve University in the 1960s) decided to rebrand (for marketing purposes) to simply Case. It alienated the Western Reserve alumni who felt there was "too much Case in their face." It was disastrous to say the least. Case returned to a CWRU designation and the president was fired in the process.

How does rebranding affect current and future students?

I think most students are oblivious to name change initiatives. There is less brand loyalty these days, and in the lifetime of the traditional student, many things have been rebranded. I don't think most students worry about it. You are more likely to offend alumni than current students who are focused on getting their degree and getting a job.

Brand loyalty is more consistent with an older population. In that respect, students are much more practical about such things. The down side is that when these students are alums, they probably will not be financial supporters of the institution because they feel that they have already provided support via their tuition. This is why powerful alumni can prevent a name change as they speak with their wallets and their purses.

Why do Universities/colleges change their name, can't they re-brand themselves and keep their name?

Why do people have makeovers? It is to become more attractive to potential suitors. Yes, there can be a rebranding of slogans or shortened forms of the name. This can be done by associating quality with the name. In the 1970s, there was a push for the Smuckers' jelly company to change its name as it was positioning itself to go nationwide with a marketing effort. The Smuckers' family bucked the name change. The touted their quality and came up with a slogan, "With a name like Smuckers, it has to be good." They stood by their name and focused on their quality. It worked for them and a name change was not necessary.

Overall, is rebranding beneficial for the university/college?

It can be, but it is not isolated to the name - it is what you do with the name. It has to be perceived as genuine. It has to make sense. It has to be supported by stakeholders. If not, it will probably fail.

Dr. James M. Owston is the author of the two-time award winning dissertation on institutional rebrandings: Survival of the Fittest? The Rebranding of West Virginia Higher Education.


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