Northwestern's Medill's New Name Encompasses Everything but Says Nothing

Plus a Quick, Easy -- and Short -- Fix That Accomplishes More With Less

By Published on .

Al Ries
Al Ries

You might have missed the news: The board of trustees of Northwestern University have approved the expansion of Medill's formal name to the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications.

"The expanded name," said Medill Dean John Lavine, "fairly recognizes who we are and the kinds of professional careers our graduates enter."

Hmmm. Let's say you're a recent graduate of Medill and are trying to get a job at General Electric. After all, they could probably use an expert in journalism, media and integrated marketing communications.

GE would be a perfect place to put your new-found knowledge to work. As everyone knows, General Electric doesn't just make electrical products. It has a big business in medical equipment, jet engines, infrastructure and finance, among other things.

Voila! You have the perfect solution for the company. An expanded name that fairly recognizes who they are and what they do. The company could be called the "General Electric Medical, Jet Engine, Finance and Infrastructure Company." Or GEMJEFIC, for short. (Actually, GE might be receptive to a name change with all the bad publicity the company has been receiving about not paying taxes on its $14.2 billion in profits last year.)

Seriously, though, is that what Medill is teaching its students? That as time goes on, names need to be expanded to include additional activities an organization is getting into. That contradicts decades of marketing thought.

Heaven help Advertising Age if it hires a Medill student to help the publication move into the journalism, media and integrated-marketing-communications era.

Possible new name for the publication: "Advertising, Public Relations, Direct Marketing & Social Media Age."

Medill has a "name" problem. The word "journalism" has become obsolete. No young person wants to be a "journalist." What does that mean? Keeping a journal? Writing a blog?

Young people today want to get into TV. Or into the newspaper or magazine business. Or into the radio business. Or into the internet.

The sum-up word for these activities is "media." Wouldn't a better alternative to the Medill School of Journalism be the "Medill School of Media?"

Furthermore, "media" is alliterative with Medill, always a good idea in a name. (BlackBerry, Dunkin' Donuts, Best Buy, Dirt Devil, Mickey Mouse, PayPal, Range Rover and dozens of other successful brands.)

Then, too, media is a two-way street. It can be understood to include the people who produce it (formerly journalists) and the people who buy or try to place messages in it (advertising and PR specialists).

In addition, Medill has another name problem. It already is a secondary name. It's part of Northwestern. Many people refer to the school as Northwestern's Medill.

If you look at a number of successful educational institutions, they seem to be going in the opposite direction from Medill. Do you remember the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Alabama? Probably not. In 1899, it changed its name to Alabama Polytechnic Institute. You probably don't know that name either since in 1960 it was changed to Auburn University.

Medill is making a classic "branding" mistake. It is trying to put meaning into its brand name when the best brand names are those that are devoid of "inherent" meaning.

What does the name "Auburn" mean?

What does the name "Princeton" mean?

You probably know that these are the cities in which the universities of the same name are located. But that's not their "brand" meaning. Auburn University and Princeton University are well-known and respected institutions of higher learning.

Almost all recent brand successes use names that are mostly devoid of inherent meaning. Google, Facebook, Zappos, Starbucks, Craigslist, Wikipedia, eBay and many others. Their "brand" meanings have been developed by years of marketing activities.

When you start with a blank canvas, name wise, you can often build a dominant brand much easier than starting with a name that has a verbal anchor.

Suppose Auburn and Princeton were called "Auburn City University" and "Princeton City University." Do you suppose they would have become the educational institutions they are today? (Actually, Princeton was once called the College of New Jersey.)

New York City, for example, is one of the most important and dynamic cities in the world. But City University of New York is just not in the same class as Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Stanford and dozens of other universities that are not nailed down by a verbal anchor.

Furthermore, if Medill wants to become the "mighty Medill of media," it has to get out from under its Northwestern umbrella.

Look at Wharton, the country's best-known graduate school of finance. Few people say The University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. Wharton has succeeded in moving out from under the University of Pennsylvania, another verbal anchor.

It's human nature to want to identify with a larger institution than your own. But that's not the way to build a brand. The way to build a brand is to create a unique, individual identity that stands on its own.

That's why line extensions are weak. The extension always plays the role of caboose to the master brand's engine.

As far as names are concerned, why wouldn't Medill want to take credit for "integrated marketing communications," an idea the institution created and nurtured?

They would and should, except for one problem. "Integrated marketing communications" is a brilliant idea hobbled with a descriptive name when it should have had a memorable brand name.

In every company I have studied, I have yet to find a "CIMCO," chief integrated marketing communications officer. What I have found, however, are thousands of CMOs.

On second thought, how about the Medill School of Marketing?

Well, what about Northwestern's Kellogg, the graduate school best known for "marketing?" As far as Medill is concerned, Kellogg is the enemy -- sibling rivalry, if you will. Kellogg has a reputation for marketing, but the school itself is called the School of Management.

Medill needs to get out from under the Northwestern umbrella and start building an independent brand with a short, memorable name.

Al Ries is chairman of Ries & Ries, an Atlanta-based marketing strategy firm he runs with his daughter and partner Laura.
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