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Brand and Identity



The reputation of SDSU with prospective students, their families, and among the various stakeholders that SDSU serves—alumni, donors, legislators, funding entities—is an important measurement of the “brand” success of the institution. Additionally, enrollment levels provide a readily quantifiable metric and a surrogate representation for the strength of the SDSU “brand” with potential students and their families. The notion of any institution’s “brand” can simply be understood as the totality of its reputation with all of its various publics. 

An institution’s “brand” can be viewed positively or negatively with substantial increments and gradations between the polarities of positive and negative, and also between different demographics. For instance, a single institutional attribute (host city size) may be viewed as positive by one demographic (students from small towns) and negatively by another demographic (students from metropolitan areas). 

Notably, an institution’s “brand” strength is changeable, and is influenced in part by the success of its academic programs, its arts/athletic programs, its research portfolio, reputation for inclusiveness, and dozens of other factors which aggregate into an institution’s brand identity. Campus traditions, institutional performance in retention and graduation rates, institutional response to newsworthy events occurring on campus, and management of graphic identifiers all contribute to brand strength. The fluid nature of an institution’s brand identity and reputation is a complex social phenomenon and requires constant monitoring and management to ensure the brand identity remains positive and aligned with strategic plan themes and goals. 



Simply put, the SDSU brand and identity are in excellent condition and are among the university’s most valuable assets. 

Recent efforts to assess institutional reputation in the minds of external entities were undertaken through the Simpson Scarborough study (776 prospective student respondents December 2016); a series of focus groups (26 current students March 2017) by Epicosity, the university’s marketing firm, and administration of the Perception and Awareness Survey (205 prospective students and parents, spring 2017). Taken together the results indicate that SDSU finds itself in a place of reputational strength and positive “brand” identity. Some positive attributes of the SDSU brand identified by respondents in this research are noted below: 

  • Close to home 

  • Cost is affordable 

  • Graduates get jobs 

  • Academic quality is high 

  • Loyalty of alumni is impressive 

  • Facilities are first-rate and expanding 

  • Word-of-mouth from alumni and family very supportive 

  • Campus community is friendly and safe (not too big/not too small) 


The Simpson Scarborough research also discovered that SDSU has the highest “unaided awareness” among its most prominent competitors, including other land-grant universities in the region. When prospective students were asked, “When you think of excellent colleges and universities in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska, which ones come to mind FIRST?” SDSU was ranked first most often, ahead of the University of Minnesota, University of Nebraska, Iowa State University, North Dakota State University and the University of South Dakota. 

Also, according to the Simpson Scarborough “Prospective Student Market Research” survey conducted in December 2016, prospective students see SDSU’s identity as a place that is committed to providing broad access to students with all types of academic abilities and financial circumstances, a place that offers experiential learning and global awareness, and, perhaps most important, a place where academic excellence and a powerful network of support services assures that graduates are exceptionally well prepared for their future careers. 

Many of the items respondents are noting as strengths fit well with campus-generated data; and it is this overlap between public perception and what the campus knows about itself that constitutes genuine reputational/brand strength. Some examples include: 

  • First-time accreditation for nine academic programs. 

  • Named by Safewise as the safest college town in the country. 

  • Creation of the School of Design, School of Performing Arts, Division of Communication and Journalism, and the Ness Division of Management and Economics. 

  • Enhanced classroom instructional technology resulting in upgrades to 47 classrooms costing $2.13 million. 

  • Named by Educate to Career Inc. as a Top 100 Best College Value (Number 65 of 1,200 institutions rated). 

  • Named by U.S. News and World Report as No. 8 in the nation in its “Best for Vets” rating 

  • Tradition of embracing diversity/inclusion through events and activities like Wacipi, Diversity Leadership Summit, Africa Night, India Night, and International Night. 

  • Growing emphasis regarding diversity in policy and programs as well including the Wokini Initiative, Diversity and Inclusion Council, Allied for Acceptance LLC, GSA offices, and non-gendered bathroom initiative. 

  • Implementation of programs providing support to first generation and income eligible students for access, preparation, and success in higher education (e.g. TRIO Student Support Services and Upward Bound). 

  • Enhancement of programs to support the varied physical and mental health needs of students (e.g. SDSU Health Clinic and Counseling services, nutritional services, Wellness Center expansions, and SDSU Health Initiative). 

  • Modern facilities support the social and learning environment such as construction of $56.5 million in contemporary residence hall space adding seven new ADA compliant residence halls and 1,200 beds to the on-campus capacity 

  • Expansion of the University Student Union and Wellness Center provide services students demand and contemporary retail-focused dining service options, totaling 267,000 sq. ft. and representing a $44 million investment in student life facilities. 

