A candle loses nothing by lighting another candle.
– Erin Majors
Volume 73 | Issue 4
July 2005

Look for the Union Label: Brand marketing for union programs and services

Adam Peck & Michele Jackson-Peck

College unions have never been confined by their physical properties. From the founding of the Oxford Union, and soon after in Cambridge, it was apparent that they were something not easily defined, more of a philosophy than a physicality (Butts, 1971). Today we define this philosophy or mission as "building community." Of course, not everyone outside of unions and activities understands what this means or how we make it happen via our day-to-day responsibilities. So how can we brand ourselves as the community-builders on campus?

Branding is a concept that has so pervaded the business world that it is rapidly becoming part of the popular lexicon. And, yet, it too resists simple description. Institutions can no longer afford the luxury of failing to focus on brand identity. As colleges and universities continue to recover from an overall retrenchment in higher education funding, and seek new revenue, they do so in the age of the Millennials—a group of brand conscious students with money to spend (Howe & Strauss, 2000). According to the Higher Education Digest, "Savvy and demanding students, along with shrinking budgets and a competitive marketplace are putting increasing pressure on higher education institutions, forcing them to become sophisticated, even expert marketers" ("Selling the ‘Commodity,'" 2003, ¶ 4).

Colleges and universities, once hesitant to use modern marketing techniques, are now embracing branding. Schools such as the University of Houston, Florida State University, and Rensselaer Polytechnic have placed a major institutional commitment on branding (Pulley, 2003). The individual departments and programs are a bit further behind, but many are learning that there is a benefit in clarifying students' impressions of their programs and services. Branding modern college unions can help the campus community understand what unions are, differentiate service offerings from those of other providers, and underscore the historical mission and educational objectives of the college union.

What is a brand?

Not long ago, if most people were asked to define the word brand, they would think of the ownership symbols used to mark cattle. Today a brand connotes the identity of a business' products and services, knowing the extent to which this is used—and how this is done—is less understood.

So what is a brand? As Neumeier (2003) asserts, "A lot of people talk about it. Few people understand it. Even fewer know how to manage it" (cover). Today's definition of a brand still includes identifying symbols like logos and mascots, but it is much more than that. It also relates to the experience that your audience has with your brand. As Smith (1999) explains, "brands are simply reputations" (A6 1). The challenge is to shape what it is that people perceive, believe, and feel about the brand. As one might expect, this is a complicated business—particularly in the arena of unions.

Challenges to branding the union

Many unions today are full of brands. Their services may include internationally branded food vendors, bookstores, and a host of other businesses. In addition, they may have a number of entities that they have branded themselves. Every brand inside the union—especially the national and international brands—carries its own reputation and identity. Mix in the overwhelming amount of other entities competing for students' attention and creating a lasting, unified impression becomes even more difficult.


One of the most essential elements in branding is consistency. If people are going to form lasting bonds with a brand, the values of that bond must be reinforced over and over again before the brand becomes salient. "In theory, a brand could have any set of values its creator could dream of. The problem is to ensure that the same set of values is adhered to with consistency" (Chevron, 1998, ¶ 11). Consistency can be particularly difficult to achieve in the loosely coupled environment of colleges and universities. For example, Pulley (2003) reported that at one point, the University of Western Ontario was using 79 different versions of the institution's logo. Unions may not have nearly as many logos, but may be applying them inconsistently in terms of size, color, and positioning. Logo impressions can lose impact if not used in compliance with a concise style guide.

The path to consistency starts with a team possessing the vision and clarity to oversee not only the process but to act as gatekeepers to the brand. Achieving consistency requires the commitment of many areas, and this buy-in is most likely to occur when it is cooperatively developed (Neumeier, 2003). This overview team should work with people from all levels of the union organization to develop a representative definition of the union's abilities and goals. This compilation becomes the brand. However, Wheeler (2003) cautions that brand identities must be authentic representations of the organization or they will not only be rejected by those within the organization but will be ineffective as well.

The challenge comes in communicating the total mission of the union to everyone—regardless of how they use the union. The union can be different things to different people: to those who come primarily to eat, it is a dining facility; to those who come for concerts, it is a performance venue. But the degree to which a union is successful in achieving "brand consistency" will, in large part, determine the level of commitment others will feel to that brand. Kansas State University has found a unique solution to this problem; at each entrance to the facility, there is a plaque displaying an engraved version of the program's mission statement. Each student who enters is presented with a holistic representation of what the union does or its brand.

