UPDATE: A proof of my journal case study on this topic is linked at the bottom of this blog post.
Ten years ago this month — on New Year’s Day, in fact — the university where I work changed its name from the University of Missouri-Rolla, or UMR, to Missouri University of Science and Technology, or Missouri S&T for short.
Our marketing and communications team was heavily involved in the name change process, particularly on the communications side and the inevitable rebranding. The months leading up to New Year’s Day 2008 were filled with long hours and full days of handling behind-the-scenes work related to making the change. We worked with people representing every possible stakeholder group to build buy-in across campus and among alumni. We sent out letters to organizations that did business with us to let the know about the name change and tell them that, come Jan. 1, we would still be the same university, but with a different name. We presenting about the name change to groups on campus and in the community. We “flipped” a mammoth website to a new look and format, transporting tons of content — a task as herculean as me trying to judo-flip an elephant. We moved into a visual identity that was a stark departure from our old look,. We reminding faculty and staff to update their voicemail recordings and email signatures before the new year and new name took effect.
We did a lot of other stuff, too. Stuff that wouldn’t have even occurred to me (like the importance of changing voicemails) if someone else hadn’t thought of it.
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to see where we fell short with our process as we rushed to meet the Jan. 1 deadline. The name change didn’t go off without a hitch. Mistakes were made, hitches were had and metaphorical balls were fumbled. But our university, I believe, is a better university because of the name change. (For our university news site, we recently posted a top 10 list of reasons to celebrate the change.)
From a rebranding standpoint, here are five important takeaways:
1. Dare to be different
Name changes are nothing new. But in the realm of higher education, they’re seldom radical. Or bold.
Most institutions change their name not to differentiate, but to convey more status or prestige.
They’ll upgrade the name from “______ College” to “_______ University,” or they’ll remove a regional designation from the name to convey a broader, statewide mission. Years ago, teachers colleges, which for some reason were called “normal” schools, got rid of that nomenclature, often in exchange for the regional designation.
At Missouri S&T, our trustees and then-Chancellor John F. Carney III wanted a name that would better reflect the intrinsic nature of our university. The University of Missouri-Rolla was about as nondescript as you could get. But if we wanted to attract more students interested in STEM-related field, a name containing the words “science and technology” might pique such a student’s interest more than our former name.
The point is, most name changes occur because the people leading these institutions want to be more like other institutions that they perceive as more prestigious or better. And so they change “college” to “university,” remove the regional designation from their name, and continue to try to be like the herd.
We wanted a name that captured our difference, our distinctiveness.
(By the way, this was our second name change. We were originally called the University of Missouri School of Mines and Metallurgy, often shortened to Missouri School of Mines. Those names said something about our school’s founding and heritage, but by the early 1960s, we had become a broader institution.)
2. Strive for consistency
Consistency may be the hobgoblin of small minds, as the saying goes. But in rebranding, striving for consistency is essential. This applies to the visual identity, what you call the institution (especially when the full name is a mouthful) and, when talking to others about the change, being able to communicate the reasons.
During the same time as our name change, two big telecommunications companies were merging: Singular and AT&T. Most people probably think that AT&T bought Singular. In fact, it was the other way around. But Singular knew the AT&T brand was the more powerful and more recognized of the two, and so they transitioned to that name. You don’t see many references to Singular these days. That’s because the company was intentional and consistent in its change.
3. The logo matters
I know. I know. A brand is more than a logo. But the logo matters. And not just because everybody has an opinion about it and it’s the thing people feel most strongly about.
People feel strongly about a logo because it’s the most visual and prominent representation of your brand. A name change as significant as ours required a logo that would be strikingly different. We were fortunate to end up with a powerful, iconic mark that strengthens our identity. The custom ampersand features a pickax as a nod to our mining engineering heritage, giving the mark a unique and playful aspect. One twitter follower of the university describes it as “the greatest part of the logo.”
4. Build your brand based on research
As an admissions officer I once knew was fond of saying, “The plural of anecdote is not data.” Too often, marketing and branding decisions are based on a hunch, an anecdote, the highest paid person’s opinion or what I call the “all or nothing factor” (“Nobody knows who we are! We need to tell our story better.” “Everybody hates our logo! We need to change it!”) than on actual market or brand research. (As Ologie‘s William Faust pointed out in a recent tweet, there is a difference between market research and brand research.)
Our decision to change the name was informed by market research, some of which we conducted on our own and part of which was carried out by the firm SimpsonScarborough. And when we began a brand identity refresh a few years ago, we again called on SimpsonScarborough to conduct research about recognition and perceptions of our name since the 2008 launch. Based on those findings, we brought in Ologie to help evolve our brand strategy.
5. Brand-building never ends
Never, ever assume that a brand refresh or rebrand is ever finished. Brand-building is a continuous process.
As part of our brand management plan, we continue to conduct market research and have aspirations to conduct another big project, if the budget allows, to measure progress and perceptions against the research we conducted in 2014-2015. Universities should continue to monitor brand perceptions and adjust the sails accordingly.
Bonus takeaway: haters gonna hate
Not everyone will love your branding decisions, and that’s okay. Has there ever been a rebranding effort or logo unveiling that was met with unanimous support? Even the beloved Starbucks faced significant pushback from customers when it rolled out a revamped logo seven years ago. If that brand refresh didn’t escape criticism, what makes you think yours will?
The process of rolling out the new name, and even the subsequent brand refresh, encountered opposition. In these cases, I try to remind myself of the 20-60-20 rule as it relates to change management. That rule suggests that:
- 20 percent of your stakeholders will be on board with whatever you are doing. These are your biggest supporters. Don’t worry about them — let them be your champions and advocates.
- 20 percent will automatically oppose your rebranding. Ignore them. You won’t be able to win them over.
- 60 percent of the people are on the fence. This is the group you need to focus on.
Dig deeper: Download “The elements of brand-building,” a case study about the name change that I wrote for the winter 2017-2018 edition of Journal of Education Advancement & Marketing.