May 2013 Cover
Volume 81 | Issue 3
May 2013

Five Steps to (Re)Brand a College Union

Kat Shanahan

Many college unions begin a branding project with a logo. They get caught up in the visual representation of their organization and lose sight of what a logo represents: a brand.

A brand is more than a logo; it encompasses everything about an organization. It is what your customers think and feel about you, and your customers determine your brand, not you.

“A company doesn’t really own its brand anymore,” said Seth Farbman, the global chief marketing officer for Gap Inc., in a 2011 issue of Marketing News. “People own your brand. People have the ability to communicate about your brand, to talk about your brand, to engage with it much more than you do. It’s a wonderful thing if you embrace it.”RebrandingCC

So, if you do not have total control over your brand, how can you improve it? It starts with knowledge—knowledge of not only what a brand is, but also a shared knowledge of what is at the heart of the organization. Who are you? What do you do? Why does it matter? If every staff member in the union were asked these questions, would they all give the same answer? Without knowing who you are as an organization, you cannot make strides to improve your brand.

The goal of branding a student union is to figure out who you are and make your customers believe it. This is no easy task. It takes commitment from the entire union community. A shift must occur from “my department” to “our union.” Each department must work together to create a consistent, positive, and memorable experience for students. If every department is creating its own environment, the union overall is missing a cohesive element that is essential to a good brand.

Why is branding a college union important? Even on a university campus, unions face competition. There are other places on campus where students can eat, study, relax, gather with friends, and experience other forms of entertainment. What sets the union apart from those other places on campus is its brand.

The James R. Connor University Center at the University of Wisconsin–Whitewater developed a five-step process that can be used to facilitate a college union branding project. This process was based off of The Brand Gap, by Marty Neumeier, and Position a Place: Developing a Compelling Destination Brand by Robert J. Kwortnik and Ethan Hawkes. The five-step process has since been used by the Office of the Reynolds Club & Student Activities at the University of Chicago. These five phases are: Educate, Differentiate, Evaluate, Innovate, and Cultivate. This process can be applied to any union organization to define one’s brand and thereby improve the student experience.

Important Components

Each organization knew beginning a branding project might be difficult. The James R. Connor University Center initially struggled to create understanding and excitement among staff members. A Core Branding Group—comprised of the management team and the promotions coordinator—led several meetings to illustrate desired outcomes of the project. This group was responsible for assisting with staff buy-in, the direction of the project, and making final decisions regarding policy and timelines. With this leadership, it would take all organization members’ dedication if the project was to be effective.

“Rebranding is not restricted to top management and the marketing department; it is about realigning every member of the organization and its extended arms to reflect that change,” Sabyasachi Mitter wrote in the July 2012 issue of Impact. “Only if employees at every level understand, believe, and live the redefined brand philosophy will it make a significant difference.”

Once professional staff members were on board, a Student Marketing Committee, comprised of students from various departments across the union, was created to assist with information gathering, brand education, and logo/imaging development. These individuals were departmental student managers or returning students who showed leadership and ensured other student employees felt invested in the project. Rebrading1

For the rebranding to be successful, a strict timeline was avoided so that each step of the process could be completed in its entirely before moving to the next phase.

“Distilling the central message simply comes down to taking the time and going through the process of understanding what you are really all about,” according to the December 2010 Professional Adviser. “… This is about your passion and energy, your beliefs, your style and personality, [not] intellectual messages e.g., features and benefits, the facts, how long we have been doing business, how many in your team, your qualifications.”

It can take time to get past initial assumptions about branding and to do the leg work needed to ensure everyone understands and agrees on why the union exists. 

Phase 1: Educate

The Educate Phase provided students and staff with the tools necessary to understand what makes a brand. This was perhaps the most essential part of the process. Each union has a brand, regardless of whether it has been articulated. A logo, website, and social media are all valuable brand elements; however, without the understanding of what the union stands for, the message is apt to be inconsistent.

Unions without the freedom to have their own logos can still create experiences and an atmosphere that customers will remember and enjoy. These experiences are more important than a symbol representing the union.

The University Center staff spent three weeks learning what is meant by “brand.” The staff was divided into groups based on a personality inventory and read The Brand Gap. Each member of the Core Branding Group facilitated one group. They discussed relationships built with companies and how that affects consumption patterns. It is important to separate students and staff until the Evaluate Phase of the project. One of the main goals of this phase is for the staff to construct their own opinions of the union’s brand, not to offer opinions of how students might view the union.

Therefore, simultaneously during this phase, the Student Marketing Committee discussed The Brand Gap via study guides created by a marketing student who gained academic credit by assisting with the project.

Similarly, the Office of the Reynolds Club and Student Activities at the University of Chicago discussed branding at a staff retreat. The purpose of this presentation was to educate the staff and gain preliminary feedback as to what was at the heart of the organization. After realizing each group of staff members had differing opinions, the branding project aimed to align their perspectives.

Phase 2: Differentiate

The goal of the Differentiate Phase of the branding project was to distinguish the union from everyone else on campus.

