Identifying a Brand for Milwaukee

Throughout the past few years, PantherU has occasionally made reference to marketing and branding as it pertains to the Milwaukee Panthers. This is an important topic of discussion because programs get better when they have more fans. More fans means more people buying merchandise, eating concessions, paying for tickets and watching games on television. What we’re talking about is money, because in college sports money equals power.

Nothing pulls in sports fans like winning, although having nothing else to do works to a marketing department’s advantages as well. That doesn’t mean that a franchise throws up its hands and doesn’t try to do anything else to add to its fan base; marketing is a constant struggle, pushing on your intended audience to buy your product.  Whether or not Rob Jeter turns an 8-24 basketball team into the second coming of Bruce Pearl’s Sweet 16 program is irrelevant; the athletic department will still need to market the program to maximize the size of the fan base and the profits that come with that.

The problem is, marketing is all about push. Think of it when you see a billboard, or a website advertisement, or hear a radio spot. Each of these things push you to buy the product, to attend the games, to join the fan base.  The problem is, everyone’s getting pushed on constantly. Advertising is one of America’s largest industries.  People are going to see advertising for all sorts of things; they see billboards for Alverno, Concordia (more on this later), Cardinal Stritch and more.  What they don’t see is billboards for the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s undergraduate program.  Why is that? It’s easy; the last thing Bucky Badger needs to do is convince Wisconsin teenagers to attend his college.  He has an infinitely strong brand.

Branding is different from marketing. Where marketing is a push, branding is a pull. You’re still selling a product, but you’re setting an identity for your program that pulls people in. The University of Wisconsin-Madison, of course, has no problem pulling people in. They have a world-class intercollegiate athletics program, a recognizable look, an identity that sets them apart from everyone else in Division I. When people see that Motion W, they know who is behind it. When they see that mascot that looks like a skunk with an overlarge head, they know who it is – coast to coast.

Now, we can never have a brand that strong. Once you admit that this program is never going to sell tens of thousands of tickets to a sport it doesn’t even field, you’re already ahead. But there’s nothing that says we can’t build a brand that makes us competitive on a regional or even national level. Plenty of secondary flagship public schools are successful, profitable, and recognizable. They win national championships. Louisville is coming off a national title and is the most profitable program in college basketball, but you’ll still find more Kentucky Wildcat fans in the area surrounding Louisville. And that’s OK. Louisville has carved its piece out of Kentucky and it owns that piece. Pittsburgh owns their piece, as does Cincinnati, Memphis and Houston.

So where’s our piece? It’s out there. We have certain things that work against our program. We are not a national power; we’re barely a blip on the national stage. We were the most talked about school in the country for exactly five days in 2005. We don’t have tons and tons of history to draw from, especially on the national stage. We may have moved to Division I in 1990 after a decade of wandering purgatory, but we didn’t matter anywhere until Clay Tucker slayed Butler in Hinkle Fieldhouse.

Ask a college sports fan from the city to describe our program, and you’ll get some mix of Bruce Pearl, the full court press, the Black and Gold colors, and “mid-major.”

The problem is, two of these four are in our past. They don’t describe us anymore, they describe what we used to be. Half our pull isn’t there anymore.  We’re a program without an identity.

Forget asking a generic sports fan in Milwaukee. Ask yourself the same question: what is our identity?  We’re a Horizon League program who is traditionally good at soccer and has been pretty decent at basketball since 2000 with some spurts of very good play and a couple down years. We have a color scheme, black and old gold with gray trim, that is fairly rare in Division I.  As far as athletics is concerned, we don’t have a connection to the city’s history or culture of today except that we exist in it and we carry the name of the city on our chests.

Without much of an identity to lean on, we don’t have a strong brand. We have a curiously weak brand, truth be told. We are like many mid-majors across America – a cookie-cutter program with a sharp look. The program sells like that too; 4,000 a game for basketball is a great year for attendance.

The school has a lot of strengths: it has 30,000 students, 141,000 living alumni, a majority of whom live in the area. We have numbers, which is a great advantage in that our potential fan base is quite large.  Large enough that if the brand identity and marketing were as strong as UW-Madison, the school could pull in 12,000 fans a game for basketball, 3,000 for soccer, and maybe 2,000 for baseball once they have a stadium.

Of course, we’re never going to have a brand that strong, as we’ve already covered. But we can get close enough to that to make this a profitable, successful program.

