Branding goes South (or How making silly decisions can hurt you)

Branding consultants can be dangerous – especially the ones that don’t know what they are doing. For example, rebranding as a concept isn’t a bad consideration – but, what does it mean?

A FAST COMPANY article noted that, “When sales flag, they [brands] reboot–new image, new message, even new products.” The article goes on to prove that “it’s not as easy as just hitting the reset button.”

I heard on the news driving to work that my former high school – Gordon Technical High School – was changing its name to DePaul College Prep – Fr. Gordon Campus. As I drove it dawned on me: I bet a brand consultant got to them, one that didn’t know what he or she was doing. How can I know that by just listening to the news?

Just count the words: “Gordon Tech” became “DePaul College Prep – Fr. Gordon Campus.” I worked for one of these bad brand consultants early in my career and learned a lot from him about what NOT to do. One of his favorite sayings was: “Why use ten words when 100 will do?” Besides, what was I going to tell people now when they asked me where I went to high school? My past seemed to begin erasing before my eyes.

When I got to work, after planning my day, I hopped on Google. The Tribune subsequently explained that “Gordon Tech’s enrollment fell from 697 students in 2002 to 395 in 2010,” and that according to Mary Dempsey, the head of the task force that studied the issue, “Changing the name is part of an effort to change how the school is perceived.” Now, perceptions are my business because I’m an adman. But in this case, it was also personal.

I went to Gordon. I taught English at Gordon after college for seven years. Gordon has a pretty good perception in my mind because it honed me as a young man. Now, as an adman, I knew a little about perceptions. What was the real story here?

So, I went to Gordon’s website (that domain would have to change too – another sign they had bad advice. And today, it doesn’t exist. Perhaps the brand consultant didn’t know about forwarding a link.). I saw this headline:

“Gordon Name Change/Rebranding Information.”

Here is what I found out.

Rev. Gene Szarek, CR , Provincial Superior said in the press release: “As the founders and Catholic sponsors of the school, the Congregation is grateful to the Board of Directors for undertaking this rebranding process to ensure the vitality of Catholic education at the school and grateful for DePaul’s partnership in that important work.” Father Szarek confirmed that it was a rebranding process, but he obviously has been misled. Rebranding has nothing to do with changing a name of a company or institution. In fact, changing your name is the last thing you want to do. Indeed, it’s never done.

For example, in 2010 when Starbucks sales were falling, they refreshed their menu and brought it back to profitability. They didn’t change their name. Wal-Mart changed their logo many times, but they never changed their name. Old Spice changed their look – not their name. The list goes on, but the point is, “rebranding” never means changing your name. Many alumni felt this way – that the name change was wrong. I’m one of those, but I’m also in the business of branding so I had the proof. It was wrong, not because I am an alumni, but because it signifies a lack of insight into what is really happening: enrollment drops.

Some of you may remember Accenture changing their name. Actually, they created a new company when they did that. If the Gordon Tech brand was suffering – and the declining enrollment was the clue that it was – changing your name isn’t curing the problem, it’s hiding it. But, let me give you more evidence about this position and what I found out.

Reverend Francis Kane, Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Chicago weighed in within the press release: “The academic partnership with DePaul University, which is reflected in this name, has already been transformative.” Now this is interesting, because a lot of the material is talking about how Gordon was getting close to DePaul. Now, I’m also an alumnus of DePaul University’s graduate school, where I earned my MA in English. So, was DePaul taking Gordon over? No, as you will see in the review of the FAQs in a moment. So, what was behind this “merger?” I had to learn more.

Dia S. Weil, chairperson of the Board of Directors, added her two cents: “The new name reflects the heritage of Gordon Tech and the substantial academic support provided by DePaul, which importantly builds on the stability, leadership and foundation brought to the school by the current administration and faculty . We are proud that we are able to respect our heritage while also moving the school into the world of 21st century educational initiatives. The school is strong and getting stronger. We are thrilled to continue to move ahead and to further strengthen Catholic education in Chicago.” Huh?

What was really said? How does the new name reflect the heritage? From the main clause – Gordon Tech – Gordon suddenly gets second billing as an adjective modifying the word “campus.” I’d say that’s coming down in the world. One of the clues is: “academic support provided by DePaul.” In other words, Gordon couldn’t stand on its own. How does changing the name change that? Another “tell” is the sentence, “The school is strong and getting stronger.” That’s simply not true, as the declining enrollment is the evidence. The rest of the statement is, well, sort of meaningless, except for how DePaul is helping Gordon. Hmm….

Sr. Mary Paul McCaughey, O.P., Superintendent , Office of Catholic Schools, had something to say: “Rooted in the proud traditions of Gordon Tech and embracing the promise of a strong future, DePaul College Prep, located on the Fr. Gordon Campus is a great gift to the families of Chicago. This is a wonderful addition to the network of other strong Catholic high schools in the Archdiocese of Chicago.” Sr. Mary is talking like the school was just built (i.e., “wonderful addition”). What was the school before – chopped liver? And, what does “great gift” mean? Did someone pay for this? Donate it?

