by Hugh Rennie QC
Victoria University of Wellington has been progressing what it calls its “name simplification” project. That title in fact relates to an intention to give VUW a new and different identity. Such a change has no justification unless it leads to consequential effects which are beneficial.
The intended consequential effects have already been cited by VUW and noted in my submission.  I am as keen as anyone to see those objectives achieved. What I do not accept – with much greater certainty given what I have learned since 16 July, is that the intended course of action has any prospect of achieving any of them. Worse, my initial fear that the opposite result would occur (a diminished and injured university – with major injury to its staff, graduates alumni and students) is heightened.
Only two days ago, key information was provided under the 11 June OIA request from Barrie Saunders. In consequence I have not yet received the review of the research I commissioned from McComish Research Ltd, and which I have stated will be sent to VUW. This details the instructions given to Colmar Brunton for its research. It is now clear that the research was not carried out to ascertain whether the existing name and identity is a weakness in overseas countries. That issue can be ascertained objectively but the instructions start with that assumption.
I have not had time to take professional advice on this. But from my own experience of over 40 years testing research in courts, tribunals, and the public sector; using it as a director of media companies; and evaluating it on commercial and other boards I can say this (while not the worst) is one of the most deficient projects I have ever seen.
In addition, almost daily I receive more information which should have been made public by VUW at the start, or at latest when requested under the OIA.
For example, a few days back I learned from VUW staff that there is a half hour YouTube video of one of the “staff forums” at which this proposal was presented. I have now viewed this. Its content raises serious issues. Examples are that the error rate in the Colmar Brunton survey is wrongly stated; reliance is placed on “findings” where the difference between them is much less than the real error rate; and erroneous claims are made about other universities dropping the name “Victoria”.
This forum’s “consultation” is in fact a didactic instruction about what has already been decided and committed to.
I have left the Maori title for iwi to consider. But I was highly concerned to learn that dropping “wananga” from the current name is associated with attempts to deny the use of “university” in the translation of the names of Maori wananga. I could find no record of consultation with iwi organisations in Greater Wellington
Both the QS Intelligence Unit and Education NZ hold extensive research on how to reach and engage with overseas students, how to market to them, what the main drivers are of their choices, what role name plays in each stage of selection of a university (reputation history and standing count, but names are a minor factor), and many more matters. It is incomprehensible that such research was not used in or alongside the Colmar Brunton work.
An emotional reaction?:
VUW seems to believe that those who question the proposal are showing emotion, not reason (“nostalgia” – “romantic notions”), and that this diminishes the arguments made for reverting to and strengthening the VUW brand in its traditional form.
The role of emotion in brand loyalty is the exact opposite. One of the leading exponents of that is Kevin Roberts whose pioneering 2004 publication “Lovemarks” led to recognition that the most powerful brands are those which drive emotions of commitment, empathy and passion. That engagement is a major positive and ongoing asset. The responses of alumni to VUW’s “simplification” show those qualities and the presence of passion in them shows the high value of what VUW now has.
International ranking surveys:
Given a statement by the Vice Chancellor that:
“I’ve met with the marketing experts in both key ranking agencies in London. Both agencies are sure the proposed name simplification will be positive for the university’s rankings.”
I wrote to them and asked whether such a statement was the official view of the ranking agency and whether it was correctly quoted. I also asked what research existed to support that statement and how I might access it.
Mr Ben Sowter the Director of the QS ranking unit replied:
“I can confirm that we have freely provided a statement to the university confirming that we, and I more specifically, believe that the proposed name simplification is likely to be constructive for the university’s ranking performance. Moreover, that it will help to eliminate confusion in international marketing where there are a number of other “Victoria” universities and colleges.
We have not undertaken any research directly on this matter that I can direct you to, although my understanding is that university itself has done so. The statement provided is based on my expert opinion having been both a practitioner of one of the world’s most widely referenced rankings and a student of others for over fourteen years. If I can provide further clarity on the matter, I would be happy to.”
Mr Phil Baty the Editorial Director of THE Global Ratings replied:
“THE does not normally share details of their interactions with academic institutions, however, we have contacted Professor Guilford and he has advised that he is happy for THE to respond.
THE can confirm that Prof Guilford visited our offices in London in early November last year to discuss our experiences of university name changes and the pros and cons thereof. We shared with Prof Guilford our experience of such changes, the benefits, the risks, and the way the risks can be managed. In our opinion, the proposed change of the University’s name to the University of Wellington will have a beneficial impact on the University’s international reputation, particularly if it is coupled with a well-planned brand campaign.”
It is apparent from these replies that it was VUW which proposed a name change to them and, without any research, each expressed an opinion that a change could have an outcome that would be positive.
I responded to Mr Baty noting that the significance of linking THE’s opinion with a “well-planned brand campaign” and that that needed to be compared to applying the same resources to a campaign for the existing brand. He has not responded.
These opinions are about “ranking” and “international reputation”. They do not address the primary role of VUW in New Zealand, or what actual results could be achieved which would be “constructive” or “beneficial”.
A well-planned brand campaign:
A response I received from the Chair to the Foundation had attached to it a copy of the proposed new logo for VUW (renamed). The Vice Chancellor has since sent this to other persons also.
I have taken advice on this from an international expert and his response to me after reading the response from the Foundation chair was:
“…the logo is a disaster. If this is what they think they should go with, they will be forced to think again. The logo is just a bit of name switching. Just calling itself Wellington is not enough. Their visual language and copy needs to be compelling and with such a strong design community in Wellington they will want to see a better job done. I guess the logo is a starter, there is an application of the logo in this format, but it is not a brand, and the desire for brand has lead them to their decision. [We have] managed several name changes for corporations and government entities over time, this looks like a group of people with their mind well made up but without experience in communicating. They have admitted to poor marketing; the name change is a jump-shift. An integrated and marketing program around a name launch takes at least three months to prepare, I hope they have started their planning.”
I have not been able to ascertain the minimum cost for a “well-planned brand campaign” within New Zealand and in the targeted overseas countries, but I am advised that it is certainly in the millions of dollars.
In my view it would be irresponsible to risk those monies as well as the existing strong reputation of VUW on an experimental and under-researched project for a new identity.
Response from alumni:
I sent my submission to a small number of friends from my days at VUW, one of whom provided an edited version for Wellington.Scoop and went on to establish a Facebook website which also published it. Both in the responses on that site and the several dozen further communications I have received direct, there has been almost unanimous endorsement of what I set out.
Response from staff:
I have had a number of communications from VUW academic staff. Worryingly, a number are not willing to “stand up” to what is perceived as something which it could endanger their career to oppose. Quoting from one which was sent to the Vice Chancellor:
“…the proposed name change is a profound mistake, motivated apparently by little more than a poorly-researched attempt to use re-branding as a marketing tool in the quest to lure overseas students away from Auckland. I have seen several responses sent by you to others who have questioned the proposal, which give me the impression that the issue has been predetermined even though no substantial evidence, nor systematic analysis of benefits and costs, have been made available for outsiders to evaluate the alleged benefits of the intended change.
None of the academic staff to whom I have spoken have been supportive of the change. I have not encountered any of the claimed “strong desire by staff” to “align better” with the alleged interests of Wellington as a city by dropping the existing name of the University. Nor have I seen results from any systematic polling of staff on the issue, which would have been helpful given that my range of contacts is inevitably limited and possibly unrepresentative.
Similarly amongst alumni with whom I have spoken the proposed change enjoys no support – rather the contrary. The University clearly runs the risk of a substantial loss of loyalty and support from its past students, which no doubt you have factored into your decision.”
I affirm my previous submission. It is not too late to avoid making a very serious error.