Market segmentation

Another challenge of branding the union is market segmentation. It is frequently suggested (mostly by those outside of higher education) that colleges and universities should behave more like businesses. Of course, college unions—especially when they are auxiliary services—must behave quite a bit like businesses. As state and federal funds become increasingly scarce, both private and public institutions are feeling the pinch. As a result, college unions are increasingly being asked to "sing for their supper."

But, businesses have a luxury that college unions simply do not have. They can decide who uses their services and find ways to reach out exclusively to that audience for financial gain. However, unions belong to all students and must serve the entire campus community—even when this service means additional expenses for the union. Of course, not even the union can be all things to all people, but finding ways to appeal to a broad and diverse student body, while maintaining brand consistency, is an important challenge. Values such as inclusiveness, openness, and comfort appeal to a wide variety of students and have the potential to appeal to each group equally. The word "potential" is chosen carefully because before choosing these values, the preferences of those who use the union must be ascertained. This requires some research.

Tradition and affiliation

Tradition and affiliation can be effective components of a branding program but can also limit a brand. Unions with a long history or ingrained sense of tradition may find innovation stifling. Because alumni are often relied on for support, while students are the judges of contemporary success, unions may find their feet in different worlds. Where students demand cutting edge services, alumni may be invested in the union remaining as unchanged as possible—as to not disturb the positive experiences they recall from their college careers.

Affiliation with the university brand also can have competing advantages. While co-branding a union with a university's strong sense of pride and affiliation may benefit the organization, it could create challenges in terms of differentiation. However, differentiation can go too far and disconnect the union from the greater university community. Some schools discourage the use of an independent logo or branding in an effort to safeguard their own consistency. A strong parent brand benefits everybody, and consistency makes for strong brands, but along with it comes the challenge of maintaining the connection to the overall brand without losing distinctiveness.

Balance is essential. Perry and Wisdon (2003) suggest that smaller or newer organizations (e.g., unions) should rely more on their brand parent (the university). Of course, there can be downsides to attaching to the predominant brand; if the university has a negative or weakly defined brand identity, it might be preferable to depart from that brand. There are likely contextual variables on different campuses, but these guidelines can help a union organization get started in the branding process.

The Wisconsin Memorial Union has found a way to achieve a balance by branding itself separately from the university and playing on the union's tradition. The union's Web site contains the university and union logos, and the logos are clearly different. The presence of the university's logo evokes prestige and history, while the union's logo creates a feeling of growth and happiness. The feeling the union's logo evokes is more persistent on the site, but one cannot help but notice the connection to the university as a whole.

Developing the brand

After completing the preliminary identification process, there still are challenges and important considerations when it comes time to implement a brand. However, research, brand personality, logos, taglines, branded messages, and touch points all can aid in creating greater clarity and brand awareness.


Evaluation must be constant from the initial brand identification process through ensuring brand maintenance. From needs assessments to focus groups that evaluate to what degree current offerings are meeting those expectations, branding without evaluation is just guessing, and will likely be a wasted effort.

Many institutions are using focus groups to effectively assess how students feel about the union. Shur and Upcraft (2001) suggest that focus groups are appropriate when "the purpose of the assessment is to learn about the perceptions, beliefs, or opinions of those who use campus facilities, services, or programs" (p. 42). As this definition implies, focus groups can be effective in gathering the data needed to develop and assess elements of the brand. While focus groups do require skill to execute, the kind of information gathered could be useful in tailoring the message of the union to the students who use it.

It also is likely that existing assessment tools could be adapted to yield the desired data. Information relevant to measuring the brand could be worked into needs assessments, program evaluations, and even employee evaluations. Adding questions that measure the target goals of brand messages against users' perceptions will elicit opportunities for alignment.

Assessments are especially important when unions fail to deliver on the promises their brands define. "Remember to examine both sides of the relationship to see where the disconnect originates. Maybe you promised more than you could—or did—deliver, which means you have to focus on consistency" (McNally & Speak, 2002, p. 96). A poor evaluation does not mean it is necessary to start over; it simply exposes a teaching opportunity for reinforcing or outlining the importance of the failed aspect of the brand.

