It's all in the name - Pt. I

BlueRaiderZone.com takes an in-depth look at Middle Tennessee State University's name and the issues surrounding the ongoing debate about changing it by looking at institutions that have changed their name, the reasons behind their decision, and what happened after the dust settled on those institutions new name. Part 1 of 2

Here's a quick marketing quiz. Which of these products are you most likely to buy for your next cookout? Coca Cola or Big K Cola; or Doritos or Jays Potato Chips or what about Oscar Meyer vs. Uncle Wiener's Dogs? Ok, so I made that last one up, but you get the point. And remember you're being judged by your guests.

Corporations seeking the right mix of brand marketing and a name for its new products spend billions collectively every year. It's disturbing to see how much money some corporations spend on research to ensure they get the right name for their product. Automobile companies and drug makers, in particular, unload millions at a time to ensure the name of a new product is one the public will immediately connect with.

For name change enthusiasts, there's perhaps no better example of how far a company will go than the entity now known as Accenture. Anderson Consulting, as it was known at the time, spent over $100 million to research and change its name in 2002.

At Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU), there has been a long-standing battle brewing about its name as well. If you've ever taken a marketing class you'll probably immediately appreciate that it isn't so much about the university's name as it is its brand. So, what exactly are the issues with its brand? For starters, it has to overcome perceptions that it's an academically inferior institution to the University of Tennessee, the University of Memphis and Vanderbilt University while competing for the state's top students not to mention fundraising and grants.

Other state and private institutions that impact brand awareness also saturate the mid-state area. That's all before it can begin thinking about recruiting out-of-state talent and the plethora of institutions that exists across the nation. Name gamers who appreciate the impact brand awareness and marketing have on any business, organization or product might look at MTSU and point to additional assumptions such as: 1. It's acronym (MTSU) and the length of its name spelled out resemble a two-year junior college. 2. The perception that MTSU is a small commuter school 3. Confusion in the media, prospective students, and casual observers between MTSU, TSU, and ETSU. 4. Affect on both recruitment of scholars and student-athletes

These are all branding issues, and there's no better place to start in branding than the brand name, which is the storefront that MTSU – or any university for that matter – is selling to potential students, donors, legislators and those that dole out the grants. A good example of this is the comparison between MTSU and UT. The perception is UT is a better school, but what is the basis for that perception? MTSU actually rejects more applications than UT. Admission standards are next to identical, so something has driven the perception. Identifying just how important the name is to that equation is difficult and not easily quantified. For better insight into how branding can affect colleges and universities see THIS article.

A Look at MTSU
When former MTSU President, Dr. James Walker, first stood on the campus in Murfreesboro, TN he believed he had a diamond that simply needed polishing and he wasn't shy about letting his ambitious goals be known. Those included seeing MTSU become a Tier 1 institution, advancing the football program to Division I-A and changing the perception of MTSU as a suitcase teachers college. Perhaps there's no coincidence that each of those were in many ways connected to each other, and they were all about building the brand. To achieve those lofty goals, one area he set his sights on in regard to the perception was the name of the university.

In the 1990's as the university began its quest to change the school's name, MTSU students were asked to vote on the issue. The student body resoundingly voted in favor of the change.

Although Dr. Walker realized his dream to see MTSU football playing at the highest level, his vision to change the perception fell through when other universities (who won't be named) in the Tennessee Board of Regents system blocked the move in the late 90's.

Over a decade later, the name change is still a divisively debated topic particularly in the wake of the recent chaos that germinated from the Big 10's conference expansion announcement. That, in turn, sparked PAC 10 expansion and shook the ground of collegiate athletics for the past few months. It's the prospect that expansion is far from over that has some institutions concerned that the future of collegiate athletics isn't going to be about expansion but rather contraction into a handful of mega conferences.

With market size, football prowess and academic prestige being the catalysts for which universities conferences set their sights on, the focus on MTSU as an academic institution is playing just as much of a factor as the Blue Raiders football program, which is coming off a 10-win season.

Right or wrong the impact on the perception MTSU conveys to those outside of the state of Tennessee has a lot to do with its name, but most, if not all, of the name change banter appears to be driven by water cooler conversations and blogosphere fodder. According to MTSU's Director of Public Affairs, Tom Tozer, no official discussions about the name change have taken place since Dr. Walker's failed attempt in the 90's.

Proponents claim the name is holding the University back. Opponents claim there's no basis for the name change arguing that it's just fine the way it is.

In the interest of full discloser I fall into the proponents camp. However, the debate that has taken place on this issue over the past 10 plus years finally needed to be looked at objectively. With that said, some good ole fashion research and an open mind were all that was needed to better understand this name change phenomenon.

Name Dropping
The number of universities that have made decisions to change their names over the years are almost too large to count and the reasons behind it include a plethora of different objectives. Even MTSU, as it is now known, has changed its name three times.

To narrow this down, the first objective was to identify the reasons why some universities had made a decision to change the name and compare these institutions to MTSU in an effort to ascertain the driving factors behind the decision and whether those factors successfully achieved the original goal.

There were four schools that stood out including North Texas, Troy, Memphis, and Truman State (formerly Northeast Missouri State University). In each of these cases, the university's identified changing the perception, increasing grants and fundraising or all of the above. Other variables also played significant roles in these decisions that will be raised as each situation is analyzed individually. At each of these schools except one, the accepted means to the end was dropping part of the name: STATE. And the lone exception dropped its directional reference in favor of completely new name. In part, we'll review these institutions on a case-by-case basis.

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