This article examines how the recent rebranding of the University of Wisconsin System into the “Universities of Wisconsin” can be both a lesson and a cautionary tale for any organization looking to solve its problems with a name change.
Overview: Rebranding the University of Wisconsin System
No, that’s NOT a typo in the subtitle of this article! Recently, the University of Wisconsin System made what they deemed to be a major, groundbreaking, and seismic-level announcement! They were changing the name of their university system from the University of Wisconsin System to the “Universities of Wisconsin.” See the difference? Yes, it’s a slight difference - maybe one could even say is a sleight-of-hand one.
And because the UW System is the entity that is funded - and ultimately governed - by the state's legislature, they can’t really change the name from a legal standpoint. However, this rebrand is high-stakes, as the state’s university system is banking a lot - a whole lot - on this name change!
The University of Wisconsin System and its member campuses have certainly had a tough time of it of late. The Wisconsin State Legislature slashed funding for the system this past summer, even though its campuses are already operating at a “structural deficit” of tens of millions of dollars annually. But Wisconsin’s problems are not unique, as the “higher education industry” nationwide is trying to deal with a multitude of problems, including declining enrollments, rising costs, and increased competition from online education. And then there is the existential question that many young people, their parents, and yes, state legislators, are asking today - and college leaders have to acknowledge themselves: Is a college education simply worth it?
Now for sure, the UW System has tried to make a “big splash” with its rebrand to better market itself to the state and its various audiences and constituencies across Wisconsin. They have put out what is certainly a well-produced video themselves…
… and of course, held a press conference and issued a news release to announce the name change. The UW System President, Jay Rothman, even made the announcement not in Madison, the state capital and the site of the actual University of Wisconsin and the System’s headquarters, but instead at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, one of the 13 schools that make up the now Universities of Wisconsin (See Table 1 [Member Schools of the University of Wisconsin System] below). In point of fact, the UW System currently has approximately 161,000 students at 13 universities across 26 campuses.
Table 1 - Member Schools of the University of Wisconsin System
- UW–Eau Claire
- UW–Green Bay
- UW–La Crosse
- UW–River Falls
- UW–Stevens Point
* Doctoral granting schools
Source: University of Wisconsin System: Our Campuses, October 2023.
But, of course, there was also criticism that the rebranding that changed the university system's name from a singular to a plural name cost the university system - and the state's taxpayers - almost half a million dollars in consulting fees to come up with the “right” name change! However, the system’s leadership justified the expenditure in that the name change and rebranding highlighted the fact that there are 13 member institutions in the state’s university system - not just the University of Wisconsin. System President Jay Rothman stated that: “The Universities of Wisconsin is the best way to describe our thirteen excellent universities. This new name rightfully shifts the focus from the System to the Universities that are providing opportunities to the students and families we serve.” And the president of the System’s Board of Regents, Karen Walsh tried to emphasize the collective strength of the system, observing that: “Everyone in our state can take pride in all the universities do to improve lives and communities… We have thirteen universities with one mission – to make Wisconsin Future Ready. For All.”
Their strategy was simple, to try and better “sell” the whole system - to the public and to legislators - rather than as just the “flagship” school, the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and then “everybody else.” This would surely give them, as no doubt, their consultants told the system’s leadership, a better way to position the UW System in its ongoing battle over state funding and to market all of its member schools. Now, we are in the early stages of this rebranding effort, as it will take months to change all the marketing materials, the signage, the stationery, etc. However, the transition from the University of Wisconsin System to the Universities of Wisconsin will be a difficult rebrand if history is our guide.
This article looks at why rebranding is such a difficult challenge, especially when dealing with politics and political entities. Then, the author will offer one way - for free - that the university systems’ high-stakes rebranding effort could yet be somewhat salvaged.
Rebranding: A Tough Sell
Now, as a strategic management professor and consultant, I can say that I’ve seen my share of rebranding efforts. And I can safely say one thing from my years of experience: Rebranding is a tough - very tough - proposition! Once your brand image is established, whether we are talking about a grocery store item, fast food, an airline, or yes, a university, it is very difficult to change the consumer’s - or the constituent’s - perspective on your brand. Full stop!
