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American University, now home to the 'American Wonk'

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"There's a gap in the perception of the university and the reality of the university," he said. "The branding campaigns are important because they help people understand the change."

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Yet some campaigns can backfire. Drake University in Des Moines unveiled an admissions campaign this semester around the idea of the "Drake Advantage." For an illustration, Drake used a giant blue D+ on its Web site. The school has since modified the image so it looks less like a near-failing grade.

The $675,000 branding effort at American began two years ago, when the university hired a marketing strategy firm to survey students, parents, faculty and alumni about their perceptions of the university.

"Students tell someone they are going to American University or they are applying to American University . . . and a lot of the time, people say, 'Where?' " Flannery said.

That initial round of research identified three potential messages: active citizenship, learning from leaders and Washington as a powerful lab for learning.

Campus staffers then had to come up with a way to creatively convey those messages. At one meeting, they discussed a cartoon that Nate Beeler, a 2002 graduate and now a Washington Examiner cartoonist, drew for the cover of the alumni magazine. It shows a row of guys in suits sitting on a D.C. telephone wire like pigeons and saying, "Wonk! Wonk! Wonk!"

"It was 'Oh!' and then 'Noooo.' But 24 hours later, we were all still talking about it," Flannery said.

The choice has sparked as much consternation as enthusiasm among American's 12,000 students, not all of whom aspire to a lifetime of wonkery. Many have questioned it - and a few have openly mocked it - in Facebook updates, tweets and the comments section of the campus newspaper.

"I don't have any positive associations with this word," said Erin Lockwood, a senior majoring in international studies and economics. "It's a silly word. It doesn't have any intellectual gravitas."

But university leaders are confident that "wonk" - which they define as "an intellectually curious person" or "a knowledgeable Washington insider" - captures something essential about American. The whiff of nerdiness perceived by some students and alumni, officials said, was less important than the word's distinctiveness.

Josh Kaplan, a "green wonk" and senior environmental studies major, said: "Initially, I thought it was a little strange. But that's kind of what I like about it now. . . . It's pretty uniquely a Washington word."


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