Fr. Kenneth Simpson, Pastor of Saint Clement Parish in Chicago, was quoted. “The new name, DePaul College Prep – Fr. Gordon Campus, is a great sign of renewal for Catholic education on the north side of Chicago.” Huh?

According to the release, the rebranding process took place over the course of several months under the direction of what they called the Rebranding Task Force of the Board of Directors. The Task Force met with and received input from faculty, administrators, parents, students, and alumni of Gordon Tech; pastors and principals of surrounding Catholic elementary schools ; prospective parents; and consulted with members of the Congregation of the Resurrection before making its final recommendations to the Board of Directors.

And there’s the problem: They talked to themselves. And then in the press release, they all took turns saying the same thing, which is really saying nothing. If in all the research they came to the conclusion that changing their name is going to solve their declining enrollment problems, with respect, where is the evidence?

I suggest they were fed some really bad advice. In fact, I would further suggest, sadly, that the school is doomed to fail because this strategy is flawed – severely. They probably would be better off closing it – or selling to someone who can make a go of it.

In an article called “Your Very Own Brand” I wrote in Electrical Wholesaling magazine a while ago, I pointed out that if you take apart the entire organization of Coca-Cola Co. and left only its brand name, management could rebuild the company within five years because they have such a powerful “brand.” However, if you remove that brand name, the company would probably die within five years. This is because over the course of the years, “Coca-Cola” has come to stand for everything about the company — the way the soft drink tastes, the way it’s delivered, the way it shows up on the retail shelf. It has become something more than caramel water, and the mark placed on the soda contents is the consumers’ assurance that what’s inside is quality.

The same is true of ANY brand, including Gordon Tech. If enrollment is declining – it’s like sales declining. When sales decline at a company, they don’t go out and rename themselves. They study the situation and try to figure out why sales are going south. Did the task force do that? There is no evidence they did in the published documents. So, what were they thinking?

They were not. Here’s more evidence.

The Board wrote a letter to Gordon Tech Families, Faculty, Staff, Students, Alumni and Friends. In it, it was stated: “While we recognize that not everyone will be satisfied by all of our decisions , they were made with careful thought, meaningful discussion, respectful consideration, genuine compromise and strong faith in the future of Catholic education on our campus and in our city. (Please note: the original link for this letter is now behind closed doors. Sorry!)

What has that got to do with declining enrollment? But, their decision is final: “That process has concluded. All positions were heard and respected and we believe that the decisions made are sound and wise. Now is the time for all of us to come together as a Catholic school community for the good of our students and the future of the school.”

That’s not true, either. The decisions are NOT sound and wise, as anyone in brand management will tell you. So, who was the mysterious brand consultant? Unfortunately, he or she isn’t identified in the public documents.

For example, they published an FAQ on the website as well (also, now behind closed doors). Often, it is helpful to look at the questions that are frequently asked, because they usually reflect something about what’s going on underneath the surface – especially since they put them in the order of their importance. When we look at these, the first frequently asked question is: “Is the school closing?” I find that fascinating. They answer it with the “the school is getting stronger” comment you read in the press release, but something is amiss. The second question was why the name needed to change. The answer holds a lot of important information to evaluate this situation. Here it is for your review.

“Gordon Tech’s equity has eroded over the course of the last decade. The current strategic direction of the school requires a solid repositioning to better meet academic needs and fund facility and curriculum improvements. To build a sustainable financial model for the future, Gordon Tech needs to be relevant in today’s marketplace. The new name reflects the many improvements now in place at the school and signals a new beginning for the school.”

This is brand B.S. if I ever heard it. What is Gordon Tech’s equity? As I pointed out, they should have just closed the school if they feel like this. Band-Aid solutions never work. It’s sad, really.

You can read the other FAQs for yourself, if you are interested (well, you could, but they are now behind lock and key). But, it would only prove my point: This was not a well-thought out decision. Because a lot of the FAQs deal with DePaul’s involvement – and a close reading shows that the people who ran Gordon were and are afraid of the school closing – They didn’t know what to do. So they turned to DePaul for help.

Will it work? Probably not. DePaul has enough problems of their own on maintaining and growing enrollment. What they should have done is really left their comfort zone and gotten better advice. What kind? How about tapping into and exposing the Gordon Tech brand back to what it was in the past: A vibrant, exciting place to learn? It has its roots as a trade school. Do they read the statistics? College grads can’t get work. The trades are DYING for people.

When I went there – and taught there – we had friendly rivals across the river at Lane Tech. If you read the news about Lane, you’ll see they are not doing too badly. In fact, Lane Tech was named among the top Illinois high schools last year. Hmm…I wonder why the consultants who led Gordon down the garden path with this name change didn’t look across the river. Who knows, they might have learned something!

If you have a comment you’d like to share, drop me a note at “Go Gordon Go, Go Gordon Go,” was the fight song we all sang at athletic events when I was there. Unfortunately, the words take on a whole new meaning with this silly decision.

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