Sure, entire companies have changed their names and their brand identities, as there is a big business - and much money to be made in “rebranding” efforts by consultants and marketing/advertising experts. Here’s the thing though: Image, despite the tagline made famous by tennis great, Andre Agassi, in an ad campaign for Canon cameras, is not everything!
But the floors of advertising agencies are lined with failed campaigns of companies, organizations, and even politicians who have unsuccessfully tried to change the public’s perception of the brand. With each and every effort, the marketing consultants and ad experts all laid out solid cases to the brand’s decision-makers - and were handsomely rewarded for their efforts, no matter the ultimate outcome! But the mind of the consumer - and equally so, the constituent - is very tough to change when it comes to a brand’s image!
Now there have certainly been rebranding efforts that have been very successful, whether we are talking about a name change - witness the 2018 move when Dunkin’ Donuts simply became Dunkin’ (to emphasize that they were a whole lot more than donuts today!)...
…or an image change. In this latter case, Lego, which has been a staple of childhood for decades, rebranded itself to be a maker of play products for all ages. In doing so, the maker of plastic bricks that a user can make into not just a figure, but today, art - has greatly enlarged its audience - and its potential market and potential revenue base - moving from the edge of bankruptcy a little more than a decade ago to becoming arguably the world’s most powerful brand today!
And the task of changing public perception is tough - perhaps even tougher - in the political space. Throughout history, Presidential candidates have attempted to rebrand themselves - with extremely varying degrees of success. Many not alive today will not know that President Bill Clinton was on his road to not being President after investigative reporting revealed his first extramarital affair during the primary season in 1992. However, after Clinton - checks notes - actually lost the 1992 New Hampshire Presidential Primary to the late Paul Tsongas, he declared himself “The Comeback Kid,” and his march to the Presidency was on.
Likewise, then-President Ronald Reagan’s campaign theme was that it was finally “Morning in America,” capitalizing on a feeling of optimism in the country that after years of Watergate, the Iran Hostage Crisis, and the severe economic problems in the late 1970s and early 1980s (problems that make today's economic issues pale in comparison)…
… that the country was on the rise, and of course, with the implied branding that President Reagan was the spark behind all the feelings of optimism in the public mood - and even in pop culture!
On the flip side, there are many, many more times when political branding has flopped - and flopped big time - mainly due to clever negative branding conducted by one’s political opponents! As one who teaches strategic management, I can safely say that there is one absolute truth in most political branding. In short, if you do not successfully brand yourself, those who are against you will do the branding - in a negative way - for you! Whether we are talking about a candidate for the Presidency, the Congress, the state house, or the town council, it is tough - really, really tough - to change your image in the minds of the public once the die - so to speak - is cast - even if it is cast 100% negatively by your opposition! There are countless examples throughout American history of how “negative branding” works - and works well - all the way back to the days of Presidents Andrew Jackson…
and Grover Cleveland…
These two won the Presidency, despite furious - and catchy - sloganeering against them!
However, perhaps the two most negative branding examples in the entire history of U.S. political campaigns - that worked (i.e. produced victory) - were conducted by the campaigns of then-President Lyndon B. Johnson (against Republican Senator Barry Goldwater) in 1964 (with the famous “Daisy Ad”)...
… and then Vice-President George H.W. Bush’s campaign against the then-Democratic Governor of Massachusetts, Michael Dukakis in 1988 (with the now somewhat infamous - but highly effective - “Willie Horton Ad”)…
And in the current highly partisan, hypercharged political environment, this is even more true today in the “Age of Trumpian Politics!,” where one quip from ex-President Donald J. Trump can brand someone for life - as he has done - like it or not - with devastating effects on his political opponents (i.e. take Senator Marco Rubio of Florida - or “Little Marco” as Trump famously/infamously dubbed him during the 2016 campaign).
