Branding—not nattle, but whiskeys and universities



Many of our institutions are paying consultants very large sums to improve their “branding.” My own institution, Wright State University, has budgeted $2.3 million for this purpose. And I believe that that funding has been designated simply for a “branding” plan and not for conducting a actual “branding” campaign. So who knows what the price tag ultimately will be.

I cannot help but wonder how long it will be before we recoup that money in additional enrollment. But, of course, despite the constant institutional refrain that all expenditures have to be justified with entrepreneurial accountability, I very much doubt that anyone will ever attempt to track the impact of this campaign on our enrollment. Indeed, at the most basic level, one could ask how anyone might possibly track such data with any accuracy. If we wished to track it, I suppose that we would have to hire another consultant to devise some sort of appropriate algorithm. No, like most administrative initiatives, this one will never been subjected to any serious scrutiny because, unlike faculty, administrators cannot be assumed to be careless or reckless with institutional resources.

What my institution and others like it aspire to is to have name recognition equivalent to that of the most prestigious institutions in the country, or, failing that, approaching that of the institutions with the most successful athletic programs in the nation. It is a Sisyphean endeavor because academic reputations are built over decades, and our mid-level athletics program is already costing us about $10 million per year in institutional subsidies to sustain it. In order to expand it to compete even with the university of Cincinnati—never mind Ohio State—we would have to devote about a sixth of our current budget to the enterprise.

So, my institution can only aspire to be in the position of Duke University, which is suing the executors of John Wayne’s estate, who operate under the name John Wayne Enterprises, to prevent them from distributing a whiskey under the actor’s well-known nickname, Duke. Here is an image of the proposed label for the whiskey:


I am not sure how this labeling might possibly be construed as confusing—how the product might ever be construed as a product made by or endorsed by Duke University—but I am not an attorney.

Duke has a long history of very aggressively defending its “branding”—of defending it long before the concept ever became fashionable. According to a story by Anne Blythe for the NewsObserver, “in their statement of opposition to the Trademark Office, Duke stated that ‘in order to prevent tarnishment of its brand, [Duke University] does not permit use of confusingly similar marks associated with unapproved goods or services, of uncertain quality and/or unregulated by [Duke University].’ Duke University further stated that the Wayne family’s plans threatened the university’s hold on a variety of food products and beverages.”

Attorneys for John Wayne Enterprises responded that “’Duke is a common word that has been in use for centuries in a wide array of commercial and other applications wholly independent of Duke. Yet by the action alleged . . . Duke University seems to think it owns the word ‘Duke’ for all purposes and applications.’” Moreover, “’Duke University is not and never has been associated with John Wayne. Duke University is not and never has been in the business of producing, marketing, distributing or selling alcohol.’”

Indeed, one wonders why Duke University is not suing Duke Energy for tarnishing its reputation—since James Buchanan Duke built not just the tobacco fortune that initially funded the university but also the energy company that has become the largest producer of electricity in the U.S.

What follows is a section titled “Criticisms” from the Wikipedia article on Duke Energy:

“Following a February 2, 2014 coal ash spill which was the third-largest of its kind in US history, the US Attorney’s Office opened a grand jury investigation into Duke Energy and North Carolina regulators in the administration of Governor Pat McCrory. McCrory had been an employee of Duke Energy for 28 years and critics have said his administration intervened on Duke’s behalf to settle lawsuits over environmental violations. The US Attorney subpoenaed over 20 officials of the McCrory administration and sought records of “investments, cash or other items of value” from Duke to regulators.

“On February 14, 2011, Greenpeace launched a campaign in which Phil Radford called on Duke Energy to ‘not renew a single new contract for mountaintop removal coal, deliver at least a third of Duke’s energy from renewable sources by 2020, and quit coal altogether by 2030.’ In May 2013, university student activists launched a divestment campaign against Duke Energy and other coal plant operators.

“In July 2012, Duke Energy was criticized for paying former Progress Energy CEO Bill Johnson $44 million in compensation, including $10 million severance, for essentially 20 minutes on the job as Duke CEO.[27][28] On July 10, new CEO Jim Rogers spoke before the N.C. Utilities Commission, explaining the reason for Johnson’s dismissal as ‘loss of confidence.’ He also mentioned an “autocratic style”, though some former Progress directors disagreed.

“In December 2011, the non-partisan organization Public Campaign criticized Duke Energy for spending $17.47 million on lobbying and not paying any taxes during 2008 through 2010 and receiving $216 million in tax rebates, despite making a profit of $5.4 billion and increasing executive pay by 145% to $17.2 million in 2010 for its top 5 executives. The company has recently become the object of protest for its close relationship to the Democratic Party and its funding for the 2012 Democratic National Convention.

“In 2002, Duke Energy was awarded the Ig Nobel Prize in Economics for “adapting the mathematical concept of imaginary numbers for use in the business world.”

All of that kind of puts the issue of “Duke Whiskey” into a very different perspective.

The broader irony is, of course, that if a whiskey manufacturer offered to put the Wright State logo on its labels, I am pretty sure that we would seize the opportunity to make it at least part of our “brand”–especially if, as part of the deal, we could somehow also get John Wayne’s image on the label.