What’s in a name?

Observations from Bill Faust, Senior Partner and Chief Strategy Officer, on naming trends within higher ed branding and marketing.

February 08, 2021  

Observations on the role of naming within marketing and branding, specifically as it relates to higher ed. We are seeing the emergence of new names, types of names, and naming projects within the field of education.

About five years ago, I published some thoughts here to discuss the role of naming in the overall branding and marketing mix. Granted, it’s kind of a timeless topic, but I wanted to revisit it in early 2021 and focus on the marketplace I spend most of my time thinking about: Higher education.

What’s happened that makes this worth revisiting and why higher ed? Well the answer is simple: change. Higher education was already facing significant change even before the COVID-19 pandemic. These changes were brought about by things like skyrocketing tuition, the student debt crisis, changing demographics and the coming decline in undergraduate enrollment, issues related to diversity, equity, inclusion and access and finally, new competitors from outside the category. The pandemic and all that has come in its wake has only served to accelerate the overall rate of change for these forces and others.

But what does this have to do with naming? Well, disruptive change often ushers in new products, services, delivery formats, business models, types of organizations, competitors and more. These are all in response to the changing market dynamics and we often need new ways to talk about them. New ways to identify and explain them. And to do that successfully, we often have to think through what they are called and why. Hence, naming.

I am seeing the emergence of new names and types of names in education, a rise in naming projects and general interest in the topic of late.

I also share these thoughts now because I am seeing the emergence of new names and types of names in education, a rise in naming projects and general interest in the topic of late. Let me share some examples and raise some points to unpack this a little. I will do this for a couple of different categories that address various aspects of higher ed institutions and what they offer.

And by higher ed institutions, I do not mean for profit firms, Ed tech businesses or other education starts ups now entering the market. These tend to function more like other commercial brands where new names are common because things like tradition or dogma don’t get in the way. That’s why they have memorable brand names like Coursera, DreamBox or Laureate. My focus here is on the traditional nonprofit colleges and universities – public and private.

Institutional Naming

Let’s start at the top. For decades, colleges and universities rarely changed their institutional names. And if they did, it was rarely for marketing reasons. Why would they? There was no perceived need and there were deep rooted traditions to think about. Yes, teaching colleges dropped terms like “normal school” from their vernacular and occasionally schools merged or even changed venues which may have triggered a name change. Over time, schools began to realize that there was a difference between a legal name and a brand name so eventually The University of Pennsylvania embraced Penn, Occidental College embraced Oxy, and so on. Of course, this wasn’t new either as some schools like Ole Miss, Sewanee and Pitt had been using nicknames for decades – often tied to strong traditions or athletics. But it wasn’t always straightforward. For example, when Case Western Reserve University tried to shorten its brand name to Case about a decade ago it was met with strong alumni backlash from the Western Reserve alumni and the effort was reversed.

But with the consolidation that is starting to happen now in higher ed – a trend that is likely to continue – institutional name changes will become more common. When the Vermont state system integrated Johnson State College and Lyndon State College a few years ago, the new entity was branded Northern Vermont University. These same types of integrations are happening in the Pennsylvania State system and a few others right now but only time will tell what strategy they pursue – new names? Merged names? Or some kind of hybrid? And perhaps most importantly – what happens to the legacy names? Do they disappear or are they part of the nomenclature going forward? There are no easy answers here.

It is highly dependent upon what equities exist in the legacy names and what the future strategy is. And it will also vary depending upon which stakeholders the institution needs to consider as most important: Prospects? Students, Alumni? When Purdue University acquired online educator Kaplan, it determined that investing in the Purdue brand name over time was the best strategic direction and the result was Purdue Global – an extension of the Purdue master brand.

Organizations change and sometimes a name can transcend old meanings.

It’s also worth noting that the need for a new name can arise from things separating or de-affiliating as well. Wright State’s commercial research arm was spun out last year and became Parallax Advanced Research for example. And more instances are emerging where schools end religious affiliations that may have been part of their past but don’t play as big a role going forward. In these situations, a new institutional name might be needed but not always. Organizations change and sometimes a name can transcend old meanings. Just ask Northwestern.

