The End of the Office…as a Naming Convention

In my ongoing series of conversations with senior marketing leaders this academic year, we’ve discussed—among many topics—the dynamics of leading a remote team. While some VPs have been in the office periodically, rotating days on campus with other members of the cabinet, their teams continue to work remotely. For some teams, this scenario is indefinite; for others, it’s now permanent. As part of the de-densification of campuses, former marketing offices are now new learning spaces or repurposed office spaces. (One vice chancellor told me that their office suite is now the home for campus police.) 

So, if the Office of Marketing and Communications is no longer a physical office, we should rethink what we call it. In fact, retiring the organization-centric “Office of” naming convention across all enabler units is long overdue.

As an aside, I’ve never been a fan of calling marketing and communications a “support” unit. This misnomer perpetuates marcomm’s perception as an output-oriented unit that responds to creative services requests rather than an outcomes-oriented strategic function that advances top institutional priorities. I recently read Stephen Lehmkuhle’s new book, Campus with Purpose: Building a Mission-Driven Campus, about building the University of Minnesota Rochester campus from scratch as its inaugural chancellor. He calls marketing and communications, advancement, human resources and other non-academic entities “enabler” units: organizational units that enable a campus to deliver on its purpose. I am adopting this terminology.

Even in pre-COVID times, your colleagues likely engaged with your “office” more online through your digital campus than in person through your unit’s physical location. However, we call the Office of Marketing and Communications an office not only because it’s a physical space where staff members work (or used to work), but also because “office” is an organizational unit. For non-academic units, the “Office of” is the primary naming convention, along with the larger “division” (such as the Division of Student Affairs) to encompass multiple offices. “Department” is typically reserved for academic units.

Colleges and universities organize themselves into schools, departments, divisions, offices, centers, institutes and other units, but our audiences largely view an institution holistically. Our communications should serve our audiences, not explain the institution’s organizational structure. If, for example, your admissions website uses the header Office of Undergraduate Admissions, “Office of” simply adds unnecessary clutter for those you’re trying to inform and engage. 

The other problem with the “Office of” naming convention is that it contributes to the proliferation of acronyms, which can place an added burden on your audiences. The Office of Marketing and Communications, for instance, becomes “OMC,” which then appears as the website subdomain, the unit’s informal name and yet another acronym that colleagues need to decipher. (RHB maintains a collection of higher ed taglines, and we could easily create one for higher ed acronyms too.)

When I was at Indiana University, we tried to employ this audience-oriented philosophy when our team developed an online “marketing lockup” generator, where unit-level marketing directors could create a custom lockup for their unit based on the primary, secondary and tertiary information they provided. 

Upon our approving the submitted name (and ensuring it had no typos or—gasp—acronyms), the system generated a suite of marketing lockup options, using variations in font weights to best display the unit’s name and variations in hierarchies of information. 

In the first two years of the system, our team approved more than 2,000 marketing lockup submissions across the university and its multiple campuses, with nearly 15,000 individual pieces of artwork automatically generated. 

Sometimes people would ask why we provided so many different options including ones that may not be used or needed. We wanted to empower units to tailor communications to their specific audiences versus a one-size-fits-all approach. We trusted our marcomm colleagues, and we worked hard to earn their trust. In a Keynote or PowerPoint presentation to senior administration, the Department of Biology may need to show its relationship as part of the College of Arts and Sciences in its marketing lockup. But in a campus campaign fundraising appeal to departmental employees, the lockup pairing the university logo with the unit name just needed to say, “Biology.” The focus on the audience was the point.

And that’s the point with organizational naming conventions too. You can internally organize non-academic areas into offices, but externally let’s retire “office” and “division.” There’s no need to include that in every administrative or enabler unit’s name, which makes unit names more cumbersome for audiences and causes acronymitis (an affliction no one wants). You may even reconsider some names. Another Indiana University example: the Office of Financial Literacy uses the audience-centric moniker MoneySmarts for outward-facing purposes. 

Be kind to your audiences. Names and naming conventions should make things simple and clear for them.

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Rob Zinkan

Rob is the Vice President for Marketing Leadership at RHB.