Brand Federation successfully renamed three Virginia colleges named for enslavers. There are lessons here for any marketer dealing with a controversial subject.
This fall, three Virginia community colleges named for slaveholders, John Tyler, Lord Fairfax, and Thomas Nelson Community Colleges, started the school year with new, inclusive names.
Few areas of modern life are more fraught with controversy than inclusive rebranding. Success requires winning over key constituents, such as board members, donors, students, alums, staff, and the community.
Brand Federation succeeded because of a comprehensive and inclusive process that considered the viewpoints of hundreds of internal and external stakeholders.
Here’s how we did it.
Running an inclusive process does not mean brainstorming new names with leadership and then debating ones you like with stakeholders. It means convening a diverse task force reflective of each university’s stakeholder community and taking the time to run a comprehensive naming engagement with it.
Diverse means race, gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation, but also perspective. The task forces at each community college included leaders, faculty, staff, students, alums, donors, elected officials, and members of their surrounding communities. The diverse backgrounds and perspectives ensured that all interests were represented at the table when conversations began.
Any brand established over decades will upset segments of its longtime supporters when a name change decision is made. People have their histories and memories with brands. They relate to it in their own familiar, comfortable way. How can you change the name of my university? Of my team, of my experience?
Pushback against a name change, however, signals brand strength. It means people care about the brand – and everyone who wants to participate in the renaming process should get a chance to do so.
Through the named taskforces, we articulated clearly why a name change decision was made and invited all constituents, even the angry ones, to be part of the naming process.
We didn’t start with names. The first step was to establish naming criteria. What did these college communities want in a name? Should the organizations be named after a person? A geographic feature? Or did they want something different to represent organizational strengths or the benefits they deliver?
The appointed task forces used all the tools at their disposal, such as town hall meetings, virtual forums, digital surveys, and other communications tools, to solicit input on criteria from the community.
With criteria, the naming discussion moved to characteristics. What should the new name evoke? Is there any emotion or meaning to convey? What should the existing brand’s perceptions carry forward with a new name?
With research and stakeholder outreach engaging the community and characteristics and criteria setting the ground rules, the task forces invited name ideas. Suggestions were solicited online through a website where contributors also learned about the task force, the process, why it’s underway, and what it seeks.
The task forces tossed names that did not meet the criteria and filtered those that did through trademark and other searches to see if the names could be used.
The remaining names were debated publicly and transparently before the task forces advanced recommended names to leadership for a decision.
The process took time and stirred up passionate emotions. There was pushback, angry comments online and on the local news, and doubt from colleagues.
But the process prevailed.
At Thomas Nelson and Lord Fairfax Community Colleges, it became clear that a name representative of the geographies they served was preferred.
Thomas Nelson, located in Hampton, Virginia, between the James River and the Chesapeake Bay, landed on Virginia Peninsula Community College. Lord Fairfax, serving the Shenandoah Valley and Piedmont regions of Virginia, became Laurel Ridge Community College. Inspired by the beautiful geography, it also gives a nod to the laurel plant's role as a symbol of education and achievement.
At John Tyler, the community was open to going with a more associative name, landing on Brightpoint Community College because of its impact on students' lives.
Leaders who adopt a comprehensive and inclusive process have solid ground to stand on when they can point back to task force-led research, meetings, and conversations that produced the new name. Failure to engage stakeholders in a name change or branding process flirts with disaster and gambles careers (ask Caromont Health and UC Berkeley).