We live in a branded world. The things we eat, the things we wear, the things we drive are all branded. From Rolex to Jaguar and IKEA to Kia, it is nearly impossible to escape branding. However, one place that we often do not see branding is in recreation centers or municipal community centers. Collegiate athletic facilities and many professional sports venues have led the way with institutional branding, and we are now seeing the concept of branding take hold in college recreation centers.
What is a brand?
In The Experience Economy, Joseph Pines describes the four stages of economic development, starting with the trading of commodities (agrarian societies), followed by the development of goods (Industrial Revolution), the offering of services (20th century), and culminating with the offering of experiences (today). Selling experiences rather than commodities or services is what now defines branding.
Sports apparel company Under Armour, for example, brands itself by linking the experience of a hard, sweaty workout to being energetic, active and healthy. It is the experience that creates the strong connection to the product, which drives brand loyalty.
A common misconception is that a logo is the brand. The brand is the story, history, expectations, impressions and the honesty of an institution. Goals, mission, values, visions and perception are the core elements of a strong brand. Logos are typically symbols that graphically represent a company (recreation department) or an institution (college or university), with or without text or a name associated with them. Logos are an important part of the branding process because they help the consumer (students) to identify, remember and differentiate one brand from another.
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Brand identity represents the overall brand image for an institution, including printed material, internet images and marketing communications. Brand identity is how your logo and brand are delivered to the public, but brand identity should be able to work without a logo. While logos typically do not change significantly over time, brand identity should be flexible enough to change or adjust over time.
Think of an institution that has a high number of applicants. Administrators believe this is because of the perceived high quality of the education students receive at this institution. However, what if the high applicant count is because the institution's tuition is the lowest among its peers? Branding the institution as a high-quality experience creates a disconnect between customers (applicants) and the brand (institution). If students enroll based on a false perception, their expectations may differ from the brand, which can lead to customer dissatisfaction and ultimately a failure of the brand.
The campus-rec rebrand
Why have recreation centers lagged behind their athletic peers? While recreation programs have existed for decades, early programs shared facilities with athletic teams and academic programs. Recreation activities were scheduled last and had the least access to facilities. In the '80s, the first stand-alone recreation centers escaped the influence of athletics and academics. While this was great news for recreation, there remained an environment of fear of returning to the past and again sharing space with athletics and academics.
To discourage this potential future takeover, these new facilities had courts that were too short (less than 94 feet in length) or pools that were a few inches shy of the standard 25 yards. Also cleansed from these facilities was any reference to school colors, athletic mascots, team imagery, or even school logos or emblems. This trend culminated in years of "white boxes" of recreation, where all reference to color or branding was nonexistent.
All recreation directors desire to increase participation in their programs and usage of their facilities. According to NIRSA, participation rates in campus recreation range from 60 to 80 percent. How can a recreation program drive more participation? Many factors can contribute to student interest in campus recreation programs. The quality and quantity of programs offered will drive participation. The quality and size of facilities can contribute to more visits. Long waits for equipment or court time discourages participation, as does old equipment and decrepit surroundings. A well-planned, right-sized new facility will always increase participation rates.
While an athletics department brands its facilities to drive attendance and fundraising — all under continuous pressure to deliver more, highly qualified students — most (if not all) institutions have taken similar branding strategies campuswide.
Little research data exists to link building or program branding to higher participation rates, but anecdotal evidence suggests a correlation. The recreation staff at Portland State University, for example, felt they had an inconsistent brand identity. With the creation of a new tagline, updated website, innovative programs and signage in the existing facility, the program saw a modest increase in participation over the course of an academic year.
Other recreation programs are taking the branding concept even further. At the University of Utah's George S. Eccles Student Life Center, branding begins even before stepping into the facility. The choice of a "Utah red" exterior material palette engages students and visitors and is immediately reinforced upon entering the lobby and crossing the Utah "U." Once inside the lobby, views into the legacy gym reveal another Utah "U" at the center court of the MAC gym, which also has supergraphics depicting the history of recreation and sports at the university.
In the recreational gym, the "U" again is found at center court, as well as on wall graphics depicting court sports. The gym has accents of "Utah red" at the jogging track and upper walls of the gym. In the fitness center, the floating ceiling panels are one "U" back-to-back with another, and the flat-screen and mirror walls have mountain peaks adorned with the "U."
The recreation department branded every activity space with the names of famous Utah outdoor recreation attractions, such as The Canyon Studios (Bryce, Arches and Spirit) for all of the multipurpose rooms; The District for the outdoor program area; The Shoreline for the jogging track; The Summit for the bouldering and climbing walls; and The Cove for the fitness area. Student feedback about the student life center has been tremendous, and student use has exceeded expectations.
Branding proved so popular within the University of Missouri's recreation center that it has significantly influenced branding in facilities for athletics and the new campus student center. The university's mascot, the tiger, can be found throughout the facility, as well as the Missouri "M."
In the natatorium, the top of the 10-meter diving platform is adorned with a 3D tiger emblem, and the bottom of the diving well has a tiled likeness of the tiger logo. The window shades are branded with super graphics depicting the history of Mizzou athletics, and mini tiger logos can be found on every starting block. The main lobby has custom light fixtures emblazoned with the "M," as does the backlit recreation desk in the administrative office suite.
Other historic images can be found in the meeting rooms and hallways of the facility. A large tiger mural is displayed above the entry to the fitness facility, and even the jogging track has alternating lanes of black and gold, Missouri's school colors. Missouri boasts a student participation rate of 85 percent — well above the national average.
As competition for students increases and interest in greater student participation continues to grow, smartly branded facilities are proving to be a selling point. Understanding the concept of branding and how it has been implemented at other institutions is just the first step to transforming a facility. Whether planning a new recreation center, renovating an existing one or simply desiring to establish the identity of a facility, the time is right to begin.
This article originally appeared in the July | August 2017 issue of Athletic Business with the title "(Re)Branding the Campus Recreation Center" Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.