Rebranding a university, will it help to increase student applications, donors, engaged alumni, governmental funding, and community supporters. This is the question that many higher-education institutions are asking these days. Whether it’s a college or the university as a whole, or a specialized program, telling the story through brand promise is becoming an integral part of academic conversations.

A brand is the promise you make to your constituents—students, faculty, alumni, and donors. It’s about who you are, how you deliver your services, and your commitment to your mission. Telling the brand story is more than developing a new website or glossy viewbook. It’s done through a compelling, ever-changing narrative of the impact you’ve made on your constituents’ lives.

The rebranding process for Metropolitan State University of Denver (MSU Denver) has been educational, both literally and figuratively. Following is a short case study with lessons learned, to be shared among all academic environments.

Our story
Like many higher-education institutions, we found that our students and the surrounding community had evolved. We realized that we must evolve, too—by offering additional degree choices and specialized programs while remaining committed to our mission of affordability and accessibility. Our name and identity needed to reflect the changes we were intending to make.
However, our history was important to our brand, and we needed to stay true to our founding in 1965 as an “opportunity school” named Metropolitan State College of Denver. The concept was that students from all walks of life would have access to a college education, at an affordable tuition rate.

Our rebranding started in 2010, when our board of trustees (BOT) voted to study a name-change option. After thoughtful research and a “listening campaign,” there was no doubt about the results: 80 percent of the 9,000 students, faculty, staff, alumni, and community members who completed our online survey supported a name change. Next, we integrated our stakeholders’ feedback into a comprehensive communications campaign in order to 1) solicit their input on the name choices and 2) communicate the name choice and seek support at the state legislature.

Once this work was complete, the BOT voted, and we began working with the state legislature to receive approval to change our name to Metropolitan State University of Denver. This occurred in 2012, when Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper signed this change into law. The new name better reflects the growth in degrees and curriculum, while staying true to our mission. We celebrated the name change and communicated the new name and logo through town hall meetings, one-on-one meetings, targeted emails, internal newsletter articles, news releases and strategically pitched stories, editorial board meetings with local media, fact sheets, talking points, and scripts.
At the present, a few years after the name-change transition from “college” to “university,” MSU Denver has measured 60 percent recognition with its new name. With a goal to grow to 75 percent recognition by 2020, we are appointing every student and faculty member as a brand ambassador.

Five lessons learned
Almost five years later, our story continues. The rebranding has had a positive impact on our reputation, growth, students, teachers, alumni, and entire community. From the initial “listening campaign” to the research and implementation, we learned a lot about ourselves as an institution and about the rebranding process. Following are five key lessons that can port to other academic institutions, whether they are considering a complete rebranding or simply a new program or campaign.

  1. Ask a lot of questions. Once you decide you are ready to rebrand, be prepared to answer the tough question of why this process will benefit your institution. [JUMP] In fact, create a complete list of FAQs to help answer the “why.” Suggestions might include the following:
  • Why do we want to rebrand?
  • What problem do we want to solve?
  • How will our students, faculty, alumni, and community benefit?
  • Has there been a change in the academic landscape that is impacting our growth potential and our ability to teach?
  • Have our students’ needs changed and/or outgrown our curriculum?
  • Does our current brand tell the wrong story—or is it outdated?
  • Based on what we know now, will the rebranding solution still work in 10, 20, and even 50 years?
  • Do we have the right team, budget, and support to manage the rebranding project?
  • What outcome do we expect?
  • What do we need to be successful for our students, faculty, alumni, and community?

The answers to these questions will guide your intentions and help you prioritize next steps.

  1. Research, research, research. The more research the better to frame and shape the conversations. A mix of qualitative and quantitative research, such as student, alumni, faculty, and community focus groups, as well as surveys, will determine the direction and provide a baseline. You want to ensure that the rebranding responds to what they are saying and what they need. Follow up with research a few years later to reassess and evaluate progress. In fact, this spring, we will conduct a survey to compare the feedback from our “listening campaign” and baseline research to the results of MSU Denver’s rebranding, in a measurable format.
  2. Remain true to your brand. Rebranding can make a huge impact on your institution, but only if the changes remain true to your core values and identity. Work together with your team to agree on what that looks and feels like—and why. Be clear about your brand, even as it evolves, and your intentions for the rebranding. And make sure each department has an identity that fits into the overall “brand family,” so the internal groups sustain the external brand identity.
  3. Integrate the brand. Build a cohesive brand, and make sure the rebranding crosses all communications channels. A name change should be reflected in all written materials, the website, video, social networks (Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram), school souvenir supplies/clothing, and athletic uniforms. In addition, create opportunities for faculty to participate in all conversations—talking points, reminders, and brand training all help support them. For example, we hired a faculty member from our art department to create our new logo and university seal. Students will catch on, but they will react faster with consistent messaging in discussions with faculty. Engage alumni in the process from the get-go. Many of our alumni supported the name change; and once it was final, they wanted updated diplomas with the new name. We were happy to accommodate.
  4. Inform, be patient, and persevere. From conception to inception, the time line could take anywhere from one to three years. When you do rebrand, people are going to take time to adjust to the changes—so be sure to manage expectations. For us, the students grabbed on quickly to the changes; some alumni and community members are still adjusting. Reinforcement helps move this process forward, and so does a lot of patience!

So, “to rebrand, or not to rebrand?”

The answer should be powerful enough to make a difference for your students, alumni, faculty, and community—and to successfully continue your academic story.

Cathy Lucas, APR is chief of staff and associate to the president for Marketing and Communications for Metropolitan State University of Denver (MSU Denver).


Reprinted from Academic Leader, 32.2 (2016): 1, 3. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.