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Archive for April, 2013

What’s in a name?

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Universities are funny places really. While consumed with the search for truth, the discovery of new knowledge and the protection of academic and other freedoms, they indulge, just as much as the most modest of appliance stores or used car businesses in bragging, branding and advertising. I don’t know yet of a university with a jingle, but one institution in the US has generated a song as part of its recruitment, and taglines, logos, brand expressions and market positioning abound, often produced at high cost by firms who specialize in such.

If you get the university editions of various magazines you can see this is all in action. Since the main point of these organizations is to collect advertising revenue: the more you pay, the more likely it is that your institutions will be positively profiled. Next time you come across one of these, have someone cut out the ads and arrange them on a wall, minus the names of the institutions, and then see who can guess which pitch belongs to which university.

We did this at KPU as we worked towards our vision and strategic plan, and no one could correctly match ads to places: the ideas expressed were largely all the same, and each ad was simply a remix of the same banalities. If you believe it all, every institution is excellent, leading edge, accessible, relevant, engaged and generally wonderful. Like most advertising, this does not help anyone make an informed decision about where to attend or who to support. It actually verges on fibbing at times.

So what about us? Since arriving at KPU, I have been trying to figure out how best to portray our institution to the communities we serve in a direct and compelling way. Our name was generously given to us by the Kwantlen First Nation, and Kwantlen means “tireless runner”: we use the name and the meaning in several ways as we strive to meet our broad mandate. I organized a debate at the Board of Governors retreat with one of the faculty representatives, Geoff Dean, on how we should portray the institution.

We used Oxford debating rules: take a vote, make our pitch, then both provide a rebuttal, and then vote again. The motion we debated was:

This house supports the use hereon of “KPU” rather than “Kwantlen” as the official short version of “Kwantlen Polytechnic University”, for use in the University’s publications, marketing materials, internal and external reports, etc.

Here is what I said:

The rapid evolution of this institution from Kwantlen College in 1981 to Kwantlen University College in 1996 and to Kwantlen Polytechnic University in 2008 has made a bit of a mess of the mandate and image of the institution, along with its ability, in the mind of its students, alumni and the general public, to latch onto a simple and accurate way of referring to the institution in common, day to day parlance.

Brand expression, as we know, is all too important, even in terms of how people contract and abbreviate names, and while we may enjoy this hearty cut and thrust of debate over the future nickname or contraction for our university, it has serious implications.

Firstly, we need a new abbreviation: Kwantlen Polytechnic University is a mouthful: all 11 syllables of it: when you add the name of campus, it gets silly: “Kwantlen Polytechnic University Cloverdale Campus” could claim to be the next best tongue twister: try saying it quickly several times.

Kwantlen, in and of itself is short enough, but is somewhat inaccurate since it does not indicate that we are not just a university, but a polytechnic university: it fails to include the very word that differentiates us in BC if not in Canada.

We also need a new form of abbreviation to reflect the fact that we have moved on: now, I know that news is four years old, and I know that we still have lots of letter head and signs and publications that use the previous logo and font and colour from years ago, and that gives us more reason to really get serious about using our bold new logo and brand. In the old style there was no recognized contraction for Kwantlen Polytechnic University, while in the new style there is an explicit use of the logo with KPU.

Another point in favour of this motion is that the use of Kwantlen as a contraction makes it hard for people to realize that we are now a university: Kwantlen College just trips off the tongue with its cute alliteration: people have this memory for the majority of the institution’s history, and using Kwantlen is just tempting them to blurt out the heretical “College”.

I don’t need to remind you also that Kwantlen, as it stands alone, should be protected for its noble origin as the name of our local First Nation: they have been so gracious in allowing us to use it as the name of our institution, but surely not to throw it around out of context, possibly causing confusion.

It is bad enough that so many have misappropriated it for all manner of commercial activity and clubs. There is Kwantlen Pizza, Kwantlen Toastmasters, and the Kwantlen Skate Park. And we even miss-use the name internally: the Kwantlen Eagles for instance: surely that should be re-thought.

Many contractions already lead the way: the KFA and KSA for instance.

Finally, and most importantly, our students much prefer KPU: it is contemporary, it has the all-important “U” in it, and it takes its place alongside our sister institutions: UBC, SFU, VIU, UFV, BCIT, TRU, and so on.

Langara and Douglas and Camosun will stay that way because their names and mandates have not changed.

So, let us take the next step: let us move on, let us adopt KPU in any but formal and legal announcements and correspondence, and in doing so encourage others to move to KPU Eagles, and KPU Psychology and so on.

And anyway it fits so well on the T-shirts.”

I caught Geoff by surprise with my wit and forcefulness, but he did pretty well all the same, suggesting that “Kwantlen” is only two syllables and thus a shorter contraction than KPU. Also, if you Google “KPU”, you come up with some interesting references, including a public utility in Alaska and the Kabul Polytechnic University. (Of course the more you use KPU for our institution, the more that will change on Google: there are ways you can take ownership of the acronym.)

I won the debate of course because I knew what it would take to sway people, not necessarily because of the sense I made.

Afterwards, Geoff sent me this:

“This is Geoff Dean, broadcasting from KPUG’s new NAFTA-approved station in Blaine to listeners in southern B.C.  Our top story:  As part of the B.C. government’s internationalization of its post-secondary system, Korea’s Polytechnic University will be taking over Kwantlen College’s Richmond campus, and Kabul Polytechnic University will be taking over Kwantlen’s Surrey campus.  Meanwhile, B.C.’s premier, concerned about possible fraud in the upcoming election, has asked the Indonesian electoral commission, the Komisi Pemilihan Umum or KPU, to examine B.C.’s current electoral system.  And just across the line north of us, the city of White Rock will be reducing its power and telecommunications costs through a just-signed contract with Ketchikan Public Utilities. Finally, a health alert:  Fraser Health reports that cases of kryptopyrolurea, KPU disease, are skyrocketing across the south Fraser region …”

Funny guy, eh?

The suggestion was made to do some surveys, and the results amongst employees and students were pretty evenly split between official uses of KPU versus Kwantlen. We have some external discussions to hold, but it looks like we will use both, but increasingly shift official references in ads, letterhead, business cards, etc. to KPU. We will also change our web and e-mail domains to KPU, all at very minimal cost.

And how about our own banal tag line to go with it? We asked about that too, and the results ranged from enthusiasm to horror. So, we just won’t use one, partly because we just do not need it and we certainly don’t need to add to the clutter of meaningless noise. We want to be direct and honest and build our reputation through our achievement, not through vague promises.

What do you think?