Colleges hop aboard branding bandwagon

The Education Beat

Image: With help from paid consultants, the former Western Maryland College sets about firmly establishing its identity as McDaniel College.

July 07, 2002|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

WITH MODEST ceremony -- nothing stronger than coffee was served, and they gave away the mugs -- Western Maryland College became McDaniel College on Monday.

But I waited until Friday to close out the old file and open a new one 10 letters down the alphabet. By then, I'd heard one conversation and read two Sun news stories in which McDaniel was mentioned without footnote, as though it had been the name of the Westminster school for all of its 135 years.

In the language of marketing, McDaniel is "branding," entering our consciousness and vocabulary without our even knowing it. It's similar to what happens to a woman when she takes her husband's surname upon marriage (or resumes her family name after divorce). But in the business of colleges, a name change these days requires marketing expertise, which McDaniel is buying from a Chicago consultant, Lipman Hearne, reportedly for $200,000.

Colleges and universities seldom change names, and when they do it's usually because something was wrong with the old handle. Western Maryland gave the impression that the school was in the far west of the state and that it was part of the public system. Both misperceptions had negative effects on student applications and alumni giving, or so McDaniel officials and trustees believed.

They took as their example Beaver College in Pennsylvania, which two years ago became Arcadia University and reportedly experienced an increase in applications after dumping a name that unfortunately doubled as vulgar slang.

Arcadia chose a name that begins with the first letter of the alphabet, supposedly an advantage because prospective students are likely to see it early on when looking through college directories. It's punchy and pastoral (even though the mythological Arcadia had human-eating birds that killed their prey with metallic feathers).

McDaniel is named for the late William McDaniel, known as Billy Mac, who, in the words of President Joan Develin Coley, "helped shape the college's destiny" during his 65 years as student, alumnus, professor, administrator, trustee, parent and Westminster resident.

"We couldn't have invented a guy who more personifies the college and what it's all about," said Joyce Muller, McDaniel's associate vice president for communications and marketing. Muller is proud that the school made the decision to change its name and stuck to it, knowing it would be unpopular in some circles, particularly among the old guard.

Indeed, when the subject arose at an Independence Day party attended by several Western Maryland alumni, there was a collective groan and talk of some wealthy alums who have stopped contributing.

"There wasn't a damn thing wrong with `Western Maryland,'" said one, "and there's no strength in this new name, nothing to identify it with the campus or Westminster."

(By the way, Google, the computer search engine, has about 440,000 McDaniel references and 662,000 Arcadia items. By contrast, Accenture, the new name for Andersen Consulting, has 197,000 entries, and Verizon, the former Bell Atlantic, 1.1 million.)

McDaniel is going to take some getting used to. The alumnus complaining Thursday was right: It's not a scintillating name. But the Western Maryland naming committee wasn't obliged to think up something like Atomic College. Besides, if you're trying to brand the college as a place with a family atmosphere, McDaniel is ideal. There's a comforting air about it; your Aunt Fanny should have been a McDaniel.

So I won't be able to give away a Western Maryland coffee mug and claim part of Lipman Hearne's fee for the reader who guessed the new name. None of us came anywhere close. I liked Old Line College, others various forms of Westminster, but Muller wouldn't disclose the runners-up. In this race, there was only first place. Like it or not, it's being branded as we speak.

Opportunities for blacks at state schools noted

Schools in the University System of Maryland have done well in an annual survey of African-American participation in higher education.

The survey, conducted by the publication Black Issues in Higher Education, said the 11 degree-granting schools in the system placed in the nation's top five in 16 categories. Bowie State University, for example, placed second last year in the number of black recipients of master's degrees in computer science, while the University of Maryland, College Park awarded the nation's second-highest number of doctoral degrees to African-Americans at a traditionally white campus.

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