It all starts with the name; we won’t go over it here because good lord, the last thing the world needs is another Jimmy Lemke rant on why Milwaukee should be the only name for the program, and that UWM and UW-Milwaukee should never refer to athletics. I will only go so far as to say that a secondary name is needed to be identifiable in the city – UWM is the most common reference in Milwaukee because Milwaukee could refer to any number of athletics teams. My suggestion as a replacement would be the letters MKE; the airport’s call letters are perfect as they reinforce the Milwaukee brand, separate the school’s athletics teams from other “Milwaukee” teams, and it’s unique in that no other college sports program has a name like that. UMKE, UMil or UMilwaukee would be secondary choices.

The problem is, for years we’ve been too focused on the name itself. There are lots of programs that go just by the city’s name, and they exist on all levels of Division I – high-major, mid-major, and low-major. While it’s true that most of them are high-majors – Miami, Pittsburgh, Louisville, Cincinnati, Memphis, etc. – there are mid-majors like Houston and Charlotte, and even low-majors like Seattle and Boston.

What’s more important is establishing a full, recognizable identity that the university can use as a framework in branding, and by extension marketing. So what are some of the things that identify schools?  Keep in mind, we’re only including things that will continue to identify the school 50 years from now. We’re trying to build a brand that stands the test of time, and even Duke will have an identity separate from Coach K in 2063 (2063 is only 50 years away. We’re all getting old). So what kinds of things identify schools?

Colors. This is so important that schools have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars to make their own color, or identify an unused hue as their own. Don’t tell a UNC fan that his team wears Sky Blue – it’s Carolina Blue and he’ll tell you exactly how they are different from each other. Missouri’s gold, just a shade darker than our own, is called “MU Gold.” Whatever.  Bucky Badger’s colors are “Cardinal and White,” which is a fancy way of saying “red and white.”

The truth is that Black and Gold is probably the strongest part of the brand we have going. While it’s cool to bring back the Green Gulls every now and again (big ups to Steve Sanfelippo and the baseball team for that), there’s a lot to be said for carrying these colors.  For one, we’re the only Division I team in the state to carry black as an official color; same with the Horizon League before we added Oakland. Luckily we changed our gold in the early 1990’s, otherwise we’d have the same Vegas Gold that the Golden Grizzlies call their own.

It’s gotta suck, color-wise, to be a school like UIC or Detroit. Red, white, and blue. Very original. Same goes for “generic color and white” schools.

Black. Now that’s a color that is our own. Many schools carry an alternate black uniform, or black accent. But Milwaukee is the only D-I school in the state that carries black.  It’s the cool color. It goes with everything.  Gold looks great with black, and it’s probably the best actual color to go with black. Black doesn’t quite work as well with blue, green, red, yellow, etc. The best I’ve seen of black with a different color is San Diego State, which really knows how to put black and red together.

Traditions. Ask a college sports fan about Ole Miss and you’re going to hear about the Grove. Talk to someone about Texas A&M and you’ll hear about Yell Practice. Duke’s Krzyzewskiville is a sight to behold. Florida State? Chief Osceola. Notre Dame is as popular as it is because the whole place oozes tradition.

This doesn’t mean that traditions have to be around forever. Wisconsin’s most popular tradition comes from the song Jump Around, barely 20 years old.  The Green Bay Packers are the most successful and storied franchise in football, yet the Lambeau Leap is its most recognizable tradition.

The problem with traditions is that they almost have to happen organically. You can try to create a tradition, but it’s hard to get it to stick without promoting the tradition itself. One of the best traditions in all of college sports is at a small liberal arts college in Indiana – Google “Taylor University Silent Night” and you’ll see one hell of a tradition that basically started when an assistant basketball coach thought it up off the top of his head.

At Milwaukee, we’ve tried some things. We tried getting the song Jump On It to work, to no avail. We tried the “Boxer Run” at a soccer game a few years ago that worked pretty well but only got a few people beyond normal fans doing it.

What makes a tradition is that it becomes part of the show, even as big a draw as the game itself. The tent-land at Duke started randomly in the 1980’s. It has to be extremely fun and wildly creative and original all at the same time.  Try to come up with something yourself; it’s a fun way to kill time.

Unique Uniforms. This has become prevalent in recent years due to shoe companies making a fashion statement – specifically Nike at Oregon and Under Armour at Maryland.  But unique uniforms are part of the identity of some of the most storied programs in the country.  Think of the winged helmets at Michigan, or the buckeye stickers at Ohio State. Consider the candy striped warm-up pants at Indiana or the solid gold helmets at Notre Dame.

