Confusion is definitely not the desired end result of any marketing effort! So imagine the plight facing the upper administration of one particular college in California. Consider the case of Long Beach State—or rather as this school of well over 30,000 students is officially known, California State University, Long Beach. It's the third largest school in the CSU system, and a sizable university that would outrank many much more well known university "brands" by enrollment.
Yet, while you may know where Long Beach is in California automatically by its geography—which is a built-in advantage for any university branding effort, the school, its students, its alumni, and its fans, don't really know what exactly it is! And the university only seems to do "stuff" that makes matters worse—making this a case study in how not to market a university—or really any organization and/or its products and services.
Recently, Mike Guardabascio and J.J. Fiddler published a commentary in the Long Beach Post on the university's long-standing "branding problem" (See here). It is a fascinating read—and one that highlights the unbelievable—almost comical—problems that the university faces in what can be labeled as nothing short of an identity crisis. The university has multiple names and multiple mascots, and the sad thing is that much of this branding nightmare is self-created!
What's in a Name....a Whole Lot!
To make a long story short, the university's identity is, well, a mess! For starters, what is the name of the university? That should be simple enough, right? Officially, it is California State University, Long Beach. Yes, you can shorten that to the acronym "CSULB" and still be on the mark. However, students, sports fans—and even the university itself—refers to the school by a name never officially used, given or attributed to the institution—that being "Long Beach State."
* On the homepage of its website, the school proudly proclaims that: "Long Beach State (is) ranked No. 22 on (the) Best Colleges in America list."
Current Welcome to Visitors on the Homepage of California State University, Long Beach
* Also on the welcome page of the university's website, visitors are encouraged to "Explore"—but there again one sees "Long Beach," rather than any reference to either California State University, Long Beach, or CSULB.
Visitors to the School's are Encouraged to "Explore"....Long Beach State?
* When it comes to its social media presence—which is all important today, the school appears just as schizophrenic in its identity. Remember, CSULB is the official acronym for the university. However, go to its Instagram page, and what you see is—quite frankly—a jumbled mess, with its username being "csulongbeach," but the name being identified as "Long Beach State" and the account labelled as being the "Official Long Beach State University Instagram."
The University on Instagram
* Watch the very well made, well produced marketing video made by the university entitled "More Than A University." And there—halfway through the video—the only person pictured in a piece of university apparel is a young boy wearing a t-shirt identifying him as a camper....at Long Beach State!
More Than a University
And the Only Person Wearing the Name of the University is...
* If you visit the university's bookstore, whether online or in person, you will see apparel and other merchandise proudly proclaiming both the official and unofficial names of the school. And as if to add to the confusion, yes, the site is listed as the "Long Beach State University Bookstore"—again without any reference to either California State University, Long Beach or CSULB.
The Current Bookstore Homepage
The Apparel Selection at the University Bookstore
Maddening Mascot Madness!
Just as confusing as the name of the school is the question of what—or who—exactly is the university's mascot! Indeed, the institution's sports identity literally has a colorful, confusing history.
“Brown and gold’s ugly, make it black and gold instead!”
Let's start with the basics—what are the university's official team colors? Well, from its founding in 1949 till 1990, the school had one set of colors—brown and gold. Then, a legendary football coach, George Allen, who had coached the Los Angeles Rams on three separate occasions and took the Washington Redskins to a Super Bowl, surprisingly took on the job of resuscitating Long Beach State's floundering football program. Legend has it that when Allen came to campus, one of the first things he said was, “Brown and gold’s ugly, make it black and gold instead!” And so the colors were changed, and yes, Allen lead the team to a winning record in 1990. Then, according to a legendary story that is actually true, Coach Allen died of complications from pneumonia after his team doused him with the Gatorade bucket after a victory (Source)! The university actually shut down the football program a year later, and it has never returned! You just can't make this stuff up!
The "Old" Ole Miss
Across the higher education landscape, the thinking about college mascots and nicknames has been rapidly changing over the past decade or two. Gone are the many nicknames associated with "Indians"—or just about any association with Native Americans, and likewise, mascots such as the "rebels" or "colonels" have fallen into disrepute due to their association with the confederacy. Witness what has happened at the University of Mississippi, where Ole Miss' "Colonel Reb" has been replaced—officially, though certainly not on all university memorabilia and such - by the hip "Landshark Tony"—complete with his own backstory of how the landshark legend originated on the football team, entirely separate from any controversy over history and/or political correctness (at least that's the "official" story...) (Source).
The "New" Ole Miss
Likewise, Prospector Pete—the longtime mascot of Long Beach State (or California State University, Long Beach, or CSULB—you know the drill) is not just being retired, but erased from the campus. The Cal State System had issued guidance that "human mascots" should no longer be associated with their campuses. And so, Prospector Pete—representing the miners of the era of California's Gold Rush—and the sometimes not so kind things they did to Native Americans and women in the region—has come under fire, prompting the administration to take action. And so, not only will the cartoonish mascot version of Prospector Pete no loner be used by the university in any official manner, but the large bronze statue of him in the central part of campus will soon be removed and relegated to a yet to be built alumni building on campus (meaning that it is headed for the proverbial "warehouse of history" for some time). For a very good overview of this controversy, see the recent New York Times piece on the saga of Prospector Pete.
