Delivering American University's news and views since 1925. | Tuesday, February 19, 2019

AU debuts new branding effort, but will 'wonk' work?

AU debuts new branding effort, but will 'wonk' work?
STEP RIGHT UP — A variety of AU wonk shirts were available to students free of charge during the annual Celebrate AU event on the quad Monday afternoon.

Correction Appended

After two years of research and discussion of what makes AU unique and reputable among hundreds of colleges and universities, a team of AU faculty, staff and students released a catch phrase today that will now serve as the rebranding statement to describe AU — "American Wonk."

T-shirts emblazoned with “Welcome Wonk,” “Community Wonk” and “Service Wonk” dotted campus during welcome week, and many more T-shirts proclaiming policy wonks, global wonks, green wonks and fill-in-the-blank wonks were being distributed Monday at Celebrate AU on the quad.

On Aug. 4, several terms, including “Wonk,” "American Wonk," "Proud to be a Wonk," "Business Wonk," "Arts Wonk," "Green Wonk," "Legal Wonk," "Media Wonk" and many others were approved for a U.S. federal trademark, after AU’s Office of General Counsel filed for the trademarks on May 20 of this year, according to

Wonk is the result of two years worth of market research through surveys, interviews and polls. The University Marketing Advisory Council, made up of AU faculty, staff and students, discussed the findings over a period of months to guide the branding process.

What is a wonk?
1: A hard-working, intellectually curious person; expert in a field: physics wonk
2: A knowledgeable Washington insider: policy wonk
3: Someone focused on an issue and passionate about creating meaningful change in the world: financial reform wonk, human rights wonk, sustainability wonk
AU launched a Web page called explaining the concept of a wonk. The page incorporates information from a site that has been up throughout the summer,, that defines “wonk” through a list of definitions, applications of “wonk” in mainstream media and explanatory videos.

In addition to its online and campus presence, “wonk” will now be used in advertising during AU’s recruitment for its graduate programs. Ads prominently featuring “wonk” as an identifier for AU will be seen in publications like Politico, Roll Call and The Washington Examiner, starting this month.

Why wonk?

The inspiration for “wonk” came from a drawing by 2002 alumnus and former cartoonist for The Eagle, Nate Beeler.

Beeler, now a cartoonist for The Washington Examiner, was asked to create an image for the front cover of the 2008 spring edition of American Magazine, a publication sent to AU alumni. The picture was meant to illustrate that students are attracted to AU because of its location in D.C.

One of the cartoons Beeler created was a flock of men in suits perched on a telephone wire in front of the Capitol and the Washington Monument. Instead of squawking or chirping like birds, they are saying “WONK, WONK, WONK.”

NATE BEELER '02 / AMERICAN MAGAZINE, SPRING 2008 Nate Beeler's 2008 American Magazine drawing.
A different illustration appeared on the cover, but the idea was filed away and would eventually be used even more prominently among the AU community.

Then in August 2008, AU formed the UMAC and began the two-year project to find a way to set AU apart from other universities.

Cassandra Brown, who received her masters degree in Public Communication this year and was a student representative on UMAC, said the process of identifying the unique things about AU was important because AU needs to be distinguished from the other colleges.

“I think we all know that going to American University, we tell people we go to American University, and they say, ‘which one?’” Brown said. “We need something that makes us stand out, and wonk certainly stands out.”

The promotion of American Wonks is the University’s solution for one of its action items listed in the 2009 Strategic Plan Implementation Report to “develop a brand campaign to improve awareness, perceptions, and pride among target audiences.”

The purpose of the entire rebranding is to reach seven marketing goals, including increased enrollment, enhancing the “quality” of enrollment, increasing revenue and keeping up community relations, according to a document entitled, “American University BrandPrint.”

Marketing Goals for AU Brand Strategy:
1. Strengthen academic and research reputation
2. Enhance quality and diversity of undergraduate enrollment
3. Increase graduate enrollment
4. Increase involvement, support, and advocacy among alumni
5. Grow partnerships with pinnacle organizations
6. Diversify and broaden revenue streams
7. Maintain strong public and community relations
Source: Source: American University BrandPrintTM
Teresa Flannery, the executive director of AU Communications and Marketing, was enlisted to come up with an understanding of the AU community’s sense of self and convey it in a way that would give AU an image makeover.

Starting in August of 2008, Flannery hired marketing research firm SimpsonScarborough to conduct extensive research both within and outside the AU community to search for the identity that rang most true amongst its members.

“Three quarters of our clients come to us with a very similar set of objectives as AU came to us with,” said Elizabeth Scarborough, CEO of SimpsonScarborough. “They want to know among a variety of audiences ... what is the image of the institution, what are its strengths perceived to be, what are its weakness perceived to be, what is really authentically unique and differentiating about the school.”

The firm surveyed thousands of undergraduate students, graduate students, faculty, staff, alumni, prospective students and parents. Business leaders, community and government leaders, guidance counselors and leaders at other universities were interviewed about their perceptions of AU.

With the survey process complete, the UMAC narrowed down several positioning strategies that survey respondents most often supported – active citizenship, learning from leaders and D.C. as a powerful lab for learning.