Offer or Experience Naming

Below the institutional level, some interesting things are happening. Possibly the biggest trend of late is with schools creating a name or “sub brand” for their academic offer or student experience. This too is not new but has picked up lately, particularly among small private liberal arts colleges. Here are some examples:

  • Agnes Scott College ….. Summit
  • Hartwick College ….. Flightpath
  • The College of Wooster ….. Pathways
  • Beloit College ….. Channels
  • Hendrix College ….. The Odyssey Program
  • Ripon College ….. Catalyst
  • Earlham College ….. EPIC

I need to point out that these examples are not apples to apples. Some are naming an overall experience while others are naming something more narrowly focused – like a career preparation program. So, they can’t really be compared across the board. But it’s the trend to create new names below the master college or university brand that really matters. And it’s still unclear if this strategy is best. Do these brand names help or hurt the school’s overall brand equity? Should they be more or less aligned with the school’s brand? These and other questions about brand equity and brand architecture must be considered before launching a new offer or experience name. Otherwise the school runs the risk of creating more confusion versus differentiation which is clearly the goal.

So, if a school can create a truly unique academic student experience then why not give it a unique name? But the key word here is unique.

But if done well, this approach can make sense because many small, private liberal arts colleges look, feel and sound very similar on the surface. So, if a school can create a truly unique academic student experience then why not give it a unique name? But the key word here is unique. Institutions that don’t really change or evolve their offer and experience but still wrap a new brand around it will likely not be successful. A brand name in and of itself will not sustain an undifferentiated offer.

Majors and Programs

This may be the next big area of naming activity in higher ed. On one hand there have been numerous challenges to the value of majors by many, including pundits like Jeff Selingo. But thus far few institutions have abandoned them the way that say, Hampshire College has. And for large public universities they still represent the currency by which students and prospects navigate their academic journey. And yet, taken from purely a marketing standpoint, they are a mess and navigating them is neither simple nor intuitive. Full of jargon, esoterica and nuance, it’s an area that gives credence to the term “inside baseball.” Choose a major – if you can figure out what it means.

Of course, we have history to blame here as majors and the names they go by were never created through the lens of a marketer. They are the product of the academy and have their roots in the industrial revolution. But alas, it’s 2021. I recently had a public university CMO comment – after reviewing ALL the majors at his school – that “we have too many SKUs.” Having worked in retail I immediately understood – SKUs (short for stockkeeping units) are how retailers break down their offer and help customers to navigate it. And the best retailers take how they organize their offer very seriously. The best ones go to great lengths to make sure it is logical, familiar, simple and clear. When was the last time you saw a sundries section at your local drugstore? Hopefully not recently as no one recalls what that term means anymore. But in higher education we still have humanities.

Sadly, most of the current activity in naming majors seems to be moving in the opposite direction – to create names that feel forward leaning or about the future – names that people assume will attract GenZ. Names like Digital Humanities, Cybersecurity and Information Assurance, Health Informatics or Integrated Data Science (versus, you know, just normal data science). I think GenZ prospects are far more savvy than we give them credit for and appreciate the simplicity of names like Game Design, Finance or Nursing. Simple is smart.

Word to Live By

Naming is hard. There’s no doubt about that. But it’s mostly hard because we make it that way. We use subjective criteria to evaluate names and expect them to do too many things: express differentiation, communicate function or literal meaning, be memorable, be pronounceable, and maybe most important in the era of digital connectivity – be available. It’s just too much. My advice – pick one, maybe two at most. Because in the end, it’s not about the name. It’s about the product or experience and the benefits it delivers. You can definitely build a great brand on a name that seems just OK at first. I seriously doubt that brand names like Apple, Google and Amazon were met with nothing short of eyerolls when first introduced. We laud them now only because of the brands they became, not the names they were given.

The bottom line: a name is an important part of the branding and marketing equation. But it’s just one part and needs to be considered in the context of everything that surrounds it.