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Thoughts on the New Mitchell|Hamline Law School

Posted in Branding, Famous Marks, Guest Bloggers, Mixed Bag of Nuts, Trademarks

– Draeke Weseman, Weseman Law Office, PLLC

Naming is a tricky business with important marketing and trademark considerations.  Recently, two Minnesota law schools, William Mitchell College of Law and Hamline Law School, took up this daunting task when they decided to merge into Mitchell|Hamline.

On February 13, 2015, William Mitchell Dean Eric Janus announced the newly named law school, with the following statement:

. . . The combined school will be named Mitchell|Hamline School of Law and will be located primarily on William Mitchell’s existing campus in Saint Paul. Mitchell|Hamline School of Law will be an autonomous, non-profit institution governed by an independent board of trustees, with a strong, visible and long-lasting affiliation to Hamline University.

According to Janus, the new law school will benefit students by giving them access to three nationally-ranked programs – alternative dispute resolution (Hamline), clinical education (William Mitchell College of Law), and health law (Hamline) – and more enrollment options than any other law school in the country, in part, due to the new online hybrid enrollment option pioneered by William Mitchell College of Law.  It will also create opportunities for dual degrees and give law students access to more robust university facilities, like an athletic center.

As an alumnus of William Mitchell College of Law, all of this sounds like good strategy under the circumstances facing law schools today.  Nationally, for several years now, law school enrollment has been in steep decline; and, here in the Twin Cities, the presence of four law schools just seems redundant.  (For out-of-towners, the law schools at the University of Minnesota and the University of Saint Thomas are the other two in Minnesota).  In such a tight marketplace, it became increasingly obvious that two schools with complementary offerings in close geographic proximity should not compete for the same students.  Furthermore, both schools have important historic and contemporary alumni, and the merger will create a new network of 18,000 alumni between the schools.

As a brand enthusiast, though, I have some apprehension about the new name.  In particular two things standout: the vertical bar between Mitchell|Hamline and the brick-red coloring for Hamline. (If you initially thought the coloring was for a hyperlink, you weren’t the only one!)  If, as school officials have indicated, the merger is a true combination of schools, why the visual barrier – the equivalent of a punctuation wall –  between Mitchell on the one side and Hamline, on the other.  Why the distinct coloring for Hamline?

I think these elements hinder the presentation of a new, unified brand.  And I think naming experts would agree.  Take for instance, the general advice of Laurel Sutton in her Fast Company article, “What’s in a Name? The Ability to Make or Break a Merger:

“A [merger] is a chance to re-evaluate and redefine two brands that may be on their way down. Everyone loves a comeback, and it’s an opportunity to either build a new brand or build upon existing, if slightly tarnished, brand equity. Think of it as repurposing and upcycling for capitalism, taking old brands and making them brand new again. But this whole process of evaluation is often delicate, because it means dealing with the very marrow of what makes a brand: its culture and people—and ultimately making a value judgment on what to retain and what to reject.”

To me, the vertical bar and the coloring suggest an incomplete evaluation of what to retain and what to reject.  They risk creating that the perception that the two schools don’t want to completely unite.  I would remove both.

As a trademark attorney, I have additional concerns.  Trademarks benefit from a long, established history of widespread use, and the new Mitchell|Hamline name eliminates that, unless tacking is available. Tacking – the ability to attach the history of an old mark to a new mark for legal purposes – is available when a new mark is the legal equivalent of the old mark.  As Tim blogged about last month, the U.S. Supreme Court recently unanimously affirmed a lower court’s decision that tacking applied between the marks Hana Bank, Hana World Center, and Hana Overseas Korean Club.  For Mitchell|Hamline, tacking would be unlikely because the new name is so different from either earlier mark.

This would not likely be true if, for example, the merger had resulted in the name “William Mitchell College of Law at Hamline University.” In that instance, both the Hamline University brand and the truncated William Mitchell brand would continue, and both are protected incontestable registered trademarks.  For a trademark attorney, this would be preferable to the possible abandonment of the mark William Mitchell.

Why didn’t the two schools go this route?  One explanation might be the economics of the deal.  According to the Star Tribune, Mitchell|Hamline is a financially independent entity from Hamline University.  Another related reason might be the perception that one brand had more equity than the other.  As Ms. Sutton suggests:

“Quite naturally, companies want to keep the name of the mightier brand. . . . Sometimes, it’s the acquisition that has better brand recognition. . . . More often, it’s the acquirer who bestows their name, perhaps to signify that they’re the victor.”

So what’s Mitchell|Hamline to do?  In addition to dropping the vertical bar and coloring, one strategy might be to immediately, at least in some contexts, further truncate the name to “Mitchell,” the nickname already in use for William Mitchell.  For the past four years, the truncated name Mitchell was used in a very successful fundraising campaign branded “If Not For Mitchell,” where more than $25 million was raised to support scholarships, faculty, and innovation.  In a bit of irony, this “new” truncated Mitchell nickname would have a date of first use earlier than Mitchell|Hamline (which isn’t in use yet and won’t be until the ABA approves the merger).  Whether this nickname would create an opportunity for tacking is a more difficult conclusion to reach, but not an unreasonable one.

What do DuetsBlog readers think of the new name?  How would you advise these two schools, or others that might be contemplating a similar merger?