From there, the University Communications and Marketing department was tasked with developing creative concepts to reflect the values in the positioning strategies with which the campus community identified in surveys.

The brainstorming brought the UMAC back to Beeler's "Wonk" cartoon, and the idea stuck.

“It’s flattering that they were partially inspired by what I did,” Beeler said. “I hope that it works. I think it’s completely appropriate because I, for one, wanted to come to AU specifically because it was a Washington school, and it allowed you to be immersed in current events.”

Why not wonk?

Students have expressed mixed feelings about the new campaign and some say they feel students should have been consulted more throughout the creation of the new brand.

“Honestly, I think it’s kind of silly,” said College of Arts and Sciences sophomore Devon Huntley, a “Welcome Wonk” who was helping freshmen move in Aug. 15. “I don’t think it’s going to last very long.”

Chelsea Spiehs, another Welcome Wonk and a sophomore in the School of International Service, said she thought more students should have had the opportunity to give their input before wonk was selected for the re-branding effort.

“I don’t know if the student body would like it as much as the marketing department,” Spiehs said.

STEFANIE DAZIO / THE EAGLE Chelsea Spiehs sports a 'welcome wonk' shirt as she helps a parent of a new AU student move into Letts Hall on Aug. 15.
Former Student Government President Andy MacCracken attended several meetings last academic year with AU Communications and Marketing involving the design of the new branding campaign, he said.

But he never heard the word “wonk” until this summer.

“I heard it kind of second- or third-hand from my roommate,” MacCracken said. “He brought it up one day, and I thought he was kidding for a while. And then I found out he wasn’t kidding.”

MacCracken said he sees this effort as a positive move for the University.

“I definitely recognize the need to have an identity that is something strong and unifying for the entire campus that we can associate both within our community and beyond,” he said. “I’m just not sure that ‘wonk’ is the right approach for that.”

He said the word does not necessarily represent the entire community, and the way it has been introduced in the community was not the grassroots effort it should have been.

“[Wonk] essentially means ‘nerd,’ which is fine,” MacCracken said. “We’re all academics out here, but I’m not sure that’s what really defines the AU community or separates it from the others. And I think had they really done this in a more collaborative way in terms of devising what this identity was going to be, I think we would have found that we have more doers in the AU community.”

Brown, on the other hand, said she believes “wonk” does represent that AU students are proactive experts in their field.

“I think that wonk is a really bold and creative idea,” she said. “If the definition [of wonk] takes hold that American University students are smart, intelligent people who become experts in their field and go out into the world and apply that expertise every day, it will help American University to exponentially grow their brand and their reputation both here in D.C. and in the rest of the world.”

After his nearly two-year involvement with UMAC, Jay Weingast, who graduated from the Kogod School of Business in May, said that there was plenty of student input from surveys during the research phase and focus groups later. The involvement of too many students too early in the process of creating the branding campaign would have been counter-productive, he said.

“I feel like if they had involved lots and lots of students early on, it would have been too many chefs at the pot,” Weingast said.

Student Government's reaction

AU Communications and Marketing has met with current members of the Student Government twice about the wonk campaign and discussed promoting “wonk” early this year through SG wonk T-shirts, SG President Nate Bronstein’s Fireside Chats and his early speeches at events such as Opening Convocation.

However, current members of the SG have officially chosen to remain neutral about the effort to instill a “wonk” identity at AU.

“Keeping in line with this neutral stance, members of the Executive will neither publicly endorse nor will they oppose the marketing campaign," Bronstein said in a statement. "It is also to be noted that any statement made in agreement or opposition to, whether this be verbal or nonverbal, is a statement made by the individual and not the office or the Student Government as a whole.”

Members of the SG are split over whether they like the implementation of “wonk” as an identity for AU, according to SG Secretary Kent Hiebel.

“One of our main concerns is that there wasn’t enough student input in the original process,” Hiebel said. “[MacCracken] didn’t know about it until this summer ... The fact that the student government president didn’t know about it kind of shows there was a lack of student involvement in the development.”

Bronstein said the SG will act as a “sounding board” for the rest of the AU undergraduate community to express their opinions through a new virtual forum on the SG website, poll questions through SG emails and town-hall discussion forums.

“Really, we need to be the representation of the student body,” Bronstein said.

Hiebel said that though the goals behind the concept are thorough and well-researched, he anticipates confusion among students when they first hear about “wonk.”

“I think most people don’t even know what it means,” Hiebel said. “I’ve heard people think it’s a sexual term. I’ve heard questions asked like, ‘Is this going to be the new mascot?’”

Hiebel, Brown and Weingast all said that education about the term is an important part of communicating the concept to the student body and the AU community.

“I think as long as enough education about the word ‘wonk’ is there, then it can be successful, but if that is not there, then I’m not sure how well it will go,” Weingast said. “It’s just something that’s so different and unfamiliar.”

Correction: This story originally stated the shirts were to be distributed throughout the week. In fact, they were only distributed at Monday's Celebrate AU event. This version has been corrected. Also, SG Secretary Kent Hiebel's last name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story. The Eagle regrets these errors.

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