Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Booth, just Booth

I suppose there may be limited interest for you, Gentle Reader (and don't we miss Isaac Asimov?), in hearing news about my erstwhile educational institution, the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, whoops, that's wrong, isn't it? But, hey, it's been five whole days since I wrote anything about it, so bear with me.

As I wrote last Friday, the school, if I may call it that, has changed its name in response to a $300 million donation. I'm always a little wary of those contribution-fueled name changes, mainly because I fear that subsequent donors will give more and insist their names be added to the masthead, conjuring the specter of the University of Chicago Booth-Gates-Buffett-Ellison-Mittal-Slim-Kamprad-Albrecht School of Business, and I have enough trouble keeping my resume to the ordained one page as it is. Since that doesn't seem to have happened elsewhere, other than the occasional dustup over a name change, I guess I won't lose a lot of sleep over that.

But my complaint wasn't with the gift, which is most generous, nor with the name change itself, but with the mess about branding that was the heart of the Dean's letter to us, one that featured an impressive but disappointing spate of buzz words and nonsense, and failed even a minimal logical test. One example was Dean Ted's stating that "we can build an identity that has no limitations," which would be meaningless standing alone; when juxtaposed with a school that has been around 110 years and done quite well, it's pretty well moronic.

Apparently, there's been some confusion or controversy over the name, because Dean Ted has sat down, put pen to paper, and sent out another missive to the "Community." I will reprint the text in full, because I wouldn't want you to miss anything:

Our announcement of David Booth's very generous and powerful vote of confidence in our business school and our rebranding the school The University of Chicago Booth School of Business have been nothing short of historic. The feedback has been as extraordinary as the gift and the naming of the school itself.

To clarify, there are three ways to refer to our school:

  • The University of Chicago Booth School of Business
  • Chicago Booth
  • Booth

The rebranding of the school has empowered us to move away from a generic description, Graduate School of Business or GSB, to Chicago Booth, which has the potential to become a world class brand befitting this world class institution. Our goal is for Chicago Booth to be the best business school in the world and to be recognized as such.

We believe that referring to the school by name rather than by its initials will go a long way in helping us achieve this goal. We would like to elicit your support and help in successfully launching our new brand. When referring to your school, please use The University of Chicago Booth School of Business, Chicago Booth or simply Booth. Please resist the temptation to call the school the BSB or the Booth School of Business.

I am confident that propelled by David’s record breaking gift and the amazing press coverage we've already received, your thoughtful stewardship of the Chicago Booth brand will be just what we need to achieve unprecedented levels of broader recognition, familiarity and respect exceeding that of any other business school.

Thanks for your help and support.

I could parse (or, in Internet terminology, fisk) this letter endlessly. The early hyperbole ("The announcement...have [sic] been nothing short of historic" - "The feedback has been...extraordinary") that leads one to believe that Dean Ted has missed his true calling of writing blurbs for Extra ("Coming up, we look at a five-year-old photo of Brad Pitt, only on...Ex-tra!"), this may be excusable - I might be a little giddy myself if someone gave me $300 million to play with.

And I may be a little oversensitive to the fascistic tendencies of telling graduates, who, after all, paid a lot of money to go to the school, exactly what they can and cannot call it, though Dean Ted might want to pick up his Orwell sometime.

No, it's this ongoing "brand" nitwittery which offends me, the idea that changing a name changes the substance, and the implication that what has gone before is somehow inferior, mainly because we didn't have a way cool brand.

At its essence, a brand is an attempt to create value where there is none, to imbue a thing with qualities that it almost certainly can't possess. Coca-Cola is not a touch of home, with Grandma and Grandpa and Spot, it's sugar water. John McCain is a Republican and, except around re-election time, a pretty reliable one; his "maverickiness" is a brand, nothing more. Charmin' may or may not be a better bathroom tissue, but the name alone, no matter how familiar and comforting when you see it on the shelves, does not guarantee quality.

As many companies have found out, a brand only takes you so far, no matter how many advertising dollars you pour into it. General Motors is one of the great brands in the history of business, but that sure isn't doing a whole lot for it right now. Brands, being essentially ephemeral, are remarkably easy to destroy.

"Booth" isn't going to improve the quality of teaching in the U of C BSB (there, I said it, sue me, Dean Ted), which was quite spotty when I attended. It's not going to raise the starting salaries of the graduates, salaries which are in real question given the implosion of the financial industry. Even if you believe in the concept of this kind of branding, David Booth, generous man that he is, has been a real under-the-radar kind of guy, so invoking his name (despite the almost fetishistic fervor of Dean Ted to do so) is unlikely to connote much of anything - not like, say, the Warren Buffett School of Business (or "Buffett") would.

I'm not really sure how much "thoughtful stewardship" I'm going to be providing to the brand. I'm not even sure I can remember which names are prescribed and which are proscribed (maybe Dean Ted could send out wallet-sized cards, after all, he's got $300 million to play with). What I do know is that I grow tired of marketers trying to manipulate my impressions, trying to make me think that something is more than it is, working the brand instead of the product. That's true whether it comes from P&G or Dean Ted.


Fred said...

I think the gift and the re-naming are great for the Chicago Booth community, and I believe the administration has handled the rollout well.

Since you made it a point to focus on Ted Snyder's grammar, I fell obliged to defend it.

You write:

<<"The announcement...have [sic] been nothing short of historic">>

If you read his sentence more carefully, you can see he is writing "The announcement... and our rebranding... have been nothing short of historic."

I believe the mistake is yours, not his.

Androcass said...

Fred, I'll grant your point that it could be read that way. However, the poor sentence is sufficiently tortured that one could read it, as I did, that the confidence was in the school and the rebranding. You read the subject as announcement of the vote and the rebranding, and I guess, on second reading, your way is more likely what was intended.

I haven't claimed that the gift was anything short of wonderful, and the rebranding is fine, I've just found Dean Ted's letters to be barely north of coherent; perhaps they betray what happens when an economist wanders into the world of marketing. I think it is clear that the old name was already a world class brand, and whatever problems the school may have are more likely to be ameliorated by the money than a new name.

Thanks for writing.

Zur investier said...

I am affiliated with Wharton, but have many friends who attended the GSB @ Chicago. The only concern I have with the new name is the "Booth" part. Chicago Booth sounds like a place in Chicago which has some sort of enclosure, perhaps sounds like a place to Vote? I wish they had picked a non descriptive name. I believe the name is going to sound funny going forward for many years to come. Its like you don't give your child a funny name. He or she will have a really bad time in high school.

I don't think the name will affect the quality of the students or that of the faculty, but just have more harmless jokes being passed around.

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