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What's UND's ID: University takes on branding effort

What does identity mean for an institution in flux? And, more specifically, how do you pinpoint what it means to be a part of a university? UND is working towards the completion of a multi-month branding study intended to answer those questions a...

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What does identity mean for an institution in flux? And, more specifically, how do you pinpoint what it means to be a part of a university?

UND is working towards the completion of a multi-month branding study intended to answer those questions as the school moves from an embattled past to a future marked by uncertainty. The Fighting Sioux nickname and logo is largely-or at least officially-gone, replaced by the fledgling Hawk now making its nest on sports jerseys and high-visibility campus locations. The budget reductions of the recent legislative session are also over for now, leaving the university eyeing methods to streamline practices while considering the demands of a future expected to be defined in part by tech-inspired disruption.

Though there are glimpses of a shared thread tying the campus together, according to UND-commissioned branding research, university stakeholders aren't sure about the school's message.

Presentations of the branding effort say the point of the exercise isn't to generate an identity to foist onto the university. Rather, UND President Mark Kennedy says, the ultimate product will reflect a character which presumably already exists on campus. Once the essence of the university is stated a little more directly, the resulting marketing effort will express its main pieces with a voice matching the school's specific interests and goals.

Despite varying outside pressures, Kennedy doesn't necessarily think the identity of the school has itself changed. Rather, he says, it's "been confused."

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He attributes the fuzziness of meaning to three factors: "almost no marketing investment," a "weak to nonexistent" focus on branding in the past and the drawn-out debate over the Fighting Sioux nickname, which Kennedy said could be extended "for at least a decade" in the hockey community.

"We had our sports logo fill the vacuum of branding what a university is," he said.

Sol Jensen, outgoing UND Assistant Vice President for Admissions and Financial Aid, has spearheaded the university's effort to unify its "brand promise" and, in doing so, help pull together a marketing strategy, which detractors say has become fragmented. He underlined that observation by pointing out the logos used by various schools and colleges on campus-each drawn with common themes but with no consistent design.

Much of the basis of the rebranding comes from a study conducted by SME Inc., the company that designed the Fighting Hawks logo. The study was driven through focus groups and stakeholder surveys that gathered a total of about 5,000 responses from sectors of UND including students, employees and alumni.

The ongoing branding effort, which began in full in January and is expected to wrap up in June, is part of a larger strategic marketing push to which UND is redirecting about $3 million. Actual marketing products should begin rolling out by the start of the next academic year. School leaders are hoping the blitz will boost the school's profile and increase enrollment by focusing the university's message to prospective students.

'Who are we?'

In April, Jensen delivered some of the main findings of SME's research. Central among the issues underlined by the branding firm was the idea that UND has "lost control of its narrative" due to the negative associations with the nickname fight and budget cutting processes.

Beneath the din of negative press, the firm pointed to a broader lacking in the sense of identity felt by campus stakeholders. That's an issue also underlined in the past by Kennedy and one which newly elected Student Body President Cole Bachmeier said was a main pillar of his campaign.

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"Looking at where we're at today, I think that's the big problem" among students, Bachmeier said. "Who are we? Where are we going as a university?"

The concept of brand identity resonates with undergraduate students as a matter of community and shared culture, he said, all of which contribute to a more home-like feel to campus. Maybe above all else, Bachmeier said the institutional identity gave students a feeling that they were a part of something larger than themselves.

"I don't think we're at that point yet," he said, though he believed the campus was making progress in working toward it.

The SME branding study uncovered a few points that spoke to that idea of shared culture. Among the qualities that emerged through the research, Jensen said he personally liked a characterization of UND stakeholders as having a kind of "gritty attitude" which spoke to an ability to get things done.

"People believe in doing, not talking," Jensen said. The quality of personal grit also belied a perception of toughness, he said, a point supported in half-jest by the ability of those in Grand Forks to withstand the cold force of a northern Plains winter.

Personal traits bubbled up through the course of the study, but SME also noted sports had taken a front-seat focus in the public's understanding of the university. Among all the sections of the studied demographic, "hockey" ranked as the top word or phrase associated with UND. According to Jensen's report of SME's findings, when research participants were asked to name UND's official colors, "many respondents were either confused or mistakenly named a color from the Athletics identity." Though UND leaders have spoken favorably of athletics on campus, the rebranding seeks to pull academics more into focus in the unified approach to identity.

"Why they think about hockey is because we haven't talked about the rest of the university the best way we can," Kennedy said. Though he emphasized his support of the hockey program, he said the top-of-mind presence of the sport is "not a replacement for the university itself having a very strong brand image."

The contentious nickname issue, coupled in recent years by budgetary tensions driven by decreased state appropriations, took their own tolls on the campus community.

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Bachmeier said students are glad to be done with both. He spoke approvingly about the campus strategic plan, saying it gave the university something to strive for while "doubling down" on the priorities which make up identity.

Still, he said there was room for improvement in building a cohesive campus which was attractive to students.

"I think that's really important to define, to be able to answer, 'Yeah, I'm a UND student, but what does it mean to be a UND student?' " Bachmeier said. "If I can't say, that gives you pause."

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