Monday, April 27, 2009

By Popular Demand ...

I'll be posting some of my old Wanderer columns here a couple of weeks after they hit the streets. Here's the first from mid-April on Notre Dame and Obama


What’s In A Name?

What is a “brand” name? It’s the name of a commercial product or service that its owners want to drill into your head with so much advertising that the name is literally “branded” into your brain. Think Coke, Sony, or Nike. These companies trademark their brand names and carefully protect them, because they are among their most valuable assets.

A brand name can be worth billions. Fifty years ago, I went to school with one of the Maytag boys from Newton, Iowa, where the Maytags had made washing machines since 1907. Over the years, the picture of “Ol’ Lonely,” that smiling Maytag repairman who never had any work to do, was pounded into our subconscious by a phenomenal ad campaign combined with a superb product. By 2006, unfortunately, Maytag realized that it couldn’t keep up with its competitors, who had outsourced most of their production to cheaper foreign labor. The Maytag company couldn’t keep going, but the Maytag name was a household word, beloved by millions. What to do?

Along came the Whirlpool Corporation, a Maytag competitor. They bought Maytag for over a billion dollars, and kept right on making “Maytags,” relying on the famous name’s sterling reputation. But there was just one problem: the new Maytags didn’t work. They caught fire, flooded, caused mildew, and kept breaking down. The brand plummeted when outraged customers realized that they weren’t getting the fabled old Maytags from Newton, Iowa. Meanwhile, poor “Ol’ Lonely” was quietly retired.

When businesses are bought out, they don’t always inform their customers. In fact, preserving brand loyalty often requires that the original, popular product image be perpetuated -- and for good reason. As the new owners adjust to new market realities, the quality that made the product famous when it was part of a family enterprise often suffers. A few companies, like Wal-Mart, prosper by bragging about the savings their customers can reap by buying cheap Chinese goods, but most are not so ostentatious – especially those who have built up strong brand loyalty over the years.

A corporation normally assigns a dollar amount on its balance sheet to the accumulated value of its reputation and the brand names it owns. For instance, Procter and Gamble’s balance sheet reports assets of $93 billion in line items reflecting “Goodwill” and “Intangibles.” That staggering figure represents the value of the solid reputation of the company and of its brands, which include Crest, Herbal Essences, Pampers, and Tide. P&G relentlessly maintains high product quality and spends millions protecting its brands from being pirated or misrepresented.

For decades, every tube of Crest Toothpaste has borne a seal of approval from the American Dental Association. But if Procter and Gamble started pushing shoddy products – if the ADA announced that “Look, Mom! No cavities!” was false advertising – the company would suddenly be worth $93 billion less, without losing one tube of toothpaste, one office building, or one manufacturing plant. “Goodwill” and other invisible “intangibles” are that valuable.

“Welcome To Fighting Humanist U”

All this comes to mind as I read that Bishop Thomas G. Doran, of Rockford, Illinois, has written a letter to university president Father John Jenkins, C.S.C., in which he recommends that Notre Dame change its name to “The Humanist University of Northwest Indiana.” Bishop Doran has a point. Now more than ever, The University of Notre Dame is a secular business, a corporation – and a very rich one. Its administrators recognize that they have inherited valuable brand names which were dear to millions of Catholics when the university was run by a family – the priests of the Holy Cross. But after the 1960s, when they sold out to a competitor – the popular culture -- their product began to decline in quality. But the price did not decline. Why not? Brand loyalty. Long after Whirlpool bought out Maytag, long-time Maytag owners were still recommending them. My wife’s mother loved hers, and that’s why we got ours, years ago. I would heartily recommend it today, if I hadn’t read about the precipitous decline in quality since then.

So the lay board of trustees that now owns and runs Notre Dame inherited several valuable assets. Josef Pieper points out in his Guide to Saint Thomas Aquinas that the very word universitas appears for the first time in a papal document during the reign of Pope Innocent III in the early thirteenth century. As to “Notre Dame,” Bishop Doran advises Father Jenkins that “it is truly obscene for you to take such decisions as you have done in a university named for our Blessed Lady, whom the Second Vatican Council called the Mother of the Church.”

Truth In Advertising?

So “The University of Notre Dame” inherits her entire name and title from the loving hands of Holy Mother Church. But in 1967, Notre Dame formally divorced itself from the Catholic Church with the Land’O Lakes statement. Its new lay board, comprising several very sharp businessmen, did not junk the valuable brand names – “Catholic” and “Notre Dame” and all the trimmings. They wanted to pretend that their product represented the same orthodox, faithful brand. They knew what the market wanted to hear. So Notre Dame kept the gold on the dome, the Grotto, and the Log Chapel – valuable trademarks that used to symbolize doctrinal reality -- but they put new toothpaste in the tube. Now, the ADA’s experts would become quite upset if Procter & Gamble started replacing its toothpaste with Twinkie’s sugar filling, and dentists everywhere would quickly take notice. But what if the experts and the dentists went along with the deception? After all, spiritual decline in the education of souls is harder to detect than a cavity. Moreover, the Day of Reckoning for the soul stuffed with counterfeit teaching comes only in the afterlife – “beyond the bottom line,” so to speak.”

Notre Dame has divorced the Catholic Church, but, in biblical terms, it has “put her away quietly” (viz. Matt. 1:20). Oh, and it forgot to tell its students and alumni. In fact, many Catholics are under the impression that they’re still married. No bishop has issued an annulment, after all. In fact, Cardinal Francis George, Archbishop of Chicago and the President of the USCCB, has sharply criticized the Obama invitation, but says that “the bishops don’t run Notre Dame.” Immediately, the brass-knuckled bag-man of the Chicago Democrat Machine, William E. Daley, accused Cardinal George (but not Father Jenkins) of “mixing religion and politics.” Whereupon Notre Dame’s limping light of heterodoxy, Father Richard McBrien, chimed in, telling the New York Times “This crowd are [sic] simply Republicans who are upset that Obama won the election — and they want to pick a fight.”

As Sherlock Holmes said to Dr. Watson, “Watson, when I say you are instructive, I mean I learn from your mistakes.” Father McBrien has let the cat out of the bag. For those supporting the Obama invitation, it’s all about politics. By reputation a theologian (a valuable brand, however abused these days), McBrien simply sees no moral problem with Obama at all.

A friend recently noted a troubling contradiction in McBrien’s approach to priorities. When shopping for a wide-screen TV, he’ll undoubtedly look for the sharpest picture he can find. But when it comes to morality, he will use every means possible to blur every distinction, every revealed truth. Well, when it comes his students at Notre Dame, we can only hope that they will learn from his mistakes.

Write Chris Manion and discuss (or criticize) his Wanderer articles at the Catholic Guys Internet blog (

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