In sum, exactly who you are - as a political candidate or even a political entity (say, a state university system), can either be defined by you - or by those who are resistant to your message or even outwardly oppose you. This is an essential consideration - and lesson - that I have seen many, many of those leading government agencies fail to take into account as they lead, and yes, try to market, the public face of their organization to the public.
Analysis: The Universities of Wisconsin…and The "Jeb! Paradox"
The historical political example that I think most closely parallels what the University of Wisconsin System is trying to achieve today with its rebranding to the “Universities of Wisconsin” is one that similarly makes just a slight “tweak” to a name to try and change the perception of a public brand. Rather than rebranding by changing a singular to a plural as is the case here, this one boils down to punctuation - specifically, an exclamation point!
You may remember back to the Republican primary campaign of 2016. Yes, that election ended up being won by - checks notes - one Donald Trump, but the front-runner for the Republican Party’s nomination in 2015 was former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. Yes, he was uniquely positioned for the job, being both the son and brother of past Presidents! However, his campaign made a decision to design the campaign logo (and hence, their signage, their ads, their buttons, etc.) without using his famous name (yes, because some voters would hold that against him!). Rather, the campaign used simply “Jeb”...but they also added an exclamation point to the logo. Now, while design experts lauded the campaign logo…
…excitement that voters just did not feel for Jeb Bush - as evidenced by this famous clip ("please clap") from his campaign!
Now, political analysts have noted that there were multiple reasons as to why Jeb Bush failed to make a dent in the Trump juggernaut that took over the Republican Party in 2016. And yet, the most memorable that most remember about the ill-fated Jeb Bush campaign was that exclamation point - probably more than Jeb himself! In fact, the exclamation point seemed to become the point of the campaign, the focus of media attention, and not the candidate himself - and that becomes a huge distraction - and problem - when you are operating in the political sphere.
And so to me, as both a strategic management consultant and yes, a university professor, I believe there is a significant marketing and advertising lesson to be learned here from the University of Wisconsin System’s recent announcement that it was changing its name - well, at least its brand. And this is a lesson that ALL organizations, in the public or private sectors, can learn from. The system’s leadership, no doubt, had good intentions in undertaking this rebrand to emphasize the plural, rather than the singular, nature of their system’s institutions. However, much like the exclamation point in “Jeb!,” the focus - and questions - is on the grammar, not the substance of the matter. And yes, when you head up a political entity of any kind, whether it is a federal, state, or local governmental unit, you have to undertake any such rebranding carefully. For a misstep - or a step that is perceived to cost too much and not really make sense to not just outsiders, but to those who approve and fund your budget - can bring a whole lot of media attention to your rebrand - and not the kind you were looking for!
Here’s the thing. There’s one view of universities and university systems from the inside, and a whole other view of these entities from the outside! In the higher education business (and yes, it is a business), we pay a great deal of attention to things like our governing boards - and to who is on them and what they are doing. However, beyond the four walls of any university, most citizens - even those who may not be employed or attend that university, but who care about it and have a stake in it through whatever their “felt” connection might be (parents, alumni, local businesses, and oh yes, fans of their sports teams) - would not know who, what and where the governing board of that university exactly is - and they would not care! Their interest is in “their” institution, not the system to which their university happens to belong. And no marketing campaign, no rebrand - no matter how slick, how well-funded, and how focus-group tested it might be - will really change that. Full stop!
And so to me, the leaders of the University of Wisconsin System fell into the “Grammar Trap” - or what we might more precisely call the “Jeb! Paradox.” The name change to the Universities of Wisconsin was really - as the saying goes - “too clever by half.” The “net” effect of the rebranding effort so far has been to call media, students, faculty, citizens, and yes, legislators' attention to how much money was spent on the name change effort - $480,000! That seemed like a whole lot of money spent on a name change that appeared just as trivial as Jeb’s exclamation point! As Emily Otten, a student writing for the University of Wisconsin’s Badger Herald independent campus newspaper put it bluntly in her criticism of the system, and specifically system President Jay Rothman:
“Nearly half a million dollars spent on a simple name change and rebrand is extravagant and is not what will ultimately attract students to attend a public university in Wisconsin. These funds should have been allocated to improve facilities on University of Wisconsin campuses and fund programs that could actually entice undergraduate students to work in Wisconsin after graduation.”
