Thursday, August 06, 2009

Rebranding Shawnee State U.

A recent announcement by Shawnee State University informs us that “The Office of Communications has been renamed the Office of Marketing and Communications to reflect its broader role in outreach, marketing, and branding.” I wrote a post about an earlier"rebranding" at SSU in July 2006, which I am reposting a slightly edited version of below. I was hard in the post on Wayne Allen who is a gifted writer, but he would have been better if the PDT had had somebody who could proofread.

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Will the cuddly Shawn E. Bear be euthanized?

      SSU’s Director of Communications Elizabeth Blevins was recently interviewed in the Community Common by reporter Wayne Allen on the subject of the “rebranding” of the university. Merriam-Webster defines the noun brand as a well-known and usually highly regarded or marketable name.” So rebranding might mean “changing a brand to make it better known, more highly regarded and marketable.” Last fall, feeling it was time for rebranding, a brand marketing team was assembled from different departments at the university. Wayne Allen, a former SSU student, reported, “It became clear to the team, the university needed a partner to help lead them through the entire branding project.” Incidentally, that comma after team creates a run-on sentence. The sentence would be perfectly correct and clear if Mr. Allen used the relative pronoun “that” instead of the comma. If he wanted to be a little more formal, he could have used a semicolon instead of the comma, something I discouraged students from doing when I taught freshman composition at SSU. Only if they understood the correct usage of commas and periods should they risk fooling around with semicolons. Just as guns should be kept out of the hands of children, semicolons should be kept out of the hands of novice writers.
      Some of my colleagues at the university knowledgeable about composition theory believed that it didn’t help to point out punctuation mistakes to students, because research shows it doesn’t help, and besides there are more important things to teach students about writing than punctuation, a view I agree with. But I circled the punctuation errors anyway, thousands and thousands of them, out of habit I suppose, proving the truth of the saying you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. And if a reporter for the Community Common and the Portsmouth Daily Times, like Allen, who attended SSU, writes run-on sentences, doesn’t it only go to prove my colleagues knew more about composition than I did? Allen proves trying to teach punctuation is a waste of time.
      Anyway, the “ partner” the SSU brand marketing team chose to advise them was Stamats, a marketing firm that specializes in helping institutions of higher education with marketing problems. I had never heard of Stamats before, but I was immediately put off by the name. Isn’t that name a marketing problem? If I were advising Stamats, I would urge them to change their name. I mean what the kind of a name for a business is Statmats anyway? It’s not only meaningless; it sounds stupid and looks ugly. Only when I visited the Stamats website did I learn how Stamats got its name. Stamats is the name of the family that founded the firm back in 1923, and what’s more, their website points out, Stamats is a palindrome, a word that is spelled the same forwards and backwards. Well, will wonders never cease. But it doesn’t stop there. Stamats is a name that keeps on giving, because Stamats is also an anagram, an anagram of Assmat. If Stamats was in the assmat business instead of the business of advising universities about rebranding, the name Stamats would be Ok, the same forward as backward, with an anagram thrown in for good measure, with all kinds of ass-backwards connotations. If I were in the business of rebranding, I would advise Stamats, if it declined to change its name, to at least adapt the slogan of Ohio’s Smucker’s jams: “With an anagram like Assmat, it’s got to be good!”
Better Layed Than Never
       But let’s get back to Allen’s interview with Blevins. “What they did for us is layed the architecture for going through this kind of process,” Allen quotes Ms. Blevins. There is,no such word as “layed.” What Wayne Allen had in mind probably was “laid,” the past of the verb “lay.” I used to advise students to try to avoid the verbs lie and lay, whose various parts are so confusing and difficult to remember that it’s easy to mix them up and embarrass yourself and others.
      Ms. Blevins goes on in the interview to say that the SSU brand-marketing team didn’t want to just toss around suggestions for a new logo and choose one haphazardly. “We wanted it (the new logo) to be more meaningful than that.” She said the university wanted a new logo to be based on research.  