The Prospector Pete Statue
Now, the university—in trying to escape any association with the politics and retrospective historical analysis of the Gold Rush—faces even more mascot issues. This is because the college's official mascot since its inception—the 49ers—again references the Gold Rush of 1849. Uh-Oh!
The 49ers Logo
The 1849ers - or the 1949ers?
To its credit, the university has begun to use the 49ers name, logo, and vernacular to be associated not with the Gold Rush of 1849, but the school's founding in 1949. The legend of 1949 goes back not just to a date in time, but the fact that the university’s first president, Pete Peterson, frequently spoke of the Long Beach institution as having “struck the gold of education” (Source). While the university continues to use the 49er mascot and logo with its athletics, the meaning of it has indeed changed - at least the intended meaning of the symbol. And the university is very heavily invested in the 49er name—not just because of its origin story, but the very fact that guess what its bookstores on campus are named—"The 49er Shops at the Beach!"
The University's Bookstores Are Called....
And yet, the story by no means ends there—as beyond the issue of which century the 49ers represent, believe it or not, this story gets even more complicated when you look at the various sports teams of the university. This is because the institution has officially adopted two additional mascot names for its teams' identities. First, it has used "Beach" or "The Beach" in its sports marketing and even on its uniforms, across both men's and women's sports. And this can be said to be smart branding, as no other university in the country has the word "beach" in its name. However, it has been pointed out that this moniker does lead to complications. Yes, the word can be easily confused with another, more pejorative term that does not describe an ocean-side locale. Yes, it is hard to make plural (i.e. "We're playing the "beaches"). And finally, yes, it can get a bit long-winded—and redundant—when announcing the "Long Beach State Women's Beach Volleyball Team—The Beach!"
The Beach Men's Basketball
The Beach Women's Soccer
And then we have the case of the most successful sport for the university—men's baseball. The team has appeared in 17 of the last 20 NCAA baseball playoffs and made four College World Series, and at the same time producing more major leaguers in the current decade than any other school—including notables including Jason Giambi, Evan Longoria, Troy Tulowitzki and Jered Weaver (Source: @LBSUDirtbags). And yes, to answer a bar trivia question—they have one of the most unique nicknames in all of sports: The Dirtbags!
The label dates back to a turnaround of the school's baseball program in 1989, when the team advanced to its first College World Series, even though it had no home field and practiced on a kids' field. Even today though, as an ESPN profile on "How Long Beach State became Dirtbags" (Source), the first question many recruits—and their parents—ask is: "Why is your team called the Dirtbags?" And what exactly does the name mean?" While admittedly the name might conjure up a less than flattering image in the minds of many, that same ESPN piece provided the official answer as to why "dirtbags" has become a positive label for the team and its players:
"It was a storyline that blended elements of 'The Bad News Bears' and Peanuts' Pig-Pen. In an us-against-the-world esprit de corps, players proudly embraced the label hung on them by assistant coach Dave Malpass based on their post-practice appearance: 'Dirtbags.'"
And so yes, as every fan base in now a "nation." we have the "Dirtbag Nation" of Long Beach State...or California State University, Long Beach!
So, could all of this brand confusion actually work to the university's advantage? As a strategic management consultant and professor, I would say definitely not. I see it as a serious drag on California State University, Long Beach, or CSULB, or Long Beach State, or whatever the institution should be called in not just their marketing of athletics, but their overall marketing and positioning of the university overall.
However, this writer must acknowledge that there are indeed dissenting voices out there who see the fact that the university has multiple names and multiple mascots—from the 49ers to the Beach to the Dirtbags—actually could work to its advantage by enabling the school to be audience-specific in its marketing approach. And after all, when it comes to performance—whether on the field or in the classroom—it is results that count most—well, at least for some folks!
Can multiple identities be an advantage?
The Schizophrenic Identity of the University in Long Beach
Now, the point of all of this is not to simply bash the administration of California State University, Long Beach, CSUBL, "The Beach," or Long Beach State. I don't want this to be seen as simply "piling on" by any means. Indeed, the top folks at "whatever" that university is and "whatever" its mascot is—or mascots are—have acknowledged their identity issues, and as such, earlier this year, even before Prospector Pete got his official walking papers, they have initiated a campus-wide survey of their branding issues and announced their intention—both in athletics and as an institution—to try and resolve what has become a waaaaaay too complex issue for students, faculty, fans, the local community, and the other all-important constituencies of the university (See here).
Rather, the point of this analysis is to point out what is really—at the heart of the matter—a simple fact: If you lose control of your branding, the mistaken branding will control you—and greatly complicate your marketing efforts! This is an abject case study in how not to identify your university, your sports teams, your product or service. In short, if you can't agree on the identity you want to project, how in the world do you expect your potential and actual customers to do so? And so let the lesson of whatever this university is called and whatever its sports teams should be referred to serve as a cautionary tale for executives and marketers as they think about how their branding efforts. If you're confused inside the organization or company, that will only be magnified outside of the boardroom or workroom! Think folks—it's important, and it will save you a boatload of trouble down the road if you do!
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