False Analogy

By most accounts, this has not been a good week for Justin Bieber’s brand.  The former YouTube sensation and current teen heart throb quickly became the butt of several internet jokes when he allegedly compared himself to Kurt Cobain, the angst-ridden ’90s alternative rock icon.

It doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to figure out the similarities between Bieber and Cobain are few, if any.  But it does raise a good point about branding and authenticity.

The Bieber Report’s fabrication of this quote is meant to show there’s clearly a disconnect between Bieber’s perception of himself and that of the public.  The analogy to Kurt Cobain only highlighted that disconnect.

In the case of higher education, branding campaigns at two institutions have come under a lot of scrutiny for the analogies they make (one intentional, one not).  The Washington Post today features American Universities “Wonk” campaign and the controversy that surrounds it.  The choice of the word “Wonk” to characterize members of its community, while not pleasing to everyone, has definitely caused many to take notice.  According to the article, “[U]niversity leaders are confident that “wonk” – which they define as “an intellectually curious person” or “a knowledgeable Washington insider” – captures something essential about American. The whiff of nerdiness perceived by some students and alumni, officials said, was less important than the word’s distinctiveness.”

However, some students and members of the AU community are not as confidant.  “I don’t have any positive associations with this word,” said Erin Lockwood, a senior majoring in international studies and economics. “It’s a silly word. It doesn’t have any intellectual gravitas.”  It’s rubbed so many people the wrong way that if you conduct a Google search for the word “Wonk” one of the top results is this Huffington Post article on how the re-branding campaign has underwhelmed students.

While the effectiveness of the re-branding campaign have yet to be seen, the analogy works.  Regardless of how you feel about the word “wonk,” its definition does convey many of the attributes that AU was shooting for: active citizenship, learning from leaders and Washington as a powerful lab for learning.  Even if you don’t like the word “wonk” its hard to argue that you don’t like it’s meaning or don’t want to be associated with an institution that has a community of intellectually curious people.  Isn’t that what college is all about?

Unfortunately, another recent campaign took the opposite approach (unintentionally or at least in a mildly ironic way).  By now much has been written about Drake’s infamous “D+” campaign and their quick reversal of it, so I won’t recount it here, but suffice is to say that most alumni and students of an institution would prefer to not be associated with a “D+” mentality.  Even if ironic, the association is not one that made the Drake community happy.

Whether you like it or not, branding is all about analogies.  Sometimes you can try to make an analogy that you hope is true, but if it’s not true the consequences will come back to haunt you.  Just ask Justin Bieber.