One of the most challenging parts of this branding process was articulating why the union matters. Staff were often tempted to make false assumptions as to what the student body thought. They based decisions off of how they thought they were viewed and not how they wanted to be viewed. The staff needed to answer: What makes the union unique? What atmosphere isn’t matched anywhere else? What makes students want to come back? These answers helped form a branding statement.

It is critical the staff knows why they are on campus and what the union stands for. Most organizations have a mission statement and unfortunately, chances are most of employees do not have it memorized. A branding statement is not necessarily a replacement for that mission statement. Many mission statements are what an organization aims to achieve whereas a branding statement is why the union does what it does.

As previously mentioned, unions do not have total control over their brand. This is the part of the branding process that they can control. Staff can decide what they want the union to represent on campus. The tricky part is then convincing the students to feel the same way.

As staff members are working to create a solid foundation as to what the union is, it is necessary to accurately assess students’ opinions of the union. At the University Center, student employees and the staff member charged with this project spearheaded this investigation. Surveys and focus groups among target audiences (including non-users) were conducted. Some other tools could be Rebranding2social media listening and observation studies.

Regardless, staff should not be afraid of the findings. No union will ever please everyone, but it is possible to bring the students closer to viewing the union the way staff want it to be viewed.


Phase 3: Evaluate

Once these conversations have been held among staff and the data from students are collected, the next step is to identify gaps between the two. Where does the information gathered from the student body match up with how union personnel want to be viewed? Where is there room for improvement? This is where students and staff can begin to work together to brainstorm ideas on how to reshape the union’s brand.

Statements gathered from the University Center staff were narrowed down to one-sentence answers per question. The answers were evaluated at staff meetings to establish consensus. From those statements, a one-sentence branding statement was created for the University Center.

The student information was translated into word clouds for interpretation and reviewed by the Student Marketing Committee, the Core Branding Group, and the staff for feedback and additional insights. From there, the final statements and word clouds were given to the Graphics & Marketing Department for image creation.

Phase 4: Innovate

This is the phase where the University Center could begin making changes internally. Innovation does not require magic. In The Brand Gap, Marty Neumeier discusses MAYA, a concept presented by industrial designer Raymond Loewy. MAYA is the “Most Advanced Yet Acceptable” solution to a problem. After identifying what is important and the message to be conveyed, it is time to find creative and acceptable solutions.

All aspects of the union can be examined within the context of the brand statement. Do departmental identities align with the larger union whole? Do policies and procedures support the brand? Does the facility visually represent the brand?

“Great brands tell great stories, and all great brands have a strong brand idea,” Preeti Vyas wrote in the July 2012 issue of Impact. “It impacts everything they do—right from the product to the environment and behavior to communications. And each activity of the brand is led by the brand idea.”

Among the most noticeable aspects of a new brand could be a logo. For the University Center, the information discovered in the Evaluate Phase was used to create imaging that resonated with the student body and represented the union as an organization. The Student Marketing Committee wanted to incorporate the school colors so that it would be tied to the University of Wisconsin–Whitewater. They spent hours looking at logo drafts and revisions and criticizing the font, what the lines represented, and what the logo would look like on apparel and promotional products. Rebrading3

According to Vyas, “Like spring cleaning, rebranding is an opportunity to get rid of everything that is outdated and unnecessary and replace it with more effective tools that lead to a better experience for your customers. Rebranding is more than just a new visual identity. While a new logo raises expectations about your brand, a new experience (led by a strong brand idea) should be created both internally and externally.” 

Phase 5: Cultivate

The Cultivate Phase moves the union’s brand from internal to external. This is the time to put policies, procedures, and plans into place and begin using the union’s voice—a process that is never-ending.

“A rebranding exercise is not just a change in logo or typography, website or retail signage,” Mitter stated. “… The success of rebranding is in its implementation across all touch points consistently over an extended period of time. Brands need to ensure that once the exercise is rolled out, it [is] meticulously implemented and audited to translate strategy into reality.”

Following the Evaluate Phase, the University Center developed identity and apparel standards, provided consistent training and orientation, and integrated marketing communications campaigns to help improve their brand image.

The most important change was in staff knowledge of the branding statement. The brand became the reasoning behind many decisions. Now, when anyone asks why they have to wear uniforms, go through evaluations, or participate in programs they understand it is to create a consistent experience and strengthen the brand.

Creating internal awareness of the brand and branding statement is crucial. Marketing expert Peter Drucker said: “The successful company is not the one with the most brains, but the most brains acting in concert.”

When a staff’s brains are working together to improve a brand image, students have a consistently positive experience. Branding still allows for departments to have their own identity. The atmosphere created in a recreation center is going to be different from a reservations office. The idea is that all the departments are working toward the same goal (developed by a branding statement). This creates a foundation to build trust with the study body and keep them coming back to the union.


KatKat Shanahan is the promotions coordinator for the James R. Connor University Center at the University of Wisconsin–Whitewater. She oversees the Graphics & Marketing Department and creates University Center and departmental integrated marketing communications campaigns. Additionally, Shanahan works heavily in branding, social media, and technology. She earned bachelor’s degrees in multimedia digital arts and advertising from the University of Wisconsin–Whitewater and is pursuing a master’s degree in integrated marketing communications from West Virginia University.