Friday, May 2, 2008

The Name Game

There are issues that trouble communications people and marketing people that seem ridiculous to other people. I know this because I am a communications person and things have troubled me that any number of people on campus—faculty, student affairs personnel, alumni, faculty—have considering unimportant. Among these things are names. That right: names of things like buildings and schools and departments and offices. To be clear, I am talking about nomenclature and either the lack of it or the parallelism of it. 

Parallelism is at the heart of Alex Beam's complaint about the Kennedy School (old nomenclature) trying to align itself with the other professional schools of Harvard that are known, colloquially as the Business School and the Law School and on paper as HBS and HLS. The Kennedy School (KSG), apparently tired of being confused with the Kennedy Center and the Kennedy Library, decided to opt for parallelism (which would make communicators happy) and become HKS. It is not completely parallel, of course—that would require it to be HGS. But nobody could stand the Harvard Government School, even if it was just initials. Still, HKS does as Beam puts it, locate the school within the sphere of the other schools. For a university struggling to pull together, even as each tub is on its own bottom, such a move is symbolically important. All changes in nomenclature are awkward at the beginning. They feel funny on the mouth but, after several years pass and new students come along who don't know it any other way arrive, it begins to feel less strange. That is why branding and re-branding works. Because we are capable of moving on. And if a school at Harvard is trying to do that well, we should applaud it. Beam harkens back to the last branding effort at the Kennedy School (see, I'm not there yet) in 1981 as if to say, "This is happening too soon, people, they are frittering away over there, branding and re-branding." Not really. Twenty-five years is a pretty good run on a brand and let's get real. They aren't really re-branding. They are just changing nomenclature.

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