Why GMU’s Renaming Work Has Only Just Begun

Institutions considering a name change should keep these three things in mind.

April 28, 2016

George Mason University’s law school recently underwent a name change. But due to an unfortunate acronym, it was quickly slated for yet another change. Though the renaming has already gotten plenty of attention -- both good and bad -- what’s more important for a renaming is what happens during the lead up to the decision, and in cases like this, the first few years after the renaming.

Antonin Scalia Law School at GMU is an indication of the larger picture of ongoing market pressure affecting enrollment and finances within higher education, as well as potential issues regarding reputation. Renaming in general carries great brand management risk, and at an institution of higher education, it affects everything from enrollment to reputation -- both of the school and of the students it graduates. The operation and success of an institution, both in reality and in perception, is largely related to its pursuit of prestige or reputation. The situation at GMU stresses the increasing need for awareness that the role of brand management can play, and need for constant brand auditing to align brand image, brand identity, and brand soul.

Institutions considering a name change need to have a clear idea of the motivations behind the change, as well as the intended results. Renaming sends a powerful signal that old associations of value and promises are being redefined.

According to the 8 Principles of Renaming, factors to consider during the planning and alignment phase of the organization renaming process that GMU’s Antonin Scalia Law School needs to consider in order to make their name change a success include:

1. Focus on Detailed Rollout Activities

After a decision to rename is made, it is critical that the organization reinforce the change and support the new brand through a continuous strategic realignment and brand audit process to maintain brand relevance. In this case, both GMU and the Antonin Scalia Law School must realign their positions, and reinforce their new/altered brands.

For example, when Arcadia University renamed their institution, they continued this strategic realignment by budgeting for strategic advertising above normal expenses for a total of four years after the actual naming event, and experienced extremely positive results, such as increased enrollment and increased endowment. Lessons learned included: Then president Bette E. Landman went on a two-year tour to visit key stakeholders to more fully discuss the renaming, and explain how it aligned with the strategic plan. She said, “The one big takeaway for me was that I wish I had known the emotional response [to the decision to rename]... ...let people have their emotional response.”

The University also promoted the history and benefits derived from the renaming over the next 10 years, prominently discussing the process and reasoning on their home page, in order to link heritage, brand soul, and brand equity to the new name and reinforce the institution’s new position. They took the inherent publicity of the issues surrounding the renaming, and turned it into a positive story.

On the other hand, one university who renamed mistakenly thought that the renaming itself was enough to accomplish their strategic goals, without the continued marketing to create awareness of the new name and establish their new positioning, didn’t have such good results. For example, they fell short of their goal of increasing the male/female ratio of their student body.

In one case studied, the effect on employees (brand soul) was impacted. As one interviewee put it, “I can’t tell you the number of times I heard faculty, division directors, administrators say, good grief, if you want to change the name, just change it! Get over all this nonsense...”

In general, when planning rollout activities for a renaming:

  • Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
  • Whatever your initial budget – double it.
  • This process will take a toll on your people. Budget for help, and relief.

2. Embrace Existing Goodwill

The “new" Antonin Scalia Law School doesn’t have its own credibility as a brand, but GMU does, and to a related extent, Antonin Scalia did. Tying the names together borrows goodwill from an established brand and lends credibility to a new name. Here they can draw upon Principle 3: Heritage. The unique story that forms an organization’s [or person’s] heritage is a valuable component, and a building block to create brand equity.

This brings up the issue of branding, and sub-branding. While the sub-brand, the law school, should support and uphold the same brand values as the established brand of GMU, it should not overshadow it, or be otherwise at serious odds with it. A renamed school or institution has to honor and uphold the heritage of the existing brand(s) (Principle 3), yet it also must reposition itself as a new entity.

Organizations must determine what the old image was (in this case, of George Mason University Law School), and what they desire the new image of the Antonin Scalia Law School at GMU to be. GMU is known as a Top 50 USNWR-ranked school with faculty known for Libertarian and free-market leanings. What is the anticipated positioning of the Antonin Scalia Law School? How does this impact the current positioning of George Mason University?

3. Manage the Brand for the Long Term

After the formal fall rollout activities, GMU still has work to do to manage the brand and make sure the renaming is successful into the future.

Developing a strong brand involves consistency. After a renaming, it is important to reinforce the new brand in the rollout plan, and then continue to do so in the years that follow. As indicated in the Brand Flux Model, “the identity, image or reputation of an organization is reinforced over long periods of time in equilibrium with its environment, yet with environmental challenges can adapt by altering the branding and/or positioning via revitalization, refocusing, and/or renaming.”

GMU must keep in mind Principle 2 - Stakeholders: All stakeholders need to be recognized and feel involved in the process, not just be given updates. All stakeholders are brand touchpoints, and they contribute to the school’s ongoing brand and heritage.

Branding in higher education today is necessary, but it isn’t easy -- it seeks to appeal to a diverse group of stakeholders and requires a strategy to make that branding a success. Renaming increases the difficulty of making strategic decisions, thus organizations need to address issues with a broader view of the higher education marketplace landscape. Focus on signaling a positive future, not on why the old name was a problem.

Robert Williams is an assistant professor of marketing at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pa.


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