Brand personality

By defining a personality for the union, a greater understanding of how it should ideally relate to the target audience can be achieved. Examining the personality of a brand makes it real; "A brand is brought to life for consumers first and foremost by the personality of the company behind it" (Gob8E, 2001, p. 3). A union may be young, cool, friendly, sophisticated, and innovative. Or, it could be older, wise, supportive, caring, and nurturing. It is necessary to critically examine the final personality to ensure it is one union staff and services not only believe in but will support. As Wheeler (2003) suggests, "The brand is shorthand: it stands for something and demonstrates it every day" (p. 3). Therefore, the brand personality must match the experience that students will have when they interact with the union; otherwise it will lead to additional "disconnects." Disconnects cannot only undermine one element of the brand, but cause the audience to doubt the credibility of other key elements or promises inherent in the brand.

However, even if the union's brand needs an update, the fact it exists may greatly simplify the branding task. As Perry and Wisdon (2003) suggest, "With an actual identity in place, it is much easier to articulate the right message to intended audiences and allows for a strong, consistent, relevant, and differentiated brand" (p. 6). As the old maxim goes, don't reinvent the wheel. It is much easier to renovate a weak brand identity than to create a new one.


Designer Milton Glaser once called the logo, "The point of entry to the brand" (in Wheeler, 2003, p. 5). The logo is a snapshot, a quick impression of what the brand is all about. When designed correctly, it can create a bridge between an organization and the students it serves.

There are many practical considerations to note when developing a logo. It is wise to keep in mind where and how it will be used. If the logo will most often be used in small places (e.g., printed on pens and key chains), avoid making the recognition of the logo too dependent on text. This type of logo is known as "iconic" and "is more likely to be recognized when produced in small sizes or from distances" (The Logo Factory, 2005, A6 2). Square- or rectangle-oriented logos, or "panel icons," are more appropriate for posters and T-shirts because they can easily be placed in corners or enlarged to fill space with impact (Antonelli, 2000).

Make sure you carefully consider colors. Colors are central to buying decisions. Some have even suggested that it may account for as much as 60 percent of the decision to buy (Wheeler, 2003). Colleges and universities are particularly adept at building strong emotional ties to color. And, there are issues of practicality. It is a good idea to develop both color and black and white logos so you are prepared for a wide variety of usage opportunities. If not, color logos may be used even on black and white applications and the results may range from simply unattractive to completely illegible.


The tone of all communication to the target audience should reflect the union's brand personality. If the personality is young and cool, the messages could be written using casual language and might incorporate more images than heavy copy. If the personality is wise and conservative, messages can be presented in a more structured and concise tone. Whatever personality type is chosen, brand managers need to be dogged about maintaining this message in all communications with students. Remember, consistency is key.

One way to maintain a consistent message is in the use of a tagline. According to Traverso (2000), "[A tagline] is a slogan, clarifier, mantra, company statement, or guiding principle that describes, synopsizes, or helps create an interest" (p. 142). Taglines can be a part of a logo or stand alone, but they should carefully communicate the brand. Taglines may articulate the values of the program or underscore its mission or history. Taglines should also align with the logo. If a union's logo depicts a doorway opening to a range of services and the tagline reads, "Wall to Wall Support," a disconnect will occur. The tagline can bridge the distance between the philosophical and practical application of the union.

Touch points

In addition to the logo and taglines, any interaction (both positive and negative) that the target audience has with the brand represents a "touch point" of that brand. "Each touch point is an opportunity to strengthen a brand and to communicate about its essence" (Wheeler, 2003, p. 3). Often overlooked, touch points demand the highest level of attention. This will likely require some outside assessment because these things can be difficult for people around them everyday to notice. If the personality is defined as friendly and approachable, nametags for the union staff could represent a positive reinforcement of that brand. However, if the personality is defined as clean and contemporary and the union's bathrooms are dirty and in disrepair, that brand impression can lead to a disconnect in the mind of the target audience. Touch points also comprise all publications of the union—from fliers to pamphlets, to campus-wide e-mails and, particularly, a union's Web site.

The union ideal

Wheeler (2003) defines brands as "the promise, the big idea, the reputation and expectations that reside in each customer's mind about the product and/or the company" (p. 3). This is similar to the role of the college union. The college union is a big idea. It is based on the belief that students ought to have a place to apply the skills they learn in the classroom in a collaborative laboratory, to learn from each other, and to have a place where they can relax and interact with a diverse group of their fellow students. It is a place where faculty can congregate, organizations can meet, and the community can interact in an engaging dialogue.

Despite the college union's long and storied history, many students see it merely as a collection of services—a utilitarian place. Branding can communicate the union's larger role. Besides increasing sales, inculcating future donors, and increasing foot traffic, branding can connect students to the union ideal, inspiring them to engage in a community that can enhance their educational experience and their life. This is perhaps branding's greatest service.


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