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With branding, Cal State schools look to send a new message

Cal State schools are having an identity crisis trying to find nicknames and acronyms to set themselves apart
For schools in the 23-campus Cal State system, nicknames and images are essential marketing tools

For the longest time, Dixia Aguilar said, her mother thought she attended UCLA, not Cal State L.A. "No, Mom," she would say, "CSULA."

In Long Beach, graphics design major Tyler Lampe said his campus' formal name hardly inspired school spirit.

"When it comes to sports, 'Long Beach State!' is a lot punchier than 'Go, California State University, Long Beach!'"

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FOR THE RECORD:

College branding: An article in the Sept. 2 Section A about some Cal State campuses seeking to change their names said that California State University, Sacramento has trademarked three names, including Sacramento State University, which it prefers to be called. The trademarked name that it prefers is Sacramento State. —
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An identity crisis of sorts is sweeping through the Cal State system.

Cal State L.A. wants to be known as anything other than CSULA, an acronym it fears is too closely associated with that other campus in Westwood. Long Beach — alternately known as Cal State Long Beach or CSULB or Long Beach State — wants to be known as the Beach. And Cal State Northridge is aggressively pushing CSUN (pronounced "SEA-sun") as its nickname of choice.

Amid increasing competition for students, faculty, staff and private funding, the schools are looking for ways to set themselves apart — while also maintaining the benefits of their association with the 23-campus, 420,000-student California State University system.

They also are struggling to promote academic programs and enrollment profiles that differ from those at the University of California. (UC's status as the more selective system is enshrined in the state's Master Plan for Higher Education.)

So campus images and nicknames have become essential tools for Cal State campuses as they continue to confront increasing demand for their services and reduced funding from the state.

"Everyone would love to be in a situation where funding is going to be there and schools are able to focus solely on the mission of educating students," said Jason Simon, vice president of the market research and strategy firm SimpsonScarborough, which recently began working with the Cal State chancellor's office to evaluate the system's image.

"But they can't … turn a blind eye to historical cuts in education that in California have been pretty frightening," he added. "Being more purposeful about how they talk about themselves is critical."

System leaders acknowledge the mostly informal name changes are catching on, but they say they're not alarmed.

"There's a benefit to having a bigger brand recognition as one part of a state university, but it's helpful for recruiting to establish an individual brand and establish what that brand is about," said spokesman Mike Uhlenkamp.

At Long Beach, spokeswoman Terri Carbaugh said greater consistency in how the campus promotes itself is needed. Too many names simply become confusing.

The school is considering formally adopting the name Long Beach State — which has been used in the community and by its athletics teams — with "Beach" as its primary nickname.

The aim is to leverage more philanthropic dollars rather than attract more students — the campus had 83,000-plus applications for the coming fall term and had to reject many who were qualified, she said.

Besides, Carbaugh said, Long Beach State has precedent on its side, with such campuses as San Diego State, San Jose State and Sonoma State. A formal change would need approval by the Board of Trustees. It has not yet been requested, she said.

Lampe, 23, favors a change in identity to boost the campus' ties to the city of Long Beach, where there are few student events, he said, and not much of a college town vibe.

"You look at a school like UCLA which puts a lot of effort and focus on a strong image students can rally behind, and that's where I feel a lot of Cal States are lacking," Lampe said. "Academics are most important, but to create a college atmosphere is important as well."

The Cal State campus in Los Angeles also is working to refine its image, inviting comment from students, faculty, alumni and the surrounding community, President William Covino said.

"We want people to think and talk about what's happening at Cal State L.A., but branding is a larger campus conversation about the values, ethics and goals this university represents that are distinctive," Covino said.

The school was called Los Angeles State College at its founding in 1947 before officially becoming California State University, Los Angeles in 1972, said Jose A. Gomez, senior vice president and chief operating officer.

The school is seeking to emphasize its Los Angeles location and distinguish itself in a region where several other campuses — Northridge, Dominguez Hills, San Bernardino, Bakersfield and Fullerton — are referred to as California State University.

"I was at a restaurant not far from campus and saw banners for USC and UCLA, but they didn't have a Cal State L.A. banner," said art professor Jimmy Moss. "It's fascinating to me that we don't necessarily have that 'Let's go, team' kind of spirit. So, yes, I think [school identity] is very important."

Aguilar, who is studying liberal arts, and her friend Rubi Vargas, a math major, said that although they love the college's centrality and academic programs, they believe tweaking the name wouldn't make much of a difference at a school that they believe most other people can't locate anyway. (It's in the University Hills area, near Monterey Park.)

Alumnus Tom LaBonge, a Los Angeles city councilman, said the campus has some tough competition getting its message out, but expected new leadership under Covino to "ring the bell louder."

"There are some tall trees in USC, UCLA, Loyola Marymount and Occidental," said LaBonge, who attended the L.A. campus in the '70s. "But at the heart of the city is Cal State L.A. … which is as diverse as the city and represents the face of L.A. If they want to call it Los Angeles State, I'm behind that 1,000%."

In the case of California State University, Chico, the formal name is proving advantageous. The campus attracts the vast majority of its students from outside the area.

California State University, Sacramento has trademarked three names — its formal one, Sacramento State University, which it prefers to be called, and Sac State for the local community and alumni, said assistant marketing director Karen Booth.

Cal State Northridge leaders, meanwhile, believe they struck branding nirvana with CSUN, which is being used more consistently, said Jeff Noblitt, associate vice president for marketing and communications.

The university has launched a campuswide initiative around the slogan "CSUN shine" as a way to highlight its achievements.

"Given our Southern California location," Noblitt said, "we're lucky to have a unique, appropriate and fitting acronym."

carla.rivera@latimes.com

Twitter: @carlariveralat

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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