University banks on brand identification to bolster school image

University officials hope more uniform branding will draw more top students.

Matt Graham

Branding.

It’s a buzzword in corporate culture, where companies and focus groups devote time and money to planting their brand firmly in the minds of consumers.

And like so many other corporate trends, branding has crossed over into the realm of higher education.

The strategic positioning administrative task force on culture is working to strengthen the University brand and accentuate what it is that makes the University unique.

“There’s an acknowledgement that the University of Minnesota is in fact a brand,” said Linda Thrane, vice president of University Relations and chairwoman of the culture task force.

Thrane said that while corporations spend millions to develop a brand image, the University already has a head start with symbols such as Goldy Gopher, the maroon-and-gold color scheme and the ubiquitous M.

But while people around the state are aware of the University, Thrane said many Minnesotans don’t know what distinguishes the University from other colleges because the University is the state’s only public research institution.

One branding change the University has already made is the development of a Web site template that Thrane said most colleges and departments now use.

“No matter where (people) are surfing throughout the University Web site, they know they’re touching the University of Minnesota,” Thrane said.

Thrane said that by the University distinguishing itself with a strong brand, it will become more competitive in attracting top students and faculty and more successful in getting money from the Legislature.

As an added bonus to graduates, Thrane said, a strong brand would make a degree from the University look more prestigious.

Most students interviewed said they couldn’t succinctly describe the University’s image, and when pressed, most said something about its campus size.

“It’s large but fun,” sophomore journalism major Jenna Reiff said.

First-year mechanical engineering student Jeff Nelson said “I like (the University) because you can really make it what you want it.”

Although she said she understands the University’s marketing efforts, Minnesota Student Association President Emily Serafy Cox said that in some ways it is nice that students can’t briefly sum up their school.

“I think not having a single image is, in part, a strength,” she said. “To see the University as something more complicated is, in part, a good thing.”

Serafy Cox said marketing a place of higher education as if it were a company is, in some respects, a misguided attempt.

“Part of the strength of a place of learning is that it’s about something that’s intangible,” she said.