Getting back ‘on brand’

UND marketing team rolls out survey and focus group results that will guide University branding efforts

Sol Jensen

Assistant Vice President for Enrollment Services Sol Jensen explains the importance of UND branding research at the most recent budget forum on April 14. Branding research will reach full culmination by early June. Photo by Tyler Ingham.

Assistant Vice President for Enrollment Services Sol Jensen stood before the UND budget forum crowd on April 14 with three large, blurry images projected on the wall behind him. Although pixelated, these were obviously photos of a Nike shoe, a Starbucks cup and McDonald’s fries.

“Most of you can look at all three of these, without actually seeing the logo, and not only do you know what it stands for, but there’s some sort of a feeling or a thought or a smell or a taste that comes to your mind,” Jensen said.

“That’s what we need for UND—maybe not the smell and the taste part,” he added, to the laughter of the audience.

Jensen was explaining the importance of UND branding research that will reach full culmination by early June. Branding is one area of a larger UND marketing initiative currently in development.

Over the past months, UND’s marketing team has been working with a branding firm to conduct surveys and focus groups of key UND stakeholder sets, including campus, alumni, community members and prospective students. The goal of the research is to understand what makes UND unique, so that the marketing effort can move to its next steps—creating a UND brand message and deployment strategy for that message (brochures, signage, videos, etc.), a process that will stretch into the summer.

“We continue to be fragmented in branding as an institution—we’re not unified. And as our firm has said, fragmentation is the enemy of branding,” Jensen said, expanding on an observation made he made in a previous presentation that brand fragmentation is harmful to both recruiting and fundraising.

Sol Jensen

Jensen tells those gathered at a recent budget forum about new UND marketing initiatives that a recent survey of UND stakeholders found that there is a fervid passion by alumni for UND and what it stands for. Photo by Tyler Ingham.

The research

One of the main findings of the branding research was that UND has lost its “narrative.” Jensen said that many respondents pointed to bad press over several years as a continuing challenge.

“We have to retake control of our story,” Jensen said. “ [Our stakeholders are] ready to transition the conversation into a more positive space and use the core values—things that make up who we are at UND, who we are as North Dakotans—to bring the campus together.”

Another challenge UND must overcome in its messaging is creating a better connection and balance between academics and athletics. When stakeholders were asked what came to mind when they thought of the University of North Dakota, the top answer was hockey. When asked what the school colors were, they chose the colors connected to UND Athletics.

As for the UND flame logo, one faculty respondent said, “You can ask every student on campus what the flame means and 99 percent will have no idea. They know a flame exists on the quad, but there’s no connection to it.”

UND academic programs were viewed as strong, but some areas—like aviation, medicine and engineering—were found to stand out much more than others. Jensen quoted one interviewee who saw this creating a “one-up” mentality between programs on campus, dividing more than uniting.

Liberal arts education was cited as an area that does not naturally resonate with those surveyed, falling to the bottom half of factors respondents felt were important. A strong reputation and a welcoming campus were the most important elements.

“We have to do a better job of articulating the liberal arts education. Not just the education itself, but the tangible career benefits,” Jensen said. “That’s something that we can, as an institution with a liberal arts core, really benefit as a differentiator from some of our competitors.”

Some interesting things stood out as “badges of honor” for UND students and alumni. They took great pride in their resilience to harsh Grand Forks winters, their acceptance of “tough love,” and their rough and gritty “doer” mentality.

“[The firm] was blown away by the fervid passion that our alumni have here at UND. We have to bottle that and utilize that more,” Jensen said.

But Jensen said the key idea that was derived from weeks of branding research was that the UND community is just ready to move forward.

“A majority of individuals are ready for the change that President Kennedy has been bringing through his leadership. There’s this opportunity now as an entire campus, through UND’s leadership, to adopt this unified brand and this vision,” he told the crowd.

For the full presentation, visit the UND Provost’s website.

Questions on brand

Chris Zygarlicke of the Energy and Environmental Research Center wondered if the surveys and focus groups should have stretched beyond those familiar with UND.

“Do they also target families and high school students who have heard of but maybe don’t know a lot about us?” he asked.

Jensen said the prospective students who were surveyed were the real outliers in the process, but it was important to have a heavy focus on those connected to UND.

“The brand really is who we are, and I think internally we have to have that buy-in even before people externally will buy in to it,” he said.

UND College of Arts and Sciences Dean Debbie Storrs was happy with how the research captured the essence of UND.

“I can see it. I can feel it,” she said, “But will this branding resonate with the prospective students we really need to recruit from outside Minnesota and North Dakota, if we truly are going to try to increase enrollment?”

“We’re not going to be everything to everyone,” Jensen replied. “That’s what a lot of our competitors have been. So we’re going to have that tighter niche, and that will help us in our marketing to be more strategic.”

Diane Hadden from the Office of the Provost asked, “After developing the Strategic Plan and the brand, is there any intersection of the two?”

Jensen answered that initially the planning group thought there would be, but found the two ideas were very different. He used the example of Coca Cola.

“Coca Cola’s brand is joy and happiness. If you think about some of the Coca Cola commercials, those ideas are the key focus. But their strategic plan might be that they’re going to be the top soda provider in North America. They’re very different.”

He added, “The brand is who we are. The Strategic Plan is where we want to go.”

UND Provost Tom DiLorenzo indicated that the budget fora will continue with information on UND’s Strategic Plan focus on research led by UND Vice President for Research and Economic Development Grant McGimpsey on Wednesday, April 19, from 3-4 p.m. in Education Building Room 7. Additional fora will be held at the same location on the following dates from 3-4 p.m.:

April 26 (Strategic Planning Committee updates)
May 3 (University Council meeting)