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At UB, ‘Buffalo’ returns to prominence

The University at Buffalo has a name problem.

Depending on who you ask, it can go by the University of Buffalo; SUNY Buffalo; the State University of New York, Buffalo. More recently, the moniker “New York Bulls” was adopted for its sports teams. And while the abbreviation “UB” is well known locally, it barely registers beyond Western New York.

The assortment of names has resulted in a fair amount of confusion over the years.

Faculty members often show up at conferences not knowing exactly which university name to put on their name tags. The university in some cases isn’t properly recognized for submissions of scholarly papers by UB professors. Prospective students mistakenly apply to SUNY Buffalo State instead of to UB.

“The identity of the university has been a challenge,” said Nancy Paton, vice president for communications at UB. “Everybody agreed that the identity, the nomenclature of the university, is a huge issue for us.”

Now, Paton and other university officials are hoping to clear up the confusion. On Tuesday, after more than a year of surveys, focus groups and meetings, UB President Satish K. Tripathi announced the launching of a new “identity and brand strategy” that includes making the “University at Buffalo” the single official name used in identifying all of the schools and units within the university.

The branding effort means that the Buffalo name again will be featured on the jerseys, courts and fields of UB’s intercollegiate teams. It moves away from the “New York Bulls” initiative that former Athletic Director Danny White launched in 2013, which showcased “New York” more prominently than “Buffalo” on the uniforms of student athletes and on courts and fields. That strategy was aimed at highlighting UB’s status as the largest public university in New York, although critics said it was too confusing and dismissive of UB’s intercollegiate athletics tradition.

Other departments also will change how they refer to themselves.

The law school, for example, has been known for years as SUNY Buffalo Law School, while the architecture school has gone by the Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning. Both of those schools will now be paired with the official name, University at Buffalo. UB’s affiliation with the State University of New York will continue to be emphasized, especially in international markets where SUNY is widely known.

Getting nearly 30,000 students and 6,800 employees on the same page about the university’s official name will be a critical part of the branding initiative. But even more important, said Tripathi, will be how the university tells its stories in a “consistent fashion” going forward.

The effort includes a new marketing concept, “Here is How,” intended to convey a more concrete sense of what it’s like to be at UB and in Buffalo. Paton calls it a “story platform” rather than a slogan or tagline for the university.

Instead of simply presenting UB as a large, comprehensive research university, as the university has done in the past, the new branding strategy will focus on telling the story of an institution that tackles big problems with grit, tenacity and pragmatism, reflecting the characteristics of the Western New York region itself.

Those characteristics were identified over months of surveys, interviews and focus groups with students, faculty, staff, prospective students and their parents.

“We really needed to define who we were ... not who we think we are as university leadership, but who our students think we are, who our staff think we are, who our faculty think we are, because a brand is not what you say it is, it is what your community says it is,” said Paton.

“We learned that this is a university that’s ambitious. We learned that this a university that provides opportunity. We learned that this is a collegial university,” said Paton. “We learned that we are a microcosm of Buffalo and there was a lot of talk about Buffalo.

“The university and the city share a common goal,” she added. “We share a common personality and we share a common ambition.”

Long a staple of the corporate world, branding is becoming increasingly important in higher education, and UB joins dozens of other schools in recent years that have built brand strategies as a way to highlight their strengths and distinguish themselves in a crowded and competitive academic marketplace.

“At this point, universities have become some of the greatest economic engines we have in the country. Universities have replaced manufacturers as the largest employers in some communities,” said Peter S. Cohl, who runs a branding firm that has worked with several colleges and universities across the country. “As in any business today, you’re competing for top talent on a global scale. You have to have an image that extends beyond your traditional region if you’re a major research university.”

Cohl said UB has a major national research enterprise, but is less well known across the country than it could be. He described the branding initiative as having great potential for the university, especially if UB continues to emphasize Buffalo as much as possible.

UB last year hired Ologie, a national branding firm based in Columbus, Ohio, to assist in determining the university’s “strategic identity” and in creating a more clear and cohesive message around that identity. Ologie partnered with another firm, Marshall Strategy of San Francisco. The firms were awarded a $314,000 contract.

New York will still be part of the university’s athletic identity, through a new tagline that will be used in marketing materials, “New York’s Public Powerhouse.”

UB Athletic Director Allen Greene, who worked as associate AD under White, said that opinions ran the gamut about the “New York Bulls” initiative, an effort that helped raise the visibility of UB athletics and the university. Now, he said, the unified branding effort is in the best interests of UB sports and the university more broadly.

“Having a single identity for us is very, very important to help strengthen the university,” Greene said. “Athletics is just an arm of the university, and the stronger the university is, the better it is for athletics.”