So the folks at Stamats advised the brand marketing team on the research. “The research consisted of conducting a survey of current students, facility [sic], staff, and alumni.” Although there is a Facility Dept. at SSU, Allen’s "facility" is probably a typo for faculty. I make mistakes like that sometimes in my blog, but I have a friend who proofreads for me. But that’s what managing editors at newspapers are supposed to do for reporters: keep an eye out for typos and the wrong homonym, such as “there” for “their.” Allen quotes Blevins as saying, “They came in [the students and “facility”] and told us what they think of, [sic] when they think of Shawnee State. What they think makes us (SSU) unique in there [sic] eyes.” Allen writes, a sentence later: “They were also asked what keeps them at SSU, among various other questions about there [sic] experiences.” Blevins goes on, as quoted by Allen, “In a time were [sic] resources are limited [sentence fragment]. We do not want to be wasteful, this will be a soft implementation” [run-on sentence]. Isn’t there a managing editor at the Daily Times company, which now owns the Community Common, or is proofreading, like doing away with a Monday issue, one more thing that the Times company has eliminated to cut costs? Without an editor to assist him, Allen, who doesn't have much facility with language, is, grammatically speaking, virtually bare ass, or since we are talking about SSU, I should say bear ass. But that is nothing compared to what PDT reporters sometimes must do if they want to keep their jobs. Times reporters know that reporting some facts can cost them their jobs, as two of the best and most experienced of the PDT reporters, Jeff Barron and Mike Deaterla, discovered. [Barron was fired after reporting in a story in the PDT that someone who had been arrested for dealing drugs worked as a mechanic at Glockner's, a major advertiser in the PDT.]
      To sum up: the rebranding effort at SSU so far appears to consist mainly of slightly changing the curve of the Shawnee “S,” slightly changing the shade of the school’s blue and gray colors, and changing the cuddly looking  Shawnee Bear to a Grizzly.  Does this mean that the previously lovable Shawn E. Bear is going to be euthanized? If Shawnee State is going to continue to claim that its most marketable feature is that it is a student friendly place, shouldn’t the official SSU bear look a little friendlier, a little less lethally clawed, a little less grisly than the bear that SSU has just adopted?
      In one of Allen’s sentences near the end of his article, he makes an inspired error that shows a talent, if not a genius, for malapropism. It replaces my previous favorite Wayne Allen  malapropism, “imminent domain,” which when used in connection with developer Neal Hatcher, might more appropriately have been called “imminent doom.” Allen’s prize-deserving malapropism is, “There will be an official unavailing [sic] of the new look in the fall when all of the students are on campus.” “Unveiling” is the gerund Allen was not quite able to come up with, but  “unavailing” is even better, because it means “futile or useless,” or availing not. Is there a better word than “unavailing” to describe the current public relations effort on the part of SSU and its “partner” Stamats?
Annual Ranklings
      The other day I checked U.S. News’ annual rankings of American colleges and universities, which I know get no respect at SSU. Though SSU is no longer at the virtual bottom of the bottom fourth tier, the worst of the worst as they were ten years ago, they are still mired somewhere in that  fourth tier: SSU in the U.S. News rankings is not second-rate, not third-rate, but fourth-rate. There are a number of fine students and faculty at SSU, and let’s not forget the fine "facilities," but SSU's reputation is still in the toilet. Isn’t that the problem Stamats should be advising on, not the shades of the school colors, not the curve of the Shawnee S, and not the fangs and claws of the official Shawnee Bear. SSU is not likely to get out of that bottom tier anytime soon, not with former SSU students writing as carelessly as Allen does and not when SSU’s Director of Communication, presumably SSU’s resident expert on communication, spouts the public relations jargon the way she does. ("Soft implementation," indeed!) The notion that American business knows what's best for everybody, including those in higher education, carries a lot less weight than it did before the recent incredible display of incompetence and dishonesty by the business and financial class. Being more businesslike is hardly an unqualified virtue given the recent era of Bernard Madoff madness.
       I used to tell Shawnee students that Harvard was once viewed in England as the cow college in the colonies, but U.S. News now rates Harvard as the best university not only in the U.S. but in the world. Take that Oxford and Cambridge! I told students that maybe by the time their grandchildren are of college age SSU will have become a university they will want to attend and will be proud to say their grandparents attended. But on the basis of this current rebranding effort, I would say that day is much farther away than I thought. With rebranding efforts like the current one in which Stamats is involved, it may not be the grandchildren but the great-grandchildren who might one day may be able to take pride in their great-grandparents' degrees from Shawnee State.
      When I taught at SSU and struggled, along with others, to help raise it from a third-rate to a second-rate university, I adopted as my slogan a line by E. E. Cummings: “There is some shit I will not eat.” Before ending my reflections on rebranding, I will suggest a slogan for SSU, at least for English, if not Communications, majors. It is the title of a poem by the English Victorian author Arthur Hugh Clough (pronounced Cluff): “Say Not the Struggle Naught Availeth.” No marketing or communications experts, trained as they are in the art of deception, could possibly come up with a more inspiring use of the English language than Clough whose poem can be read by clicking here

SSU's new official bad-ass bear