  • Performing arts boasts nationally recognized programs including The Pride of the Dakotas Marching Band, State University Theatre and Prairie Repertory Theatre companies. Phase II of the new Performing Arts Center ($52 million) with classrooms and with dedicated rehearsal and performance spaces adding a 225-seat recital hall and an 850-seat proscenium theater. 

  • Competitive Division I sports program featuring 540 student athletes competing in 21 varsity sports. State-of-the-art facilities with new $65 million football stadium, expansive indoor track and practice facility, and contemporary athletic development center. Men’s and women’s basketball programs have 12 appearances in NCAA tournament play in the last 10 years. Emphasis is placed on the “student role” for student-athletes with several athletes earning academic All-America status and an overall athletic GPA of 3.26. 

These achievements have strengthened the visibility and reputation of SDSU at both a regional and national level, and have reinforced SDSU’s standing as a leader and premier institution in South Dakota. 

Perhaps the most foundational to the SDSU brand is the institution’s land-grant status. The characteristic emphasis on access and affordability of a land-grant institution is an on-going strength at SDSU and is readily perceived by its various stakeholders. The research and creative activity aspect of the typical land-grant 

mission also remains vital at SDSU as evidenced by its designation by the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities as an Innovation and Economic Prosperity University, one of only 54 institutions in the country to hold this distinction. 

Another component of the SDSU brand is the tradition of effective town/gown relationships. Students and faculty of SDSU benefit from amenities and vibrancy of the surrounding community of Brookings. The Brookings community continues to not only provide support and an excellent and safe community for students, but is also a generous partner in supporting the construction of the Performing Arts Center and the Wellness Center. 

Enrollment levels as a surrogate for brand strength requires additional context. While enrollment has held stable within ranges established by the Impact 2018 strategic plan, there has been a discernible drop in the number of South Dakota residents attending SDSU, (down 145 since 2013 in first-time freshmen). At the same time SDSU has experienced an increase in our ability to attract nonresident and international students (up 112 since 2013 in first-time freshmen), thus enrollments have remained essentially flat. Some of these flat enrollment numbers are due to the decline in high school graduates within South Dakota, as predicted by census data. Anecdotally, this may be attributed to the success of the growth in reach and awareness of our university and its brand with out-of-state audiences. However, a renewed emphasis on building brand awareness among South Dakota residents merits consideration as a central strategic goal 

A final consideration of enrollment as a surrogate for brand identity may be seen in a comparison of head count enrollment versus FTE enrollment. Table 1 indicates the recent trend of increased head count numbers, while FTE actually goes in the opposite direction indicating students are taking less credit hours each semester. In the four years reported in Table 1, the head count enrollment increases by 59 students, while the FTE for the same years decreases by 90. A social norming campaign with branding toward taking 15-credit semesters, double-majoring, or traveling abroad may be worthy of consideration.

Table 1: Headcount vs. FTE Enrollment Fall 2013 – Fall 2016  



Invest Resources to Do It Well 

With SDSU’s reputation as a leader in higher education, our brand and identity reflect the institution’s high standards and excellent reputation. Nevertheless, it will be difficult to expand the university’s reach without increased investment in media and marketing through which we tell SDSU’s story to prospective students, their parents, and other stakeholders. Continuing investment in SDSU’s website and digital assets would be a benefit for the institution. The landscape of higher education marketing, similar to retail consumer goods, is moving toward maintaining a presence in the digital space and emerging technologies. Attention must also be given to developing a multi-platform, multi-venue, multi-demographic strategy which uses the most impactful branding strategy for a given demographic. Thus varying packaging and platforms based upon target audience-prospective students, parents, transfer students, alumni, and donors— need to be deployed. 

Make data-driven decisions 

SDSU marketing initiatives continue to be informed by information and analytics (the latter particularly for social media) to better understand the attitudes and needs of our various audiences. Doing so allows us to better target them with appropriate messaging to deliver the information they need to form opinions and make decisions regarding the institution. 

The potential for a more comprehensive Brand Image and Perception Study is a useful starting point. The Simpson Scarborough study referenced earlier addresses only one critical audience. A more comprehensive study could gather valuable perceptions from parents, alumni, donors, faculty, staff, and the general population of South Dakota. 

The project, likely a 12-month research initiative, would analyze the SDSU brand and gather qualitative and quantitative data to help make informed decisions pertaining to university messaging and marketing initiatives. Project objectives could include establishing measures of baseline awareness and competitive position; developing plans for shaping the institution’s image and identity; identifying factors that motivate various audiences to desire a connection with SDSU; assessing the institution’s recruiting and communications strategies; studying ways to increase alumni engagement; quantifying the market potential of proposed new programs; and other related outcomes. Estimated cost for such a study is $172,500. 