Universities across the country use uniforms to make a statement about their programs, often backed by the shoe companies with which they have contracts.  Milwaukee’s uniforms, done by Adidas (ugh), are cycled out almost annually now; usually a uniform has been cycled out once every couple of years, but now the Panthers are seeing a new one practically every year. We can at least hope that last year’s tiny W is long gone.

Logos. Such an important part of the university’s identity, it barely needs to be talked about. The monogram logo is the most prevalent, although many schools – including our own – use a mascot logo as the primary.  The biggest schools include Florida, Missouri and Oregon State (although they just changed).

Fun fact: Missouri saw the new Milwaukee belt buckle logo in the early 2000’s and decided they wanted their own, thus the Mizzou oval tiger logo that looks so similar to our own. We had it first.

Milwaukee’s problem isn’t the logo so much as the many variations of it. The current official logo is the oval Panther head from the 12-year old belt buckle with “Milwaukee” rounding the bottom of it in a wave. However, if you’re looking for merchandise, you’ll still find the old belt buckle logo, the current one with or without Milwaukee underneath, a totally separate set of logos that the Bookstore just up and decided to contract out from Jansport to sell merchandise, and any of the logos previously mentioned with accents of either blue/light blue or purple – I swear to god you can still find purple trim logos on merchandise.

Mascots. Bucky Badger is so perfect. We’ve mentioned Chief Osceola at FSU. Sebastian the Ibis at Miami?  Every big school has an identifiable mascot that is part of their identity. Part of Butler’s charm these last few years has been Butler Blue II, and while we lost the poor guy, Butler lost its charm. It’s now another “have” in the Big East pulling in millions in television revenue every year.

Live mascots are cool; Milwaukee had a live panther cub called “Trouble” back in the 1970’s. When the program fell off, so did Trouble. Which is okay, since live mascots are likely prohibitively expensive. If there were a way to foster one through the Milwaukee County Zoo, I’d be all for it, but Pounce will have to do.

What a great dog. You’ll be missed by all, Blue II.

Much of the time, mascots signify something that has to do with the history of the area or they’re an animal that is widespread in the region. The Badgers are based on the coal-miners of Wisconsin in the 1800’s.  Smokey, Tennessee’s mascot, is a blue tick hound, a really popular dog down there.

Patterns. This is probably one of the most understated parts of a college program’s identity; we’ve talked about the stripes at Indiana, but one can’t help but see that argyle has become a big part of the identity package at North Carolina, and the Maryland state flag is all over Terps merchandise.

There is no school that has a recognizable pattern more than Tennessee, of course. That orange and white (excuse me, “Light Orange and White”) checkerboard is in the endzones and all over their brand. Tennessee is the checkerboard, and it’s immediately what many people think of when they hear about the Volunteers.

The checkerboard light orange and white is one of Tennessee’s most identifiable parts of its brand.

Milwaukee doesn’t have a pattern; the best you can see is that traditionally, the soccer team has had cold-weather long-sleeve kits that feature vertical black and gold bars. But we’ve got something better.

Miscelleaneous. There are always various parts of programs that will make them recognizable on a national scale to people watching at home or attending a game. Boise State’s blue turf gave way to red turf at Eastern Washington, and now all of a sudden it has moved into basketball courts. Schools realized that your best advertising real estate is the playing surface. Milwaukee only got its own court a few years ago. When the time to replace it comes, the school has to consider throwing down some extra bucks to make a truly unique floor.

Other schools have identifiable things about them. One marketing director brought the big heads from San Diego State with him when he started the same job at Marquette.  Historically black colleges and universities are almost always more identifiable by their marching bands than by the teams on the field. Almost every school retires numbers or uses “legacy numbers” to honor its greats and give the cameras someone to point at.

One school I want to mention is Long Beach State; they have used the existence of “Beach” in their name (the only school in D-I to have that) to cultivate an entire brand around it. Their uniforms all say “The Beach” on them and they even have palm tree silhouettes all over the basketball court. It’s an amazing brand that sells nationwide despite the fact that LBSU gets less fans at games than Milwaukee.

One of the best brands in college sports belongs to mid-major Long Beach State.

So what about Milwaukee? How do we construct a brand identity for our program when we don’t have a lot of history to lean on?

