North Dakota looks for cure to 'brand confusion on steroids'

FARGO, N.D. (AP) When Mark Kennedy took over as president of the University of North Dakota a year ago, he discovered that fans of the school's athletic teams were pledging allegiance to three different logos: a Fighting Hawk, a Fighting Sioux and an interlocking ND.

''It was brand confusion on steroids,'' Kennedy said, adding that the school has yet another logo - the letters UND with a flame - used in official communications and advertising.

Kennedy is trying to unify the school's message with a new $3 million branding initiative, with the slogan ''Leaders in Action,'' as the school continues to work past a decision to replace its Fighting Sioux nickname and logo its sports teams had used. The new program is meant to go beyond athletics and unify the branding and message of a school that Kennedy says became defined by the nickname controversy.

''In many ways our athletic logo was filling the cavity left by having an undefined brand.'' Kennedy said. ''It was doing double duty. It was being the athletic logo and our brand.''

Although the state Board of Higher Education retired the Fighting Sioux logo in 2012 after years of arguing over the moniker deemed by the NCAA to be hostile and abusive to Native Americans, it took until 2015 to settle on the replacement, the Fighting Hawks. Many people are still unhappy about the decision, although the state's residents voted overwhelmingly to dump the Indian head moniker.

''I don't know if it will cool the debate,'' Kennedy said of the brand rollout. ''There will continue to be a debate over athletic logos, certainly in the hockey world for some time to come. There will be those who criticize it and there will be those who view this as an opportunity to refight wars over what the athletic logo is one more time.''

Dallas attorney William Brotherton, a University of North Dakota alumnus who represented a group that sued over efforts to change the nickname, called the branding initiative ''a colossal waste of money'' even as the state is hurting for funds. He doesn't believe people will buy into it.

''It's bogus. Here we have a university that's floundering. The Fighting Sioux name was part of the attraction that made the University of North Dakota so unique and so special,'' said Brotherton, a member of the Missiquoi Abenaki tribe of Vermont.

But Sarah Nissen, the school's executive director of marketing and creative services, said university stakeholders have been confused because the institution does not share ''a single, consistent personality.''

As for the money, Kennedy said the school was spending $300,000 a year on marketing when he arrived. He said many schools spend that much in a month. He also said $3 million is a fraction of the investment the school makes in athletics. Most of it will go toward digital advertising. The imagery that reflects the ''look and feel'' of the brand is expected to be released in August.

Meanwhile, the school has retired the interlocking ND logo that was especially revered by the football program, and Kennedy said most university athletic programs have ''moved to Hawks.'' The hockey team for the first time this year will have the Hawks logo on the shoulders of its sweaters, though thundering chants of ''Let's go Sioux'' may still be heard at games.

''This is not meant to replace in any way, shape or form our sports logo,'' Kennedy said of the new branding effort. ''It's meant to unify all of them under the umbrella of their `Leaders in Action,' but also wrap in academic and other aspects that make students leaders.''

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