National trends and external picture 

The cost of higher education and consideration of the value of a degree are national topics of concern regularly discussed in mainstream media. Research 

supports the value of a higher education. The employability and lifetime earning potential of an individual with a college degree versus an individual without a college degree validates the investment in higher education. Studies report that an individual with a college degree can expect to earn $2.7 million more than persons without a college degree, (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2015). 

However, the rising costs of college with simultaneous reduction in aid inhibits some families from even considering higher education as an option, despite knowing the opportunities of such an investment. Speaking not only to the affordability of SDSU, but more importantly the value in the quality received, is an important branding opportunity. 

Higher education is viewed as an investment in the future, and individuals considering their post-high school decisions want to understand the returns that this investment will provide. The desire for specific post-college job placement, career development, and graduate school acceptance rates are major factors in a family’s decision to pursue a college degree. 

Strategic themes 

Enhancement of SDSU’s brand and identity can be fostered via action in these key areas: 

  • Balancing the concepts of access and affordability with the academic rigor. 

  • Enhancements of human resources and digital technologies to maximize use of the website——as SDSU’s primary communications tool. 

  • Greater use of personalization to better target specific audiences—prospective students, parents, current students, faculty/staff, public, Legislature, alumni, and donors. 

  • Communicating the value of the SDSU brand and identity as a place that offers significant opportunities to receive affordable, quality student and academic experiences. 

  • Emphasize the institutional values of diversity, inclusion, and equity. 

  • Robust understanding of post-graduate placement and acceptance rates. 

  • Greater communication and celebration of university achievements and strengths. 

Projected costs 

Several investments would be recommended to align with the short- and long-term plans identified below, including additional staff resources, enhancement of survey instruments, and internal structure to better measure and communicate results. 

The following are some potential opportunities for future marketing initiatives. While in the case of actual implementation, the specific buys would vary from one location to another. The data in Table 2 provides a general idea of what could be done using the same buy in each location. 

Table 2: Market and Media Cost Comparisons 

Sioux Falls$62,400$20,000$45,000$25,000$152,950
Des Moines$96,000$18,750$57,000$45,000$216,750
Kansas City$338,274$51,000$168,000$10,000$567,274


Billboard: Figures are for six months for highest audience potential. 

Radio: Sioux Falls is an unrated radio market, but the comparable costs are not by ratings points, but by station format type. 

TV: SDSU currently does $45,000 in TV marketing in Sioux Falls, costs shown are to demonstrate what the same coverage would cost in the indicated markets. 

Total: Assumes implementation of similar campaigns in each market 

Short-term plans 

There are several actions that can be taken over the next three to 24 months to better utilize the strength of SDSU’s brand and identity: 

  • Develop an initiative by which all SDSU leadership, faculty and staff learn to better understand the university’s brand and identity and, where appropriate, weave that into their regular work: “Be the Brand.” 

  • Communicate the Wokini Initiative broadly and in a sustained fashion to ensure immediate goals of better serving Dakota and Lakota students is realized. Construction of the new American Indian Student Center will be another milestone in this effort. 

  • Align communication efforts to reinforce that SDSU is authentic in its desire to embrace persons with diverse identities. 

  • Maximize the potential of the new website and empower the more than 300 content managers and content editors to use it as the university’s most potent communications tool. 

  • Complete the NewsCenter project on the university website to empower the content managers and content editors in the colleges and departments to better communicate and celebrate university successes. 

  • Refresh the Integrated Marketing and Communications Committee and identify a clear role and set of objectives for this entity. 

  • Develop a strategy to better maximize parent involvement in the higher education decision process. 

  • Develop a plan to better link the Office of Career Development and its resources with individual college career development efforts university-wide. 

  • Capitalize on the numerous student-led activities as another lens through which to view the SDSU brand—Hobo Day, the Collegian, Little-I, and Capers. 

  • Promote the potential to double-major and/or experience international travel or a semester abroad for students who enter SDSU with substantial dual credits transcripts. 

  • Develop a strategy that promotes SDSU as a place of diversity to audiences of varied backgrounds without marginalizing the needs of these underrepresented communities, and embrace the inclusion of these diverse populations in an advisory capacity to the messaging and content development process. 

Long-term plans 

There are several actions that can be taken in the next two to five years to promote the brand and identity of SDSU: 

  • System to consistently track and record post-graduation data regarding job placement, career development, and graduate school acceptance. 

  • Maintain a proactive, long-term view of marketing and communication strategies to include target audience segmentations (e.g. parents, out of state students, prospective students of diverse backgrounds or underrepresented communities). 

  • Consider variations in delivery methods with a particular focus on electronic communications. 


Report prepared by: Arian Bunde, director of Leadership Initiative SDSU Foundation, Don Crowe, professor of Music Education, Shawn Helmbolt, assistant director of Admissions, Andrea Kieckhefer, manager of Creative Service and Branding, Justin Sell, athletic director, Douglas R. Wermedal, associate vice president for Student Affairs.