The answer is simple: you have to connect the program to something that the community takes a lot of pride in.  Milwaukee is known for many things. It is the City of Festivals, it is the Cream City of that color cement/brick, but mainly it is the rust belt, blue-collar town of Harleys and beer.

Milwaukee can connect to both of these things implicitly to gain trust from consumers that this is ‘their’ program.

– Connecting to Harley. In all honesty, this is more about connecting to our manufacturing history than the motorcycles; Allis Chalmers, Milwaukee Tool, Allan Bradley, we could go on forever. But the connection comes in the rhetoric that we use in our marketing.  We need to talk about the school and how it’s bridging the gap between the past and the future. This works for both academics and athletics, even if it’s marketing for the athletics program.

What I’m thinking is something talking about how Milwaukee’s athletes are hard-working players, the sons of factory workers etc. A player’s parent worked at Milwaukee Tool? Awesome. Mom works in a Quadgraphics plant? Sweet. Put that up there, make that connection. Talk about how this team is made up of the children of blue-collar workers, and they’re taking that blue-collar style to the hardwood/pitch/diamond.  You need people to think that these players could be their kids, or their friends’ kids. You foster a connection.  Many people middle-aged and older have the feeling that the college generation never had to roll up its sleeves and do real work. Maybe it has something to do with them not going to college sports games, more likely it doesn’t. But you plant that notion that “these players are like I was when I was 19.”

As for merchandise, with the major popularity of Harley-Davidson and the TV show Sons of Anarchy, it’s a crime that the university hasn’t made a Motorcycle Club-themed Milwaukee Panthers t-shirt. It would look bad-ass and reinforce that connection between the community and the program, maybe even helping to spur some sort of counter-culture identity around the Panthers.

– Connecting to Beer. This one can’t be so obvious, but if it’s done correctly is a much stronger part of the brand than any connection to manufacturing. Beer is Milwaukee’s birthright, the thing this city takes the most pride in. But underage drinking is a huge problem with college life, and the university can’t be seen condoning that. The nickname “Hops” that has been brought up on occasion as a replacement to Panthers is fantastic, but probably would be a better alternative for the NBA franchise.

Instead, what do we associate with beer? Germany. The best beer is German, and all of Milwaukee’s beer companies come from Germans who settled in Milwaukee or were descendant from Germans who settled in Milwaukee – Miller, Schlitz, Pabst, Blatz.

Is there anything more Milwaukee than beer?

21% of Milwaukee residents claim German ancestry, second only to African-Americans. The German heritage is all over the city – even Bernie Brewer is often dressed in lederhosen. One of Milwaukee’s oldest soccer clubs is Bavarians FC, the area where most of the culture Americans associate with “Germany” comes from. Bavaria is the region surrounding Munich, and was independent until the 1800’s, when it was consolidated into the new country of Germany. This is the true brand to which we’re looking to attach ourselves: Bavaria, not exactly Germany.

There’s a reason to connect ourselves to an ethnicity that is shared by much of our potential fan base; most of the best brands in college sports are connected in one way or another to an ethnic group. San Diego State’s brand is so strong because of the Aztec imagery; the Gauchos of UC Santa Barbara are a strong connection to the area’s Hispanic past; various Native American tribes are honored respectfully to the point where Seminole tribes prefer that Florida State doesn’t change. The same goes for the Chippewas and Central Michigan.

But we all know the one I’m getting at. There is no school so attached to an ethnicity as the University of Notre Dame is to the Fighting Irish. Catholics across the country, especially those of Irish descent, are die hard fans of a school to which most of them have absolutely no connection. It’s because of the television contract that puts their football team on nationwide every week, the long and storied history of winning, but really it’s the brand: the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame.

There is no stronger brand in college athletics than the unique ethnic one at Notre Dame.

While we can never hope to have a brand as strong as Bucky Badger, the Badgers will never come close to sniffing the brand strength in South Bend, Indiana.  It’s the perfect brand; the Irish are well-known drinkers, so everyone who loves the beer-drinking lifestyle has a reason to cheer the Irish.

Of course, Bavarian culture also is a heavy drinking culture, and probably lends its help to Milwaukee and Wisconsin’s current drinking issues. But it’s perfect for the university, something that we can use to attach ourselves to beer without being explicit.

So what can we do to attach ourselves to the Bavarian brand?  Well, there are a few ways of doing it. The first of which, and most intrusive, is to remove the Panther as the mascot and replace it with the “Bavarians,” or a nickname that is a call to our Bavarian heritage. Personally, I think Bavarians is a strong brand that would not only be popular in the Milwaukee area, but across America where there are 50 million German-Americans, the largest ethnic group in the country.

