Mark Story

Call WKU 'Western' at your own risk

From the time I was a little boy, most people I know have always referred to the state university in Bowling Green, Ky., as "Western."

That includes blood relatives who hold degrees from the school.

These days, the university has a message to those who refer to it as such.

Cut it out.

A large headline in Western Kentucky University's pre-game football and basketball notes packages last season all but screamed: We Are WKU

In smaller type, the school states that it should always be referred to by its full name or by "WKU" — and that it should never be called "Western Kentucky, Western, Western Ky., W. Kentucky or any other variation."

"It's a branding thing," says Todd Stewart, an associate athletics director at Wester, uh, WKU.

It turns out, the Hilltoppers are part of a burgeoning trend in college sports. It is now common for the public relations information produced by college athletics programs — especially from schools that operate outside the klieg lights of the major conferences — to carry specific demands over what schools want to be called.

When its football team visited Commonwealth Stadium last autumn, the University of Louisiana at Monroe's game notes proclaimed in block letters: We Are ULM.

The school also had a long list of how it should not be identified: "We are not Monroe, La.-Monroe, LAM, La.-Mon., UL Monroe, LMU or any other variation."

According to its game notes, the school that we used to know as Florida International University now wants to be known as FIU in all references.

The university we used to call North Carolina-Asheville now insists that the hyphen be dropped. "Use UNC Asheville or Asheville," the school's pre-game basketball notes plead.

Then there is the school long referred to in popular vernacular as "Miami of Ohio." It has had just about enough of that, thank you.

"Use Miami University, Miami University (Ohio) or Miami (Ohio). Do not use Miami of Ohio or University of Miami of Ohio. The latter are not proper names for our institution," said the RedHawks pre-game basketball notes.

All these pleas of "call us this, don't call us that" may seem a bit silly. But they reflect fairly sophisticated marketing considerations.

Too many 'Westerns'

For Wester, uh, WKU, the preference for the acronym over any derivation of the school name that uses "Western" is an attempt to distinguish itself from Western Carolina, Western Michigan and Western Illinois.

"People in the state (of Kentucky) may think of us when they hear 'Western,'" said Stewart. "But we're aiming for a larger audience than just Kentucky. There are other 'Western' schools in other states. We want to stand out."

For Miami (Ohio), the goal is to separate itself in the public mind from Miami (Florida).

"We are Miami University; they are the University of Miami," says Mike Pearson, an assistant athletics director at the Ohio version. "We try to emphasize that difference so we have our own identity. That's why we are very specific on our name."

Other schools are trying to tweak their names in such a way as to make them easier to use. The "University of Louisiana at Monroe" is a bit of a mouthful to say. It is a pain to write.

"One of the reasons we prefer ULM is that it is short and easy to use," says Adam Prendergast, an athletics department publicist. "In the world now, with Twitter, the fewer characters you can use to identify yourself, the better."

Not easy to do

What the business world calls "acronym branding" is a high-risk, high-reward proposition, says Phil Davis, a North Carolina-based marketing consultant.

"It is typically fraught with problems," he says. "If you are going to be known by just your initials, it's going to take either a whole lot of time or a whole lot of investment or both to get that established. Branding off initials is not easy to do."

Choosing to become known by an acronym can bring unanticipated complications, Davis says. Remember when the organization formerly known as the World Wrestling Federation (the WWF) lost the use of its preferred acronym to the World Wildlife Fund.

"If you are going by initials, you bring every other entity in the marketplace potentially into play," Davis said. "You may be the only college with a given set of initials, but there may be businesses or organizations you never thought of that use the same thing and suddenly you have a conflict with them."

Nevertheless, Davis says that when you succeed at acronym branding, "it's kind of the holy grail of branding. You see 'IBM,' it's almost become its own word," he said.

In seeking to brand their names/initials, I wondered how the schools tracked the success of their efforts.

Getting opposing teams to use the right acronym on scoreboards during road games is one metric the schools try to control. Asking ESPN (another highly successful acronym brand) to use a school's preferred moniker in their famous lower-screen scroll is another.

As Wester, uh, WKU might attest, getting the rest of us on board is not as simple.

"Look, we know our branding is going to take time," says Stewart. "We want to get to the point that when you see 'WKU,' you think immediately of only one thing: Us."

A desire that explains why so many colleges are so fussy now in making the demand: Get our name right.