A Minute With...

marketing expert Tiffany Barnett White

6/15/2010  8:00 am

The Big Ten will grow to 12 members next year when Nebraska joins the nation’s oldest Division 1 athletic conference. But amid the change, the Big Ten’s deeply branded name is one thing that should stay the same, says marketing expert Tiffany Barnett White. White, whose research includes consumers’ feelings about product brands, discusses the value of the Big Ten name in an interview with News Bureau Business & Law editor Jan Dennis.

Expansion will set off another round of jokes about the math skills of the Big Ten, whose members now number 12 with the addition of Nebraska. How valuable is the Big Ten name, and should any thought be given to changing it?

image of professor tiffany barnett whiteLike Coke and Pepsi, the Big Ten is a top-notch brand with a tremendous amount of equity. The fan base is extensive and global (I recently saw a person wearing a Big Ten championship shirt while walking the streets of Beijing), and the Big Ten has a longstanding reputation for excellence in athletics that is absolutely independent of the number of schools in the conference. When sports fans think of the Big Ten, at least three things come to mind: 1) Great sports teams: Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State, who continue to perform well in national championships year after year; 2) Outstanding players: Dick Butkus, Tom Brady, Steve Alford, Quinn Buckner, Isaiah Thomas and Deron Williams are just a few of the Big Ten “greats” that come to mind; and 3) Superior academics: Northwestern, Michigan and (of course) Illinois just scratch the surface of universities in the Big Ten conference that are known for excellence in athletics as well as education. As long as the conference expands to include schools that are consistent with these perceptions, the Big Ten will retain its fantastic reputation and will enjoy the goodwill and emotional and financial support of its fan base for years to come. Few conferences have such an “it” factor. Changing the Big Ten brand name would be a HUGE mistake.

Are there other examples of institutions or businesses that have continued and thrived with outdated names?

There are lots of brand names, such as Radio Shack (which sells very few radios nowadays), Burlington Coat Factory (which sells more than just coats) and Southwest Airlines (which flies to regions all over the U.S.) that continue to thrive despite being misnomers. In each case, the image of the brand has come to mean something broader than its literal name. In the case of the Big Ten, the value of the brand lies in its reputation of excellence in athletics and academics. Unless there is some push to change that image, a name change strikes me as something to avoid.

When Penn State was added, the Big Ten adopted a logo that embedded a subtle “11” in the graphic. Any ideas of how the conference could work "12" into its branding – or perhaps 14 or 16, based on expansion rumors? Or does it even matter?

I’d never go on record as saying that a logo “doesn’t matter.” That said, I don’t recommend investing a lot of time and money in changing the existing logo. In fact, because I believe so strongly that the Big Ten brand is about something more than the number of teams in the conference, my recommendation is to refrain from the use of these “subtle” numbers. Doing so will take the focus off the number of teams in the conference (leaving the conference the flexibility to expand or contract in the future without needing to invest in yet another new logo), and hopefully sharpen fans’ focus on the characteristics of the Big Ten that truly set it apart from other conferences. In the end, the Big Ten’s reputation is what matters; the number of teams in the conference does not.

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