And all of this bad publicity for the university system comes at an especially bad time, when the news about what is happening at Wisconsin’s universities of late (October 2023) is well, pretty bleak, even when the press gets the new name “right:”
- “Cuts loom for several UW campuses amid financial deficits”
- “'Sad day' at UW-Oshkosh, as 1 in 6 jobs eliminated”
- “Universities of Wisconsin to Close a Branch Campus and Move 2 Online”
So, this management expert’s favorite three-word consultant question about how to handle a situation at a crticial moment is simply this: “And now what?” This question is "borrowed" from former NFL team executive Amy Trask, and for the leaders of the now-renamed Universities of Wisconsin, they now have a real conundrum on their hands that calls on them to ask themselves that simple, 3-word question: "And now what?"
The top state university administrators sought to focus attention on the whole of the higher ed system in Wisconsin with the rebranding effort. But instead, the rebranding effort has brought more negative attention to the system - and its leadership - for undertaking such an exercise that cost what, to the outside, looks like big dollars that could have been better used elsewhere in the university system and on its 13 campuses. And the expenditure seems all the more wasteful - and trivial - at a critical time for all of Wisconsin’s higher education system precisely because of the trivial nature of the name change. Moving from the singular (the University of Wisconsin System) to the plural (the Universities of Wisconsin) on all your communications, your marketing, your public relations, your internal communications, your signage, etc. seems like something an intern or, in the higher ed world, a graduate assistant, might have put out there as an idea or as a student project in a marketing class - not a $480,000 concept!
The lesson to be learned here is simple and it applies to any organization looking to rebrand itself or its products/services today: Anytime you undertake any kind of marketing or branding effort, you must anticipate the reaction - or even the possible reaction, especially in the age of social media - to your organization’s move. Needless to say, I do not think the university leaders really thought this one through, given the context of the moment and the seemingly trivial - but expensive - nature of the branding change for the system. Whatever your business - and yes, higher education is a business, you need to think not just about how your grand, well-thought-out, and yes, maybe even expensive strategy will actually play out once it is launched. So many times, and not just when it comes to branding and/or rebranding efforts, but things like advertising and marketing, product design, even policy changes, what looks sooooooo very good in the Powerpoint presentation and on the walls of the executive conference room don’t work out well - or at all - when the proverbial “rubber meets the road!”
And so the University of Wisconsin System’s decision to rebrand itself with a plural over a singular identity is now a done deal. The bell, as the old adage goes, can’t be “unrung!” With that being said, the operative question for their system leadership is indeed “and now what?” Going forward, the Universities of Wisconsin - as a system identity - does help the system promote the overall well-being of all higher education institutions in the state. There are, no doubt, advantages to that identity, especially from a lobbying/advocacy standpoint. And yet, it is safe to say that literally no one outside of a state - any state’s - university system really feels any connection to the system. Instead, their felt connection is to the college that is “theirs” - their school, their son or daughter’s school, their employer, the school in their town, etc.
The system can - and should - just go with their new system brand as the Universities of Wisconsin, - there's simply no retreating at this point. But to the public, they should make sure that they do not focus on marketing their system over doing everything in their power to have each of their member institutions market their own unique identities, stories, and yes, issues. By building up the public’s connection to their own chosen school(s), and not trying to forge a bond between the public and an amorphous system that just really can’t be built, no matter how hard - and with how much expenditure of time and yes, resources, the best strategy for collective success for the system schools is to market the individual universities themselves, not the university system as a whole! People identify with their school, not a system.
About David Wyld
David Wyld is a Professor of Strategic Management at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, Louisiana. He is a management consultant, researcher/writer, publisher, executive educator, and experienced expert witness. You can view all of his work at https://authory.com/DavidWyld. You can subscribe to his Medium article feed at: https://davidwyld.medium.com/subscribe.
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