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November 10, 2009
Naming and Branding Lessons from the Ivy League

With universities auctioning off the names of everything from courses to swimming lanes in order to raise money, we began to wonder. Given the long tradition of naming campus buildings, fellowships, chairs, and entire schools after donors, why do some of these names, particularly those of the Ivy League, carry such a weight of prestige? Is it something in the names themselves, or just that those eight schools have had such a long time to build up their brands?

Contrary to popular belief, the Ivy League is not derived from the Roman numeral IV.

Naming all eight (yes, there are only eight) universities in the Ivy League is a bit like naming the Ten Commandments: after Yale, Harvard, and Princeton, people begin to fumble, and the true list is always a bit surprising for the schools it consists of and the schools it leaves out.

More surprising, however, is the fact that most of the Ivies started their lives with different names.

Modern Name vs. Original Name

Modern Name: Brown University
Original Name: The College of Rhode Island

Modern Name: Columbia University
Original Name: King's College

Modern Name: Harvard University
Original Name: New College

Modern Name: Princeton University
Original Name: The College of New Jersey

Modern Name: University of Pennsylvania
Original Name: The College of Philadelphia

Modern Name: Yale University
Original Name: The Collegiate School

Because state schools, in general, have less prestige than private schools, it's difficult for us to imagine that Princeton could have attained the status it has today if it had remained "The College of New Jersey." It just doesn't have the same ring to it. In terms of names, the University of Pennsylvania is the odd school out in the list of Ivies--and it turns out there was considerable controversy even in the 18th century about the newly-formed state taking control of the university Benjamin Franklin created.

Although many state universities are highly-regarded academically (think of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and the University of California at Berkeley), Penn's name may be one reason some people forget it when trying to list the Ivy League schools from memory.

The modern names of Ivy League schools--Penn included--come from two sources: locations (toponymous schools) and benefactors (eponymous schools). (Well, Columbia might be said to be a special case, as Christopher Columbus was not precisely a benefactor of the university, but it was certainly not politic to continue to use the name "King's College" after the Revolutionary War.)

Eponymous Universities

Brown (Nicholas Brown)

Columbia (Christopher Columbus)

Cornell (Ezra Cornell)

Dartmouth (William Legge, 2nd Earl of Dartmouth)

Harvard (John Harvard)

Yale (Elihu Yale)

Toponymous Universities

Princeton (Princeton, NJ)

University of Pennsylvania (State of Pennsylvania)

What naming lessons can we take away from the history of the Ivy League universities?

1. First, antiquity does help: there's nothing inherently prestigious in the name "Brown," for instance.

2. Second, avoid "City of" and "State of" names.

3. Third, pick something that sounds Anglo-Saxon ("Dartmouth," "Princeton") or Latinate ("Columbia," "Pennsylvania").

4. And fourth, use the name of an individual rather than a corporation. Not only do individuals change names less often than corporations, but it appears that no one in the 18th century went around naming schools "The British East India Company University," even if that was where the money came from. But, just to be safe, it might make sense to use the name of the company's retired founder, rather than a current CEO who might be the subject of scandal or get head-hunted by a competitor. Particularly if the founder's name is part of the company name. That way it's still clear where credit for that massive charitable donation is due.

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Diane Prange is the Chief Linguistics Officer for Strategic Name development, a brand naming company. Diane received her MBA in Marketing from the University of St. Thomas. Not only does she read the Oxford English Dictionary for recreation, but is fluent in German, French, Italian, and English.  

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