If we’re not going to go that far – which we should at least consider, since the Panthers mascot is fairly prevalent in the NCAA – we need to connect our program to that German heritage through the current mascot.

Before you ask “What the hell does a Panther have to do with Germany?” I invite you to take a look at the Bavarian Coat of Arms:

The bottom-left quadrant is the Blue Panther, a major part of Bavarian culture that represents the regions of Lower and Upper Bavaria.

That’s right. Right there on the bottom-left quadrant of the Coat of Arms of Bavaria is the Blue Panther, signifying Lower and Upper Bavaria.

What it means is that without up and changing our name to the Bavarians, we can still connect ourselves to the Bavarian brand without spending hundreds of thousands coming up with new marks and names for a billion things around campus. The Panther is in a way the mascot of Bavaria, so it makes sense.

It’s still hard for those in the area to connect the program to Bavarians on their own without the name change. So what we’ll need to do is introduce a lot of imagery into the brand that makes that connection for us. Remember the list of things that can identify a program’s brand with fans? We’ve got ways of connecting the program to Bavaria through every single one.

– Colors. You don’t change these, not one bit. It’s the strongest part of Milwaukee’s current brand, and in case we change the mascot to the Bavarians or start making the Panther more German, we’ll need to keep some semblance of the past before the re-brand.

One adjustment that will connect the city to the program: Milwaukee is Cream City, with cream being the color of the clay used to make bricks in the area. We currently use white as an accent color; perhaps, in the future, the university can drop that in favor of a cream color, essentially off-white.

– Traditions. We won’t need to touch this part; as I said, the best brands come organically and Milwaukee already has somewhat of a “Bavarian” brand by the fact that we like to drink our beer around the game (I’m kidding. Okay, dumb joke. I get it).

– Unique Uniforms and Patterns. This is the crux of everything involving our Bavarian rebrand. If you look back at the coat of arms, you’ll notice what looks like a checkerboard of diamonds across the shield in the center.  This pattern is called “Lozengy,” and it isn’t about clearing your throat. It’s regal, something used in the Coat of Arms, which continues that oft-used connection of sports and war.

Lozengy, a big tenet of Bavaria and a part of my future Milwaukee brand.

Nic Waldron, one of Milwaukee’s supporters and a member of the Black and Gold Club (as well as original PantherU logo designer), is well-known in Milwaukee’s internet community for his takes on the logo and the basketball floor. But recently he’s been taking a lot of shots at building Milwaukee a timeless soccer kit, and in these he has often used the lozengy pattern. It’s original, creative, looks fantastic, and most importantly, helps build Milwaukee a consistent Bavarian-themed brand.

– Mascots and Logos. I’m going to wrap this up by talking about the logos and mascots and how they can help tie into creating Milwaukee’s blue-collar Bavarian brand. What needs to happen with the logos – assuming that the Panther remains our mascot – is that they need to drop so many of them and focus on one main one with a couple variations.  At most the university should carry a monogram M logo, the Panther head, and variations that include the Panther head with Milwaukee underneath and the standing Pounce.

Personally, I think the current oval Panther head logo should be scrapped in favor of the set of logos brought about by the bookstore through Jansport. They’re cleaner, more modern, and they look better on clothing. I feel as though the M they use – stolen from the academic UWM logo – is lazy, and would be best replaced by Waldron’s M logo or something designed from scratch.

As for the mascot, Pounce is pretty great. He’s definitely an improvement over Victor E. Panther, but he could use some sprucing up. For one thing, all he has is the one shirt. That should be his main look and the one he will always be identified by (for those wondering, the long sleeve, vertical bar shirt is a traditional part of our soccer kit). But Pounce is a mascot, and should be a character for all occasions. He should have a baseball jersey, a basketball jersey, a shirt and tie (you know, for when he shows up at my wedding on the 27th). And lederhosen. Totally lederhosen. How’s that for reinforcing the brand?

As we reach the first fall semester of Amanda Braun’s tenure as athletic director, a lot of what the program is focusing on is putting together a message of success and moving forward. The brand is dull, formulaic, generic, and needs a massive upgrade. I feel like I’ve laid out a fairly convincing argument that the program can put together an identity with or without changing the mascot, one of the most popular in Division I.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the brand here.

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