For WMC, name game is roll of dice

January 31, 2002|By John Brain

"A ROSE by any other name," wrote Shakespeare, "would smell as sweet."

Maybe, but in the marketing biz, names have strong aromas that attract or repel customers like coffee or skunk.

And since institutions of higher education are marketers first and educators later, Western Maryland College, situated in Westminster, now a suburb of Baltimore, is eager to disabuse potential customers of the misconception they are way out in the hinterlands along with Frostburg State, where students have nothing else to do but drink.

It's understandable that Western Maryland College would not want to be tagged as Backwoods U, but name changing as the key to image enhancement is risky. Building brand identity is a long process, and customers can feel intense loyalty to names and products that have long been part of their lives.

When the Coca-Cola Co. decided to launch New Coke after exhaustive focus groups and taste tests, they were stunned when consumers rioted after they were told old Coke would be taken off the shelves. The signature curvy Coke bottles and barnside ads had long ago won the hearts and minds of consumers, who resented the desecration of their icons. As a result, Old Coke was retained as Coca-Cola Classic and now outsells New Coke (renamed Coke II) by a huge margin.

Another example of image changing gone awry was RCA's abandonment of its dog-and-phonograph logo on the advice of image consultants, only to bring back Nipper a few years later.

At issue was a variant of the eternal marketing conflict between "Old-fashioned Goodness" and "New and Improved," the nostalgic attachment to golden oldies vs. the attraction to new scientific wonders and magic ingredients, exemplified by Aunt Jemima and Total.

Even so, thousands of organizations change their names every year for a variety of reasons, and image consultants do a thriving trade.

WMC, as Western Maryland College is known locally (attested by at least one road sign), is reported to be spending $200,000 on finding a new name. So the nouvelle aroma better be compelling.

While some old names just have to go (who wouldn't want to buy Scotch tape from 3M instead of the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company?), often name changing is just a manifestation of New Broom Syndrome, the desire of new chief executives to remake the organization in their own image.

So what shall we call the college? Westminster College sounds pretty classy to me, and its acronym can become just WC.

Or an imaginative board could follow the lead of sports stadiums and name the school for the highest bidder, like PSINet, a name beloved by Baltimoreans.

Or for a prominent benefactor, like Meyerhoff Hall. How about Angelos College, with an Asbestos Center? Prominent benefactors eventually just die, and today Johns Hopkins remains well honored.

Which brings us back to the original college, named after the Western Maryland Railroad Co. in 1876. The problem for WMC is that folks don't remember the railroad. So maybe they should upgrade to Western Maryland Railroad University.

John Brain, a Baltimore writer, teaches in the Mass Communication Department at Towson University, formerly Towson State University and Towson State College.

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